I received an email yesterday that I nearly deleted, unread. At first glance, I thought it was spam. I get a lot of spam. The subject header was “Is someone using your article?” It sounded like clickbait, but something made me click it anyway. I read:
I am a clinician in behavior health and was looking for information to assist a client with an ill father. A simple Google search yielded your article written for Good Therapy:
However, I also found this article with a different author that seems to be a revision of your article:
It may be nothing but, thought you may like to know.
It took me a minute to process, sitting and staring at the screen. I clicked the links. The first article was mine, from years ago, about coping with a family member’s illness. I was a Topic Expert for GoodTherapy.org, and this was an issue close to my heart, both personally and professionally.
The second link went to my article, too. Funny, I didn’t remember being published by MindBodyGreen. Oh, wait. It was my article…but with someone else’s name listed as the author.
I checked, and then re-checked. The MindBodyGreen article was mine. Word for word. The “author” had added in a few words of her own at the beginning and the end. “Be positive!” stuck out the most, for some reason.
My work had been plagiarized. It wasn’t the first time, but it was probably the most blatant, and the most public. Apparently, three years ago someone found my article at GoodTherapy.org, cut and pasted it and added her name as author, and MindBodyGreen published it. MindBodyGreen is a major, influential company in the wellness community, and the stolen article was viewed and shared by thousands of people. The ”author” had several other articles published there. I wondered who this person was, and if any of her other articles were taken from other authors. She has a website listed next to her profile at MindBodyGreen. It says she is a yogi. She states “I hope to empower, inspire, and motivate you to bring out the best in you.” She talks about karma, and hard work. She positions herself as an expert on relationships and parenting. She teaches people how to be writers.
Curious, maybe even morbidly fascinated, I Googled her other articles, then cross-referenced the titles. It took about 3 minutes. Sure enough, many of her articles and even her personal blog posts took, verbatim, chunks of other writers’ work and published them as her own. No references were cited. My curiosity gave way to indignation. How did a self-help guru justify content theft? And how did a major player in the Body/Mind community, MindBodyGreen.com, enable this to continue for years, unchecked?
Fast forward to the end of the day. Several emails and calls later, MindBodyGreen’s response was to remove the article and to state that they would not work with this author again. It was an anemic response, but they did remove the article. The author then sent me an email stating that her intention had not been to steal my work (?), but that she had read it and been inspired by it and gosh, somehow there it was, published with her byline. (I didn’t ask her about her other articles and apparent plagiarism there) A couple of friends commented that perhaps I should be flattered. I’m not flattered. It’s not about my work being so utterly fabulous that someone simply had to re-post it. Theft is theft. There is no justification for it. It is a personal and professional violation.
This was a relatively small issue in the bigger scheme of things, but it still nagged at me all day. I’m not a ruminator…where was this coming from? I realized my indignation had more to do with the nature of the content and its intended purpose, than the theft of intellectual property itself. My article was written to help others who might be struggling with the illness of a family member. I made no money from that article or any other that I contributed to GoodTherapy.org. MindBodyGreen calls itself a “lifestyle media brand” – for-profit, complete with a clickable shopping cart on every page selling classes and wellness events. They present their mission as being here to make our lives better. Self-help, spirituality, yoga, plant-based eating, etc. I, and many of my friends, have followed them on social media for years. Until today.
I looked at their information for aspiring authors. They warn against re-posting content which has been published elsewhere, directed toward writers who submit articles to more than one site. Nowhere does it mention copyright infringement or content theft. Technically speaking, the woman who cut and pasted my work as her own may not have violated their Terms of Service, as written. I find this perhaps the most disturbing piece of information of all.
Warning others about the hazards of the internet and taking everything you read there with a grain of salt really hits home today. We can’t trust always what we see or read, and sometimes even websites that seem established and legitimate can take the lazy way out. Not screening content before publishing it is as sloppy as it gets. It’s a magnet for people who want to make a name for themselves, or a quick buck, without doing the work.
That brings me to my last point. I learned through this experience that I hold people who claim to help others more accountable than, say, someone who is on the internet selling widgets. Particularly those without credentials – counselors, life coaches, psychics, healers, energy workers, and other professions without standard licensing procedures and regulations. Before I am labeled an elitist, let me explain what I mean. I have no issue with the concept of energy psychology, I think a trained, ethical coach can help people with goal setting and personal/professional development, and I am more likely to talk to my own psychotherapy clients about mindfulness than I am about medication. My private practice embraces a holistic approach to mental health. In my opinion, it works. What does concern me, however, is accountability. When a person is unethical or out of their scope of competence and they place themselves in a helping role, they can hurt others. Their target audience includes some of the most vulnerable among us. In their zeal to gain clients or followers or subscribers, they may miss danger signs, they may not know what to ask, they may spread misinformation, and they may not even be aware of what they don’t know in terms of ethical behavior. Worst of all, if they do cause harm, their victims have no recourse. In my situation, a few people suggested that I “report her!” To whom, exactly? Self-appointed gurus or coaches are usually not legitimately licensed or credentialed by their state the way licensed mental health and medical clinicians are, which hampers an individual’s ability to investigate a practitioner’s legitimacy or to file a grievance. I experienced copyright infringement, but imagine if I had followed some “lifestyle advice” and actually been physically or emotionally hurt. I got off relatively easily.
Unethical behavior, such as content theft or aggressive, misleading marketing, doesn’t usually go hand in hand with trustworthy service to others. I am speaking out about this experience because I believe that those of us who purport to work in the best interest of others have an obligation to maintain high ethical standards and to speak up when something is wrong. Individuals who work in unregulated jobs like life coaches and spiritual advisors, perhaps even more so. A few unethical people can do an enormous amount of harm. I came away from this reminded to regularly scan the internet to protect my copyrighted work, including utilizing services like Copyscape, to continue to provide consumer education for those seeking emotional support or wellness in a competitive and confusing market, and to support my colleagues who are providing ethical professional or volunteer services to others. My deep appreciation to the colleague who brought this to my attention – when we work together, we can try to bring a sense of integrity into the wellness community, for the good of those we serve. When we experience otherwise, we have an obligation to bring that forward, as well.