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July 24, 2019
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How We Should Talk about Plagiarism and Professional Malpractice

by Michael Heron on 07/11/19 10:40:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is a modified version of a post first published on Meeple Like Us.

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog.

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Introduction

This isn't a post about ethics as such. It’s not an abstract accounting of problems and solutions. It’s straight up about egregious misconduct and how we should talk about it as bloggers, videographers and more. It’s a case study in applying HOB-COC rather than anything else. Also, it’s a bonus extra. It will not take the place of either of the special features that Patreon funding is making possible.

You may or may not be aware that last week board gaming had something of a plagiarism scandal. This is never good news for a hobby, but it’s especially toxic in an environment where the vast majority of people putting out content are doing so simply for the love of it. Outside of a handful of media sites, nobody is making a living from their board game work and the ones that are making a living aren’t getting rich. Even those of us with Patreon accounts only rarely draw in enough to meaningfully exceed expenses and vanishingly few can ever pay themselves more than perhaps a couple of take-away dinners per year. All we have in this space is the work we do and put out into the world.

That’s why it’s so painful when we see one of us stealing that work from others and then converting it into measurable advantage and preferment in the hobbyist space.

Plagiarism hurts us all. It’s a sin against a community. Worse it’s a blight on the spirit of a community that lives and dies on actually getting people to engage with the work that we do. In cases where work has been taken and then directly monetized (via Patreon, access to and approval from publishers, conversion of visibility into paid work) there is an obvious direct harm that has been done. It’s theft – not of content as such but theft of opportunities that rightly belong to other people.

In terms of those of us working as reviewers and commentators, the harm is simultaneously more nebulous and far-reaching. It empowers the argument that reviewers can’t be trusted. It’s the worst kind of empowerment too – that which has a firm basis in genuine evidence. When one of us strays, we all get tarred with suspicion that we (likely) don’t deserve. For those that wonder why I get so het up about professional ethics, and why I get so wound up about violations, this is why. Unethical behaviour hurts my blog and the blogs and video channels of everyone.

That may sound selfish, but I’ve always felt that good advocacy is built on the back of motivated self-interest. I am genuinely motivated to make gaming more accessible for disabled gamers, but I also do this work with an eye to my old age. When I retire, I want to be able to play the games I never got around to and it’d be nice if they met me half way by being accessible. I argue aggressively for good ethical practice because I want the work I do to be impactful. Every cheat, every fraud, every plagiarist – they make that job harder. As they make my job harder, plagiarists literally contribute to making games less accessible.

Some of you might be reading this, rubbing your hands at the inevitable expose. There’s a scent of blood in the air and it’s easy to scream ‘no mercy’ when someone has offended in such a clear-cut and public way. Sorry to disappoint, I’m not going to be naming names here. I’m not going to be showing examples of misconduct. That’s not because I think it wouldn’t be fair, but because I don’t think it would be ethical. Instead I’m going to use the difference between those two as a teachable moment in the importance of proactively engaging with ethical conduct.

I’m going to note here that there is a narrative emerging that the plagiarist here is a victim. They’re not. There’s also a narrative emerging that the plagiarist was targeted because of their identity and advocacy work. They weren’t, at least in my case and I don’t believe in the case of anyone that has reasonably discussed it. To that end though I will make a public promise – if anyone can drop me a name and a credible piece of evidence of plagiarism in board game media then I will devote just as much time to investigating that as I did to investigating this. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care how much bigger their platform is, or with whom they’re buddy-buddy. Plagiarism is wrong no matter who does it. You can even send a tip anonymously if you want. There are disposable email services you can use for this.

The sin here is the plagiarism. The sinner is the plagiarist. That’s true independent of any secondary characteristics that may influence attack pieces from others. Whatabouterry is a satisfying knee-jerk reaction, but the correct approach forward is to treat everyone the same. And by that I mean ‘Let’s get the other bastards that are plagiarizing too’.

