Did the BBC rip off the Guardian’s Higgs boson explainer?

On Tuesday, Carl Zimmer, Deborah Blum, David Quammen and I discussed the Jonah Lehrer plagiarism accusations. (These are distinct from the recycling controversy, which we, along with Jack Shafer, discussed last week.) The general consensus: if there was an offense, it was more akin to jaywalking than vehicular manslaughter.

At one point in our discussion, I’d debated bringing up TV news programs, which regularly lift dispatches directly from the front pages of major metro newspapers without credit; I ultimately decided that that was a whole other topic that would only complicate matters.

Yesterday, an apparent example of TV news appropriation was brought to light publicized* by the ever-vigilant Ed Yong, who noticed that a BBC segment explaining the Higgs boson was virtually identical to a video demo Ian Sample put together for the Guardian. This isn’t an example where two dispatches are similar; the mechanisms used for the explanation (lunch trays, ping-pong balls, and sugar) and even some of the canned quips (“The tools I have are…a tray from our canteen” and “I’ve been to the BBC canteen”) are identical.

Here’s the Guardian’s piece; I can’t seem to find a way to embed the BBC video, but you can see it here:

The reaction when Ed pointed this out on Twitter were pretty universal: Carl Zimmer (“slam-dunk rip-off”), Deborah Blum (“outright theft”), Maryn McKenna, Martin Robbins, Tim Carmody, and David Dobbs, among others, all agreed this was out of bounds. Apparently, someone at the BBC did, too: The video on the site now includes a note saying, “The demonstration is taken from an idea originally devised by Ian Sample of the Guardian. See also the classic analogy from UCL’s David Miller, and one from Don Lincoln from Fermilab who uses water.” The phrasing — “taken from an idea” — and the hat-tips to other people seems too cute by half; as Deborah noted, “groveling called for here.” (That seems to be going on now, too: at 3:04AM EST, the BBC correspondent in question tweeted, “None top the originality/genius of@iansample – the beauty quark of UK science journalism http://bit.ly/M7tF2L  json#sugarpingponggate‬! #corr“‬.)

So — what do you all think? Is this type of stuff SOP? Do any regular BBC watchers agree with Robbins, who says that’s the second or third piece in the last several days the BBC appears to have pinched from other sources? Should we be paying more attention to on-air appropriation?

* Ed points in, in the comments, that he was actually tipped off by Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.



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3 Responses to Did the BBC rip off the Guardian’s Higgs boson explainer?

  1. Ed Yong says:

    One small point: I was alerted to the comparison by a tweet from Ian Katz, Guardian deputy editor. See, kids? Attribution is funtime.

  2. Just to expand on my Twitter comment: one example I was thinking of wasn’t plagiarism as such, but it bugged me at the time, and I was reminded of it when I saw this.

    Back in January, Deadspin published a feature by Alan Siegel titled: “How ‘Seven Nation Army’ Conquered The Sports World,” which described how the White Stripes song became so popular at sporting events. Deadspin republished the piece on June 27th, to coincide with Euro 2012. Days later, on July 2nd, the BBC published “How The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army came to be Euro 2012 anthem,” asking “How did this naggingly simple rock song conquer sport?”

    The two features aren’t particularly similar, and I’m not suggesting any plagiarism as such, but it seemed as if an editor had seen the original piece, found a writer and said, “can you do me one of those please?”

    If that sort of culture is widespread, then it wouldn’t surprise me if further investigation revealed more incidents like pong-gate…

    • Seth Mnookin says:

      Marty — I think there’s a general sense in TV that it’s okay to lift ideas from print without any need for acknowledgment. I should keep track of examples when I see them…