Not Exactly Rocket Science

Amusing little tale of journalism for you:

On 30 December, I wrote a piece about the spookfish and its amazing eyes. The last line of the piece was:

That must give the fish a great advantage in the deep sea, where the ability to spot even the dimmest and briefest of lights can mean the difference between eating and being eaten.

That’s not a quote, it’s my prose. So it was a bit surprising to see a BBC piece on the same topic, dated 7 January, where the same line turns up, word-for-word, and is attributed to Julian Partridge, one of the authors on the study. Spooky and fishy.

A bit of investigation led to a press release by the Bristol University press office, which ends with the same line and was presumably the source of the BBC story. I have since contacted the press office and after explaning the nature of a Creative Commons Licence, they have apologised and agreed to remove the line. It may indeed be gone by the time you see this.

I don’t want to harp on about this, given that it was cordially resolved, but this post exists in case anyone thinks that I stole my prose from the BBC or from the press release. Writers literally make a living with their words and it’s really bad form to nick them. It’s also amusing that in the press release itself, the line is just part of the text and on the BBC story, it’s been miraculously converted into a quote. Journalism eh?

Update: It’s interesting to see where the line turns up.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    January 9, 2009

    Well, it’s not gone yet, from either source. I can see how a mistake like that can be made, but it doesn’t actually excuse it.

    Funny, it would never occur to me to use either msm reports or other blogs as sources when I write up scientific research. I go to the original journal article, and sometimes I contact the researcher or another scientist if I need clarification. There would never be an opportunity to make that sort of error.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    January 9, 2009

    Agreed, Dave – I think we both only ever write up research from the primary papers and it’s just ironic that while I’ve committed to never writing from press releases, it clearly doesn’t always work the other way round! 😉

  3. #3 ERV
    January 9, 2009



  4. #4 Matt Platte
    January 9, 2009

    Hah! I saw the headline at BBC but didn’t bother to click through to the story since I’d already read about old Spooky Eyes over here.

  5. #5 Lilian Nattel
    January 9, 2009

    Is plagiarism the highest form of flattery? How about leaving the quote but attributing it correctly?

  6. #6 Skloot
    January 9, 2009

    Ack. That’s happened to me several times — plagiarism seriously sucks (plus it’s illegal). But what this says about the BBC is just as bad. Press release journalism? Really? I thought the BBC was better than that …

  7. #7 Ed Yong
    January 9, 2009

    Yeah the same line’s also turned up on Yahoo News, who grabbed it off LiveScience, and the Daily Mail, who clearly took it from the BBC since they’ve also made it into a quote. It’s a disheartening chain of churnalism.

    Lilian – I’d rather they just take it out. Otherwise, it just seems like they’ve got some random punter unconnected with the field to comment on it.

  8. #8 Christie
    January 9, 2009

    At least they should link back to your original post! I think they should take out the line and link back to you at the end of their story – since clearly that’s where they got some of their information from.

  9. #9 Daniel Gorelick
    February 20, 2009

    I blogged about the spookfish eyes and didn’t plagiarize you. Does that put me in the minority? Your blog is great, keep up the good work.

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