Hobbyist Media Code of Conduct

The Hobbyist Media Code of Conduct that I put together has several elements that are relevant here. I’m going to use this sad incident then to give a kind of case study in applying the Hobbyist Media Code of Conduct in a way that ensures proportional and ethical coverage of a highly charged scandal.

First of all, I haven’t given the plagiarist a right to reply here because the approach I’m taking eliminates the presence of a direct subject of the article. No-one is named. No specific incidents are discussed. No evidence is cited. As such, there is nothing identifiable other than the timing of the piece. This may as well be a fictionalised case study even though it isn’t.

There are though some important points that I think need considered.

Where ethical complexities may have influenced the coverage of a topic, explain these to the audience.

One of the things that is beholden on commentators adhering to this code is to explain ethical complexities, and I think we have an important opportunity here.

I could get the site a big pile of views by doing a step by step targeted takedown. When the allegations were first raised the site in question vanished from the Internet. I spent an evening with the Wayback Machine to determine whether there was real, verifiable evidence to support a pattern, rather than an incident, of behaviour. There was. For context, I teach for a living and investigating plagiarism is part of the professional toolkit I have developed over the years. I’m pretty good at it too.

I have a dossier I could post that would be less work than this and probably considerably more impactful. However, I don’t think it would be ethical to do that even if I think that plagiarism is the one truly unforgiveable sin in hobbyist media. I’m using this post then not as a way to generate clicks but a way to generate insight. The very form this coverage takes is an example of engaging with ethical complexity.

However, I also have a vested interest in this. The plagiarist was part of a group of people that contain voices that have been loudly dismissive of the need for ethics in this space. I have been called everything from a crypto-gamergater to a misogynist racist to straight up evil by numerous people within that social circle. I am not at all happy that this happened – plagiarism, as I said, is bad for all of us. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel somewhat vindicated with regards to the trustworthiness of those voices making those statements. Saying ‘Nobody is doing anything unethical’ is an incredibly strong claim to make, and I’m heartened that the credibility of that particular dangerous nonsense is diminished. I am not triumphalist in this, but I think a reader of this post could reasonably texture their interpretation of my motives by knowing what they are. As such, I disclose them up-front.

Ensure, to the best of reasonable ability, the correctness of all factual claims.

The allegation that was raised came with a screen shot of a review from the plagiarist’s site, and the relatively antique boardgamegeek review from which it was taken. There were also other allegations about direct bullying and harassment and theft. For some, that was enough to instantly accept the allegations as true because evidence was provided. The source of the evidence was not contentious – there was no serious critique of their credibility. There was no hint that the screenshots were fabricated, and links were provided to the original sources (one of which disappeared soon afterwards). It was a substantiated allegation.

That’s not actually enough as a basis for coverage though. The first thing that must always be asked when evidence like this is provided is ‘What agenda is being served here’. Some people have said that the only people that have a right to comment or pursue this allegation are those directly impacted, but that’s a flawed frame of analysis. The worst people to comment and pursue this allegation are those that are the direct victims of the plagiarism. For exactly the same reason we don’t let the relatives of murder victims sit on the jury for the accused. Personal interest clouds judgement, and that cloud can impact on correctness of factual claims. Importantly, as I outlined above, plagiarism is public misconduct and broadly harmful. We all have a collegiate interest even if we weren’t directly plagiarised.

But more than this, a single incident – damning as it might have seemed – is not enough to brand someone a plagiarist. Sometimes when these allegations are raised we might be able to argue in contradiction of an allegation. There are explanations that can nullify all of this evidence. Perhaps the original author had, somewhere, released that review into the public domain. After all, boardgamegeek isn’t necessarily the canonical home of the piece. Perhaps the author had been paid to provide the text to the accused. Perhaps it was an honest mistake – where an intention to attribute never quite made it into the post. For all we know from the screenshot it’s a broken HTML link. Maybe the plagiarist was the original author, and had been performing an avant-garde performance incorporating a dozen aliases over a dozen years.

