Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Plagiarism in UFO Writing

I saw, the other day, in the Skeptical Inquirer, an article by Benjamin Radford about plagiarism in paranormal writing. He was suggesting that some “writers” lift case reports from others and report as if they are their own. I know these things happen in the world of the UFO and the one instance that springs to mind is a line written by Ed Ruppelt in his The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. In writing about the fabled Estimate of the Situation, Ruppelt said, “The situation was UFOs; the estimate they were interplanetary!” (Page 58, Ace paperback).

I have seen that very line in several other UFO books. It is a case of straight plagiarism. And while it is true that facts cannot be copyrighted, it is also true that the specific words used to describe those facts can be. You cannot copyright the telephone directory because that is an assembling of fact, but if you add any “sweat equity” to it, that is some creative way to present those facts, then that can be copyrighted.

Or, for our purpose, you can copyright your particular interpretation of facts around a specific UFO sighting, but you cannot copyright the facts themselves. Everyone is free to use the facts of the Roswell case, for example, but they cannot lift, verbatim, the specific words that I use to describe the case.

As I say, Radford’s article got me thinking about this, and what I find in the world of the UFO is not the plagiarism, but the use of case “facts” that simply are not facts. This is the real problem in writing about UFOs.

For example, many years ago, I was writing a magazine article about mysterious disappearances, and I had found the tale of Oliver Thomas who had disappeared from his home in Wales around the turn of the last century. This case sounded suspiciously like that of Oliver Lerch who allegedly disappeared from South Bend, Indiana sometime in the late 19th century. Brad Steiger had written about Thomas and at that time, meaning long before the Internet and all the electronic sources available, I knew the secret for finding Brad Steiger. I called him to ask about the case and he said not to use it. He had since learned that it was a hoax.

And I learned a lesson with that telephone conversation. Sometimes the information published in the books is not accurate. Sometimes the writer learned, after publication, that a case was a hoax, that the information was wrong in some fashion, or that the spectacular details did not match the facts when the case was carefully examined. In the last few weeks I have published a number of cases like that. The best example is probably the report of a formation of disks seen over Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Although the case was recounted in several books, including those of respected researchers, I learned that the witness was not in Cedar Rapids and the only connection to Cedar Rapids was an article in the local newspaper actually identifying the location as another city in another state but giving all the relevant information.

The point, you ask?

Well, if I hadn’t attempted to take the case to its origins, I would have reported the errors of those other writers and researchers and people would think there was a pre-Arnold sighting in Cedar Rapids. I would have copied the original errors and added to the misinformation. We all now know the origins of this sighting and can give it the attention it deserves (which is just one more of those reported after the Arnold sighting and little else.)

But this wasn’t plagiarism, or as one person suggested, “Plagiarism is using one source but research is using two…” And even with that, I would have still published the inaccurate information because none of the sources I had (five in total) had the original story right.

Here’s the real point. We all have the ability to do this. We all have the ability to take these cases back to the original sources. Too often we just don’t do it. We get the information we want… and it doesn’t matter which side of the coin you find yourself, that is debunker or proponent… and we end the search. We don’t ask that one additional question. We don’t look for that one additional fact. And we can change that.

In the world today, we need to take everything back to the source. When I found myself in Lubbock, Texas, I took the time to research the Lubbock Lights and image my surprise, in the early-1990s, to find Carl Hart, Jr. in the telephone book. Or while in Fort Worth, I went through the newspaper’s morgue, looking for information on old UFO sightings and found some interesting though obviously fake reports of the Great Airship.

If there have been some spectacular or not so spectacular sightings nearby, check them out. Talk to the witnesses. Search the original sources of the information, and let’s see if we can clean up the landscape. If nothing else, we can remove much of the clutter as we move toward some sort of an answer.


Anthony Mugan said...

I agree with you Kevin. This problem is of considerable significance as we all have to continuously 're-invent the wheel' and go back over primary data as so few secondary sources can be considered totally reliable. This makes any more general analysis problematic.

Just as a similar example, a while back I was going through a well known catalogue of radar cases looking for RV cases (the precise reason for this not relevant). Around three quarters of cases classed as 'unkown' in that catalogue either had insufficient primary data to form any conclusion or the primary data suggested at least a possible conventional explanation (quite often the Blue Book actual explanation seemed at least possible to me).
Now this was just my personal judgement - others may well disagree or find other facts that I missed on specific cases.

There may be some mileage in forums like this, with a diverse range of views, thrashing out a discussion on certain high reliability cases. I doubt we will reach a consensus, but we could all form a view on the rigour of a set of cases as a result...

Unknown said...

Good point. And when you move it into the world of online conversation, the problem becomes magnified because so few people even take the effort to check their facts at all. Nonsense winds up being parroted across the internets.

However, the real-time communication era also should allow authors to issue updates and corrections after the story has been printed.

Kurt Peters said...

All true, yet I tend to believe the most pressing problem is lying 'witnesses' like Kaufmann and lying 'researchers' like Korff...

George Kanakaris said...

Kevin , i don't know how to mail you , but how much should i add for sending 'The October Surprise' to Europe ?(Belgium)

George Kanakaris said...

Oops , i mean 'The October Scenario ' of course...