Ferrofluids, Anne Marie Helmenstine and plagiarism...
Upon my many Internet travels I was recently reminded of those strangely behaving paramagnetic fluids, known as ferrofluids or ferroliquids (see a demo below). Easy to make at home, they provide an ideal party trick and something that will enchant young and old. Unfortunately my surfing also lead me to a case of plagiarism so blatant, I haven't seen one like it in a long time...
Google searching a little for ferrofluid, I came across this little hub on home made magnetic fluids, written by a Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph D, who provides About.com's guide to Chemistry since 2001. The author's 5 page article on ferroliquids is well written and provides a step-by-step approach to safely making your own.
Except, Mizz Anne Marie Helmenstine's method and much of her text isn't really her own. Scrolling down just a little in Google's search results I found another detailed web page describing the home production of such ferrofluids, at Sci-Spot.com and which clearly provided the inspiration, to put things very, very mildly, for Helmenstine's piece.
Anne Marie Helmenstine, "Ph D", has lifted entire passages from Sci-Spot.com's original text, almost verbatim. Read both texts in parallel and see for yourself. You'll also conclude that Anne Marie has probably never ever actually conducted a ferrofluid experiment in her life: the only photo of a ferrofluid in action is a photo lifted from Wiki (but with credit at least). For someone making a living from writing a science column, that's truly appalling and amounts to intellectual property theft, nothing less.
Please don't also forget that About.com generates web content, in this case provided by a paid writer, because said web content provides advertising space and revenue for About.com... that, and that alone, is their raison d'être.
What's more, she could have avoided all this simply by proving proper credit to Sci-Spot.com, she chose not too. Of course being a purely commercial resource, About.com would rather be seen dead than sporting a non-paid external link, so screw Sci-Spot.com, who, after all, are they? Something somewhat similar happened to me sometime ago and I didn't feel happy about it either...
Edit: Lauren Leonardi (Manager, Guide Operations, About.com - see comment section of this blog post) claims Hemelstine does link to Sci-Spot.com. Well, I'll take her word for it but cannot find this link.
Mizz Helmenstine's condescending defense of her actions, presented at Sci-Spot.com as a reply to one of their emails, is also worth noting:
"Yes, your article is one I read when I wrote that tutorial. It was not, however, the only one, and I haven't copied you...
You haven't been plagiarized. You have a one-page recipe for a ferrofluid. I have a 5-page resource, with background information and information on what to do with a fluid. I think it's obvious I didn't lift your text.
Anne Helmenstine, Ph.D.
A 5-page resource... as opposed to a measly 1 page recipe... I challenge anyone to tell me what exactly About.com has added to Sci-Spot.com's original content that isn't simply advertising space and some irrelevant fluff. No, Anne Marie Helmenstine, the lifting is so obvious it's blinding and you're the empress with no clothes on (perish the thought...) Helmenstine strikes me as one of these people that, when faced with personal and genuine criticism, would retort: "Do you know who I am?"
I wonder if About.com has a page about plagiarism...
Sci-Spot.com's response to all this, to invite readers of their web page to contact Anne Marie, is of course a plaster on a wooden leg. They should sue About.com, period.
The plot thickens somewhat. Because I want to make some ferrofluid too but having no OTC source of oleic acid, one of the vital ingredients in the mix, I decided to make oleic acid by extracting it from its source material, olive oil, via alkaline route. I envisaged a purification step that involves converting the oleic acid to ammonium oleate and decided to Google a bit to see if I could find some more information on this substance.
On page 3 of Google.co.uk's search results for ammonium oleate I found in positions #23, #24 and #25 (at the time of writing) three texts that all share entire sections with Helmenstine's About.com piece and Sci-Spot.com ferrofluid page:
This one cites Helmenstine's piece, but in a strange twist uses the same format as Sci-Spot.com:
Mentoring Advanced Placement
This text here is basically identical to Helmenstine's piece but doesn't cite it:
How to Make Liquid magnets - Introduction
And this one lifts selectively, without citation:
ferroliquid (liquid magnet) (scroll down a bit from top).
This now really begs the question: which is the actual source text? Mentoring Advanced Placement can be excluded as they have at least the courtesy of citing their source (Helmenstine). But whether Sci-Spot.com's claim that Helmenstine's piece lifted theirs holds up to scrutiny isn't clear because it's impossible to establish whether they really were the trailblazers here or whether the phy.hr web page really provided the original information and Sci-Spot.com failed to cite that text. The phy.hr pdf version makes no claims to originality but cites no source at all.
The pdf version of the AP Mentoring web page however is quite revealing: part of the pdf document is simply Sci-Spot.com's web page converted into the pdf format. And in the middle of page 2 of the AP Mentoring pdf there's a bizarre link that compounds Helmenstine's About.com page with Sci-Spot.com's page...
On a lighter note, watch this highly arty demo with sophisticated use of a ferrofluid (turn on the audio). Art, electromagnetism and fluid mechanics all rolled into one. Creepy, isn't it?