None of those are likely. They’re not even really plausible. But they are possible and so a single piece of evidence does not stand up as proof of a pattern of plagiarism. For all we know, from one piece of evidence, it was a copy and paste into the wrong document.

Thus I went looking to see if this allegation held up

It did.

I found multiple incidents of plagiarism spanning years, with a methodology that became more sinister and knowing as the site gained attention. The first duty any of us have here is to ensure that we are confident in the evidence before we opine on the matter, and I am confident that there are many examples of board game reviewers being directly plagiarised. Some of them word for word, others with rewording and slight restructuring of their text. That latter is the real clincher of an intent to deceive.

However, I also found evidence that would class as more… textured. For example, is it plagiarism to take a publisher description of a game and include it without attribution? I think that’s far less clear cut. I think a very reasonable argument could be made that such things could be considered a kind of ‘fair use’. Attribution would still be necessary, but its absence doesn’t necessarily imply the intent to deceive that would normally be required for a credible charge of plagiarism. It also doesn’t carry with it the expectation of harm that would usually be associated. If that’s to be considered plagiarism, there are a lot of sites that are guilty of it – stores and reviewers alike. Sure, if that’s the substantive content of a review it’s a terrible review but that doesn’t necessarily make it malicious plagiarism.

Avoid clickbait titles that over-sell or sensationalize the content of a piece of coverage.

It would genuinely be easy to lean into clickbait here. Tempers are high. Conspiracy theories are raging about. Entrenched factional interests are entrenching in their factions. And the worst thing is – it feels fair to do an expose. It feels like it would be karmic justice. I could do something nice and juicy for the SEO and permanently associate this site with the incident so anyone searching for the name of the plagiarist in the future would feel compelled to click this link. I could improve my site’s search profile by titling this something like ‘TAKEDOWN EXPOSE OF [INSERT NAME HERE], PLAGIARIST, LIAR, THIEF’. Who the hell wouldn’t click on that?

I could even include some spicy content in here to semi-justify such an aggressively exploitative headline. I could cast it as ‘Public interest’. ‘Legitimate journalism’, which it kind of would be. The thing is – clickbait is always misleading unless it is proportionate to the coverage, and coverage that would justify the strength of a clickbait title is very rarely ethical.

Instead I’ve gone for a typically dull and academic title that does not sensationalise over the content of the post. Sometimes you need to sacrifice clicks for good professional practice.

Retain personal copies of all transient information that is important in coverage, such as web-pages, social media comments, and images.

A lot of this scandal has been characterised by hearsay and I have not publicly disclosed the evidence I have gathered because I honestly don’t feel it adds anything at this point. However, someone remarked to me on Reddit that they were glad I had it because it would be useful when in a few months time the incident was hand-waved away as ‘All a funny misunderstanding’. That’s a vitally important point.

There’s no guarantee those Twitter posts will be there when that happens. No guarantee the wayback machine will still exist or won’t suffer from a catastrophic data loss. No guarantee if the plagiarist’s site ever comes back it will with the offending content, or if that offending content won’t be altered. As soon as news of the incident broke, the plagiarist took all social media offline. I made local copies of everything I could. The transience of the Internet means I need to be in the position of being able to back up all claims I make and I’m not in the position of controlling evidence that I don’t have in my own possession.

It’s important in incidents like this that we don’t allow the facts in the future to be distorted by situational memory and convenient absence of recall.

Also, I will make this evidence available to anyone that has a legitimate journalistic or personal need to see it – provided they will also adhere to the ethical code of conduct I’m discussing here. Note that none of this information is secret – anyone with the skills can find what I did in a matter of a few hours. However, knowing that I have the information means that people have an effort-free route to get it. That means I can also restrict access to bad actors and ask others to be mindful of the ethical duties they have. I can’t gatekeep public information, but I can gatekeep the public information I personally have documented and ensure it’s used in a constructive way. I’m not inclined to cover up evidence of the plagiarist’s misconduct, but I am inclined to make sure we talk about this in a way that moves us past the specifics and into lessons learned.

