ETHICS UPDATE / Preventing freelancer plagiarism and conflicts of interest

This article by Bridget Botelho, a member of ASBPE’s Ethics Committee, is the final essay in our spring Ethics Update newsletter. We Committee members hope to see you at the National Conference May 10-11 in Washington, DC, where ethical issues are a major feature of the program.—Roy Harris, Interim Committee Chair

There may be no greater struggle for business publication editors than finding freelance writers who are experts in their field, excellent writers, trustworthy, affordable and dependable.

These unicorn contributors are so difficult to find that editors often make concessions; if a freelancer is an expert who is fairly reliable, you’ll deal with their shoddy grammar. If a dependable, knowledgeable expert is a terrible writer but they work for cheap, you’ll give them more assignments than you’d like because, hey, you need content.

But with plagiarism and conflicts of interest, editors simply can’t give freelancers a pass.

Many trade publications rely heavily on contributors who understand their markets, the buyers, and the providers in it. Finding someone in this position who is not affiliated with any organizations in that market and thus biased toward certain companies or products can be quite difficult.

“Unbiased” stock advice

ASBPE’s Guide to Best Practices outlines in its conflicts of interest section that non-employees who provide content must adhere to the same conflict-avoidance rules as staff editors, and in instances where freelancers have relationships with companies which they write about, a disclosure should be added to their content explaining the ties.

When that guidance isn’t followed, the consequences destroy reader trust and integrity of the media brand. In one sweeping conflict of interest case last year, a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation found over 250 articles were published on major financial news websites by contributors who were paid to promote certain stocks through sites which were supposed to offer unbiased advice.

In that scheme, public companies hired communications firms to generate publicity for their stocks. Those firms hired writers to publish articles on financial news websites without publicly disclosing that they received payments from the firms. According to the SEC’s orders and complaints filed in federal district court, the true sources of the articles were hidden from investors.  In one example, a writer wrote under his own name as well as at least nine pseudonyms, including a persona he invented who claimed to be “an analyst and fund manager with almost 20 years of investment experience,” according to the SEC’s press release.

These conflicts of interest scenarios come in many forms – whether they favor a company for some hidden reason or hold bias against a company for personal reasons, and it’s up to editors to identify these issues before it damages trust in the media brand, explained Indira Lakshmanan,’s Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics and a Boston Globe columnist, who wrote in April 2017 about the damage done to financial media sites.

How freelancers make their living

“If your company relies on freelancers, your editors have a larger burden to understand who the freelancers’ clients are and to make sure that they are not being paid to push any products through your site,” Lakshmanan said.

That means checking in on how a freelancer makes their living; are they paid by a company that they are supposed to write about in an unbiased manner? Does their consulting business depend on the success of a particular company? Do they own stock in the company they are paid to write about? These difficult questions must be addressed from the start.

“It’s hard because you are only paying the freelancers a certain rate and they have to make a living,” Lakshmanan said.  “But media companies have to have a conflict of interest policy. You have a responsibility to your readers to vet the freelancers you use and compel them to comply with your ethics policy. You aren’t servicing your audience if there is even a whiff of conflict of interest.”

Having a clear conflict of interest policy laid out in the writer’s contract gives editors the right to terminate their relationship with a freelancer who violates the rules. But it’s ultimately up to editors to decide whether connections are acceptable and a disclaimer is enough or whether there is a conflict of interest that requires severing ties with a freelancer.

A conflict comes to light

Don Fluckinger, executive editor with TechTarget, chose the latter option for one long-time freelance writer and industry consultant who he said knew the products and the vendors in his market “perhaps a little too well.”

The conflict of interest came to light when the contributor delivered content about a new product. The editors toned down the freelancer’s pro-product language before publishing the content.  The vendor whose product was covered gave this contributor a hard time for “not being a good brand ambassador” and in turn, the contributor pressured editors to alter wording to line up with the vendor’s preferred messaging, Fluckinger said. He had to explain to the contributor and the vendor’s public relations representative why that isn’t appropriate editorially and, in no uncertain terms, make it clear that editorial publications are not an extension of their marketing.

