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Bee Boileau: A scoop! But no credit…

Wednesday 25 November 2020

The author wrote a story for her student newspaper about men speaking over women. Then it appeared in national newspapers – but in a way that just repeated the problem

Last week the Sun published a story under the headline ‘More men named Greg than women in total will give talk to Oxford Uni Society’. It was written by a journalist named Greg, but it wasn’t his story. It was a lightly rewritten version of a story I’d written for my student paper the week before, and it was published without credit or acknowledgement.

My piece was prompted by a list of events for the Oxford PPE Society (politics, philosophy, and economics), which included a single woman and thirteen men. The name of the single female speaker, Bonnie Honig, was spelled wrong on the announcement, and there were more Gregs (and more Marks) than there were women. 

The PPE Society wasn’t alone; the Economics Society had an entirely male set of events this term. Both societies’ committees were predominantly male. Women are under-represented in the field at almost all other levels: there are disproportionately few female PPE students, tutors, lecturers, and authors on PPE reading lists. And men have outperformed women in finals for nine of the last ten years for which data is available. 

After finding this, I spent a couple of weeks talking to women studying PPE about their experiences. One of the most common things I heard about was women’s frustration at being spoken over by men. Millie Prince-Hodges, a third-year female PPE-ist I spoke to, expressed this well: “Often I’ve said things, and my [male] tutorial partners have rephrased them, more loudly, and been praised.” I included her quote in my original article, discussing the male-dominated atmosphere that often pervades PPE tutorials and lectures.

So it was surprising to find, the day after my article was published, that three male journalists – at the Sun, Metro, and a website called the London Economic – had nicked the first part, on the Oxford PPE Society, without linking to the original piece. The article discussed the problem of men speaking over women and taking credit for their ideas, and yet the journalists reading it repeated the pattern. 

All three pieces used my analysis and phrasing. Each pointed out that more men named Greg were set to give talks than women in total. Each pointed out the spelling mistake in the society’s term-card, made in the sole woman speaker’s name. Each lifted a quote I’d got from the president of the Oxford PPE Society. Beyond the irony of the case, the similarity of the articles surprised me. Had I done something similar in one of my university history essays, I would have been in trouble for plagiarism.

When tweeting about the incident, I found that it was common practice within journalism: other students, as well as journalists for local papers, told me they’d also had their stories lightly rewritten by national outlets without credit.

Eve Webster told me that, in her time at Cherwell, her pieces had been picked up by multiple different outlets – the Times, the Telegraph, and the BBC – and that, in one instance, her photos had been used without credit. “I always took it as a bit of a compliment at the time,” she said, “but in hindsight it was quite bold of them to take the stories with no credit.” Re-using her photos, unlike re-wording her writing, was an infringement of copyright: when challenged, rather than include an acknowledgement, or pay for her work, the newspaper in question simply deleted them.

In an age of internet aggregation, it can be hard to draw the line between plagiarising and adding genuine value to a piece. It’s also increasingly tempting to trawl other news sources for stories, as the number of articles journalists are expected to publish per day increases. 

But the internet has also made it easy to credit writers by including a hyperlink to their initial reporting. Established papers don’t need to take stories without acknowledgement from student journalists: at the very least, they should put a link in their stories, or acknowledge by name the original author of the analysis they’re using. With these things, it’s a compliment – as Eve said – to have your work used. Without them, it just feels rude. Significant time and effort goes into writing articles, and it’s discouraging when something that’s taken a lot of work is ripped off without acknowledgement. 

Traffic makes a real difference to student papers, many of which have very small budgets. Durham’s Palatinate almost could not afford to go to print this November, and was forced to rely on a fund-raiser and open letter from alumni. Cherwell itself primarily relies on ads to pay its printing costs. If national papers provided links to the student stories they aggregated, student papers would better be able to afford website hosting, camera equipment, and graphic design software they have to pay for before they even go to print. 

After I’d tweeted about all this, I emailed the publications, as many suggested, and asked them to include an acknowledgement and link. Metro said that they were “happy to give credit where due”, although did not apologise for the initial omission of credit; the London Economic apologised, including a link back to my piece (although four days after the story’s publication). Greg at the Sun has not yet responded.