Thought Leadership or Recycling?

We recently pondered the hazards of plagiarism after someone took some of our material for their own blog. Now I think I have a much better understanding of why it’s bad for everyone, especially the reader. And I’d like to share my conclusions.

pirateI’m not talking about spam blogging (aka splogging). Cut and paste plagiarism is easy to spot and truly laughable. I’m talking about the sort of imitation that is more frequent in professional B2B blogs. Someone sets himself up as an expert, reads other people’s posts, condenses out some key points, slightly rearranges the words, perhaps rearranges the order in a unique way, and then blogs on the “7 Keys to Being a Great Marketer,” or whatever.

I have come to realize that if the author doesn’t mention where the seven key insights came from, he or she probably copied them. He can’t cite sources without giving the game away, and he can’t cite his original research because he doesn't have any.

In the post that borrows from ours for instance, a statement that “Members of a social network are always on the prowl for good, credible information” is unsubstantiated (as well as one of several that are copied, if not quite word for word). The author likely doesn’t know that this observation is based on behavioral psychology and doesn’t link to the material that explains it. So we have a seemingly reasonable assertion that might be correct, or might be hot air, but there’s no way for the reader to tell.

Our article was the result of several months of research and analysis. All of our data and sources are declared. Because the work was original, we were able to present new findings. The reader can follow the logic behind them and decide whether he or she agrees with it.

But carefully substantiated conclusions are devalued when they are reduced to a few aphorisms and repeated to tens of thousands by those who have (with good intentions) tweeted and retweeted the link. A phrase such as “The client has become the hunter, the marketer the hunted” then has less impact when it’s used by the original author who understands its basis. To add insult to injury, within two weeks another blogger actually copied the first impostor (with even less attention to disguise), and now people are tweeting that link too. (Well OK, one has.)

For the reader, the problem with this stuff is that without (at least a link to) the context and logic, there is no way to tell whether the assertions are justified, or when they do and don’t apply. If the reader can’t assess what is valid, then none of it is.

I suspect this would surprise the imitators, but the more established an expert is, the more likely he is to explain the source of his information or insights (it’s a significant part of how he became established). Although most of us would take Warren Buffett at his word on investment strategy, he always justifies and illustrates his observations. If you want to emulate him, you’ll find he has desribed his approach many times in as much detail as you’d need. You only have to add talent and effort.

To borrow from another expert who always explained himself, Peter Drucker: Transparency is a necessary attribute of the Guru; Opacity is an essential defense of the Charlatan.

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