To prevent this from happening in the future, Fluckinger looks very closely at what consultants and industry experts do for their day job, including what products they sell and if in doubt, he asks them what happens if something that isn’t 100% positive appears in print under their byline, he said.

A more perennial issue with freelancers is plagiarism, whether they do it purposely or unwittingly. Freelancers who are caught plagiarizing often plead ignorance, and while plenty of these writers truly do not understand journalism ethics, most sensible people know they aren’t supposed to copy content and pass it off as their own.

Catching the plagiarism

Along with a conflict of interest policy, original content requirements must be detailed in their contributor agreement – a document all freelance writers have to sign before they begin working with you.

Even with an iron-clad contributor agreement, some freelancers still plagiarize and it’s up to editors to catch these instances before publication.  Alyssa Provazza, an executive editor with TechTarget and a 2017 ASBPE Young Leader Award winner, has seen a few instances of plagiarism by freelancers over the years, most often when the writer describes a technology by copying a list off the internet, word for word.

“Whether it’s accidentally or not, that’s not OK by journalism ethics and we take it seriously,” Provazza said. “One situation involved a writer essentially plagiarizing themselves, by submitting articles that were largely copied from articles they had previously written for us or published with another outlet, and passing it off as new work.”

The latter scenario is quite common among freelancers who write about the same topic for more than one B2B website and editors must keep an eye out for that – even with writers they believe to be above board. Once discovered, editors should address it with the writer directly.

“Depending on the situation, I might first alert the writer to the problem and explain clearly what constitutes plagiarism and why it’s an issue,” Provazza said. “I think it’s fair sometimes to give a warning, if it’s clear that they didn’t do it on purpose. Then if it happens again, cut ties with them.”

In the case of the freelancer who copied their own work, it happened enough times that Provazza stopped working with that person.

Familiar articles

Craig Stedman, an executive editor with TechTarget, discovered a similar situation while doing research on an article he was editing from a frequent contributor. In Stedman’s search for background information, he found an article by the freelancer that was essentially identical to one he was editing.

“I did more searches and found a total of 12 instances in which he had either submitted articles to us that previously were published elsewhere or had taken articles we had published and gotten them posted on other sites,” Stedman said.

With support for editorial management, Stedman worked with the company’s legal department to draft language for the contributor’s termination letter, which was submitted to the writer along with details of the plagiarism.

Shortly thereafter, another frequent contributor was found to be plagiarizing other authors. His in-progress articles were killed and his contributor agreement terminated as well.

“Losing two contributors in rapid succession was a blow to content production on the affected site, but we felt that we had to take the hit because the level of plagiarism was so egregious in both cases,” Stedman said. “I now routinely run searches on at least a few sentences in freelance articles to see if I find any matches.”

Asking for links

It’s a good idea to assume the freelancer doesn’t understand journalism ethics and hasn’t read all the fine print of their writer’s agreement. Be clear up front that all of their contributed content must be original and that they must cite their sources.

“One good way to check whether freelancers are doing a good job with this is to have them send links to all of the source materials they relied on when they submit articles,” Provazza said. “Then you can check for possible copy-pasting and show them examples if you find any issues.”

It’s also important for the editor to be up-to-date and knowledgeable on the article topic to ensure the contributor knows what they’re talking about. That knowledge makes it easier to spot potential plagiarism, she said.

Other clear plagiarism tipoffs are text that doesn’t match up with the style or flow of the rest of the article, or varied font sizes and styles. Editors can also lean on free and simple to use online tools including Grammarly and Plagiarisma  which allow editors to quickly check if any of the writer’s text matches wording from published content.

Bridget Botelho is Editorial Director for TechTarget’s information management websites, covering topics including artificial intelligence, big data, analytics, content management and CRM. She has been with TechTarget since 2007.

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.