Minimize that which can reasonably be considered harmful to the direct subjects of articles.

The plagiarist is not named here. I would like, on a personal level, to ensure that this person cannot come back to hobbyist media without making some incredible effort to make good the wrong that they have done. However, at the moment they have removed themselves from the hobby – and largely from the Internet. The incident is no longer secret, and no good will come of a further pile-on. Massive reputational damage has been done.

The question then that needs to be addressed is ‘What good does naming someone do, in this specific context?’. There is a very strong public interest and public harm element here. However, this specific post is not a journalistic piece on ethical (mal)practices in the industry. It’s a case study in how to deal with reporting on plagiarism with regards to the code of conduct. It’s ethical to ensure that it is both grounded in fact and mindful that this special feature is not intended to be punitive. Here, the code of conduct actually helps moderate some of the demons of my nature. I’m not a forgiving person by default. My moral instinct is to ensure that punishment is done and is kept on being done.

My instincts say ‘Make the punishment for this so socially severe that every single person that would think about plagiarising in the future winces at the mere idea of being caught’.

The ethical thing is to do is to cover things in a way that is proportionate to the value of what is to be accomplished. Those two come into contention, and ethics wins out.

Also I am aware that a few other sites are planning, or at least mulling over, coverage of their own. This post is part of minimising harm by explaining why coverage has to be ethically considered. There are things that well-meaning people may not take into account with hasty action and hot-take coverage. Sometimes a Code of Conduct is just there to make you think about the rules before you accidentally break them.

This should not be construed as endorsement or even really sympathy for the plagiarist. I don’t really have much. It should though be constructed as the mercy that is at the bedrock of ethical coverage.

Consider the long-term implications associated with the permanent publication of an article.

Again, the plagiarist is not named here. This is important because proportionality must be respected. Yes, plagiarism is an egregious sin. In this specific case I don’t think it warrants someone being forever unemployable because their name becomes inextricably associated with misconduct in search engines.

Employers google names before they hire people and while I will vigorously oppose the plagiarist rejoining the media scene of this hobby that doesn’t mean I want to see them unable to pay for rent or groceries. Absent a massive amount of effort in making good on the harm done, I will be exceptionally critical of any attempt to permit them to integrate back into the community as a public figure. That doesn’t mean I wish them ill in finding employment outside of the industry.

As such, naming names would be good for my site in the short term with regards to capturing some of the outraged energy simmering around… it would also poison the plagiarist’s digital footprint on a permanent basis and lead to long-term, ongoing, and irreconcilable harm.

Remember Justine Sacco? She had to change her name to escape the consequences of her (foolish but not egregious) actions. Journalists all over behaved incredibly unethically in their coverage of that incident, and I’m keen to make sure that we don’t do the same thing. In the end, we’re just talking about board games. Not state secrets. Proportionality matters.

What Should We Learn from All of This?

The key take-ways here are not new. This isn’t the first-time plagiarism has raised its head in media coverage and it won’t be the last. But here’s what I would like for people to take away from this kind of incident:

  • There absolutely are unethical things happening in board game media, and anyone saying otherwise is either dangerously naïve or wilfully manipulative.
  • Adopting a code of conduct, and following it, is an important way to show that you willing to proactively engage with the implications of your coverage.
  • In uncertain circumstances and in new scenarios, a code of conduct can meaningfully help shape your content in a way that is proportionate and constructive
  • Ethical behaviour is not optional. It’s not a ‘nice to have’. People are paying attention and they are becoming ever more critical.
  • Appreciate, and reward with your attention and support, those outlets that are making the effort to engage proactively with ethical behaviour. If you don’t, you’ll just incentivise unethical behaviour.

Bad things have happened. Bad things will continue to happen. The best that we can realistically do is make sure that we learn the lessons we need and temper our response with proportionalism and ethics. We can always grow stronger from this by making sure that we don’t make the same mistakes again. That way when we do make mistakes they’re at least new and interesting.


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