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  • A culture of plagiarism is harming Africa's journalists

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In the first of two articles on how to support African science journalism online, Research Africa editor Linda Nordling takes on plagiarism.

The number of journalists with the skill and interest to take on science reporting in Africa has grown in recent years. However, most African science journalists remain woefully underpaid and under-commissioned. Getting editors to accept science stories remains a challenge in most African countries.

As permanent jobs in science journalism are scarce, many journalists end up as freelancers, having to scrounge a hand-to-mouth living from these slim pickings.

SPEED READ

  • Plagiarism and a lack of funding for news are locked in a vicious cycle
  • Offenders are often unaware of copyright law or how to use online resources
  • Tackling plagiarism will boost the value of science journalism

When stories are commissioned on a freelance basis, the fees tend to be a pittance. A snap poll revealed that rates for science copy on the continent dip as low as 8 US cents per word, or US$40 for a 500-word story. The minimum rate recommended by the South African Freelancers Association is 2.60 South African rand (around 28 US cents) a word.

As African science publications tend to be severely short of funds themselves, they have little scope to increase these low rates. But this lack of money also drives a practice that is damaging the value of science journalism on the continent: plagiarism.

A problematic practice

Republishing material without permission from, or payment to, the copyright holder is unfortunately a common practice in the wider African media landscape.

The pervasiveness of plagiarism, and its effects on African journalism, are thoughtfully explored by Simon Allison in a recent article published by research and advocacy organisation Good Governance Africa. [1]

This tradition can be seen in the continent's budding science publications. And it erodes the value of original storytelling in ways that contribute to the persistent lack of funding for African science reporting.

Free and easy

I can speak to this from my own experiences as editor of Research Africa, a Cape Town-based weekly online newsletter tracking research funding trends on the continent.

Research Africa is pretty unusual among African science publications because its financing is subscription-based. Only a handful of articles are published 'free' on the Internet every month. The rest are hidden behind a paywall.

Using Google searches and alerts, I can track what happens to the free stories after they are published. It's not pretty. They often appear cut and pasted onto other websites. Sometimes, credit is given to Research Africa — sometimes not. Occasionally websites replace the original journalist's name with one of their own.

When this happens, I contact the offending organisation — where possible — and ask them to take down the post, which I explain is in breach of copyright law. Most often people apologise and are more than happy to comply.

So I do not believe that the intention is to act destructively. The problem is a lack of knowledge about intellectual property and a poor grasp of what constitutes proper use of online resources.

Some might argue that proprietary, paid-for news is a relic of the past. However, I would challenge the 'free-access-to-information' defence. Worldwide, journalists are seeing their workloads increase while their pay per article rises more slowly than inflation.

The movement towards open access to information is forcing a shift towards new publishing and funding models to support journalism. But whatever these models may be, they will always build on the fact that good journalism is valuable. And it is that value that the culture of plagiarism in Africa is eroding.

Financial impact

Regardless of the intentions, plagiarism has dire consequences for any publication trying to stay afloat in today's tough media market.

For Research Africa, the free articles represent a marketing investment. They are meant to be shared — but in a way that brings readers to the website, where details of how to subscribe for the full service are readily available.

Publications that depend on advertising also need to protect their Internet traffic, as hit rates dictate what they can charge for adverts. If stories are duplicated elsewhere, traffic drops — and this reduces how much they can pay their science journalists.

Even donor-funded news agencies such as SciDev.Net, which encourages readers to share and republish its stories under a creative commons licence, want to keep their own hit rates high as well as track how others use their content, since this helps them convince their funders that they deserve continued support.

Focus on quality

It is heartening that there are a greater number of competent African science journalists than there used to be. But they need decent wages. This will never happen while editors flout copyright regulations.

A lot of science publications on the continent — particularly those online — act more as aggregators than content producers. This is fine, but aggregators need to operate within the confines of law and good editorial practice. A short summary of a story and a link to its original URL is perfectly acceptable for proprietary content protected by copyright laws. Cutting and pasting isn't.

The key for raising the standard, and reward, for African science journalism is to focus on quality rather than quantity. More African science publications should spend their limited funding on solid, knowledgeable reporting, and pay their reporters well.

Publications should also brush up their editors' knowledge of copyright laws and good editorial practice. Re-selling articles to other publishers could be a potentially important source of revenue.

Only when good journalism makes good business sense will Africa's science journalists benefit from higher wordage rates. And that requires an immediate end to the continent's harmful culture of plagiarism.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

Related article

Open access is the future for Africa's science media

References

[1] Allison, S. Can Africa tell its own stories? (Good Governance Africa, 1 March 2013)

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