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16Aug 2012

Science News staffers complain about misappropriation of their copy by UPI

Science News staffers complain about misappropriation of their copy by UPI

[7:15 pm EDT: Updates with comment from Matt Crenson, managing editor at Science News.]

Several Science News reporters complained publicly on Facebook Thursday about what they say are repeated examples of misappropriation of their stories by UPI

Here's one example. On July 23rd, 2012, Nadia Drake of Science News wrote the following, in a story entitled "Crowd Sourcing Comes to Astronomy":

After performing a Yahoo! image search for photos of Comet Holmes, which whizzed by Earth in 2007, a team of astronomers used the returned images to reconstruct the comet’s orbit in three dimensions — proving that astronomers can take advantage of data provided by an unwitting group of participants.

“I think it’s the beginning of something really, really important,” says Harvard University’s Alyssa Goodman of the study, which appears in the August Astronomical Journal. “The biggest deal is the availability of all this data that isn’t being collected for the purpose it was used.”

On July 25, two days later, UPI wrote this:

A team of astronomers used a Yahoo! search to find images of Comet Homes, then combined them to determine the comet's orbit in three dimensions, proving data provided by an large but unwitting group of participants can advance scientific knowledge.

"I think it's the beginning of something really, really important," Harvard University's Alyssa Goodman said of the study. "The biggest deal is the availability of all this data that isn't being collected for the purpose it was used."

The Facebook discussion began Thursday afternoon, when Tina Hesman Saey, a Science News reporter, wrote, "I am publicly shaming UPI for stealing Rachel Ehrenberg's story and passing it off as their own with only the slightest nod to us. The lawyer says it may not be copyright infringement, but I say it may be plagiarism." Saey posted a link to Ehrenberg's Science News story dated Aug. 10, which included this:

Spattered blood intentionally hidden under layers of paint can be detected with a standard digital camera that’s been tweaked to record infrared light. The approach could become an important tool for cold-case investigators sizing up an old crime scene.

“We hope it gives law enforcement the ability to go on hunches,” says Glenn Porter, an expert in forensic photography at the University of Western Sydney in Australia. Blood is potentially powerful evidence, as it may harbor DNA that could allow a killer or victim to be identified.

Porter, formerly a forensic photographer with the Australian Federal Police, had heard of cases where investigators suspected that a crime had taken place in a now-remodeled house. 

On Monday, Aug. 13, three days later, UPI posted a story that included this:

Australian researchers say altering a standard digital camera to record infrared light can turn it into an instrument for detecting painted-over blood.

The technology could enable cold-case investigators to better examine old crime scenes, they said.

Glenn Porter, an expert in forensic photography at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, said he had heard of cases where investigators suspected a crime had taken place in a now-remodeled house.

Alexandra Witze, another Science News writer, posted a link to a story of hers with a Selfoss, Iceland dateline on June 14, 2012, that was followed by a UPI story with the same dateline. From Witze: "Franck Lavigne, a geoscientist at Panthéon-Sorbonne University's Laboratory of Physical Geography in Meudon, France, showed data and close-up photographs of the remains of the perpetrator volcano on June 14 at an American Geophysical Union conference on volcanism and the atmosphere. But he declined to name the specific volcano, saying he had agreed with his international colleagues not to identify it until the work is published in a peer-reviewed journal."

And this, on July 14, from UPI: "Now Franck Lavigne, a geoscientist at Pantheon-Sorbonne University's Laboratory of Physical Geography in Meudon, France, has offered data and close-up photographs of the remains of what he says is the guilty volcano at a conference on volcanism and the atmosphere in Iceland. But he would not reveal the name of the specific volcano, saying he had agreed with his research colleagues not to identify it until the work is published in a peer-reviewed journal, ScienceNews.org reported."

Note the attribution to Science News. That does not, I think, excuse the UPI story's close paraphrase of the Science News story. If anything, it makes clear that this was no coincidence.

Late Thursday afternoon, John Hendel, the executive editor of UPI, sent me this in response to my request for a comment:

Thanks for your note. We were unaware that the article in question was so close to the sciencenews.org item, which was credited as the source. After it was brought to our attention, we have rewritten the article, still with appropriate attribution to sciencenews.org. Please be assured there was no intention of not crediting another writer's work. Thanks again and regards--

This is not the first time that UPI has been accused of improper use of copy from Science News. When similar questions were raised last year, Hendel, according to a staffer at Science News, sent this reponse: "Thank you for your message regarding the article that appeared from UPI. I apologize for any issues the article caused. It was not our intention to misappropriate or misrepresent your work. We have removed the article from our Web site and filed a new version. Again, please accept my apologies for any problem caused by this situation. Regards--John Hendel."

I sent a second email to Hendel Thursday afternoon telling him that rewriting a story was not an adequate response to repeated questions about UPI's practices with regard to Science News stories. I asked whether his reporters admitted writing from Science News stories, how often this has happened, and what steps were taken last year to prevent this practice. I will update here with his response. This looks like a pattern; I don't think Hendel can solve by rewriting a story.

Matt Crenson, Science News's managing editor, sent me an email Thursday evening saying, in part, "Our writers feel that what UPI is doing goes too far...These UPI stories often lift fairly long stretches (whole sentences, or nearly whole sentences) directly from Science News stories, which could be considered plagiarism." Science News, he said, still puts effort into reporting science at a time when many news organizations have abandoned science journalism. "When this sort of thing happens, our writers feel that they've been unfairly taken advantage of," he said.

UPI was once a proud, respected news organization. Its alumni, according to Wikipedia, include Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Helen Thomas, Martha Gellhorn, Seymour Hersh, Keith Olbermann, and many, many others. It was usually the underdog to the AP, which had more resources and a bigger staff. But UPI's scrappy, aggressive reporting often enabled it to beat the AP. I should know; I competed against UPI during the 15 years I was at the AP.

UPI has undergone many changes since then. Still, it's sad to see this sort of thing happen. And if Science News is objecting to what UPI is doing to its copy, I wonder whether other news organizations have lodged similar complaints.

-Paul Raeburn

 

 

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