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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Proposal for Food Blogger Code of Ethics

Have you, as a blogger, been guilty of plagiarism?

I'm a professional academic teaching at a top American university, and I have a no-nonsense approach to plagiarism. After catching a few plagiarized papers, I took this issue to heart. In fact, I administer an academic integrity quiz as part of any course I teach so I can certify that my students know the ins and outs of how to appropriately use sources. If I had my way, all plagiarists would be summarily kicked out of university without a degree. So what, you ask, does all this have to do with food blogging?

Because of my professional disposition to value the intellectual effort of creating new ideas, it has always bothered me that recipes are one form of writing that receive the least legal protection. And that was just in print. The web is even more chaotic. The loose conditions within food blogging have always bugged me. Because in the end, I believe that we can and should do better, even where we are not legally obligated to, I believe we are personally obliged to a higher ethical treatment of the products of each other's intellectual labor.

Loose attribution of recipes and scantily clad "adaptation" are one thing. Then there is the widespread practice of completely reproducing work from someone's cookbook. With appropriate attribution that makes clear this is someone else's original work it is totally legal, but I have always found it questionably ethical. Yet despite my qualms, that practice is probably here to stay, and the increased word of mouth may even help make certain print volumes more profitable (I'm thinking here of Tuesdays with Dorie which is singlehandedly responsible for me wanting that cookbook, which I had never previously heard of).

But what really really burns me up is insufficient attribution, particularly as there are a few highly ranked sites I've come across that just go for straight plagiarism: reproducing entire sections of text without quotation or attribution and passing it off as their own. Ugh. And its worse than bots because it is a thinking human doing it.

Where do I stack up on their proposed code? Gifts and Reviews were two areas that were less on my mind as I was on my own little soap box. But I still did very well. In part that is because I follow the BlogHer restriction to never accept any gift greater than $40 and to always disclose when I review a gifted item. I have some restaurant reviews on my site, but it is not a large part of my blogging. I was pleased, however, to see that I intuitively follow what they have since codified as good practice for restaurant review.

Last year before I got pregnant (and therefore distracted) I got my undies in a bundle and started to collect examples of the good the bad and the ugly. I started to draft up a proposal for a food blogger code of ethics. I was all on fire about this until I proposed the idea to a few folks who thought it was utterly rubbish. Well, now I'm not alone. A group of three bloggers have gotten together and launched The Code. Their code succinctly covers the major ethical pitfalls of food blogging. They pay particular attention to the handling of gifts and appropriate conduct for restaurant reviews.


The bulk of my own attention has been paid to the idea of appropriate ethical conduct within a community of food writers, which includes professionals and nonprofessionals, those who write in ink and in pixels, those on tv and in print. As an academic you cultivate a deep appreciation that your work builds on the shoulders of not only giants, but mountains of folks large and small. You belong to an intellectual family tree and with good citation, you can trace it back. Paying your respects in the form of careful handling of someone else's words and ideas helps keep them alive and gives greater meaning to the pursuit. I believe the same is true of food.

When I work to create a new recipe, it very often takes multiple iterations of sweating it out in my kitchen, tweaking things until I have them just right. Time, cost, effort, creative expression. It makes my day when someone writes to say they've made one of my recipes and they love it. It is a little piece of myself that I am glad to share. But when I find my recipes reproduced in their entirety without clear attribution to myself or my site, it makes me see red.

Here are the issues I see facing food bloggers in terms of the ethical use of the intellectual products of others:

1. Direct borrowing: When you reproduce a recipe in its entirety.
  • I propose that when you are borrowing from an online source, the highest code of conduct would be to not reproduce the recipe which is available for free on the originator's website. Instead, include a link to the recipe on the original page.
  • At the very least, whenever reproducing someone else's work in its entirety, food bloggers could and should hold to the same conditions employed by journalists and academics:
    1. set off the borrowed text so it is visually distinct from your own original work (some form of blockquote tag would work nicely, stylized to suit your own blog).
    2. Always include direct and clear attribution to the original source. There is a world of difference between saying "I was reading stuff here" and "Recipe by: The Skinny Gourmet" even if the hypertext link content is identical in both. In one the reader is not clear about the source of the recipe unless they click through the link. Moreover, in a world where links and traffic are the currency of the realm, you have not paid your intellectual debt by linking a meaningful term.


2. Incomplete Borrowing: The range of "gray" where you are inspired by or adapting a recipe.
  • Food bloggers should develop clear terminology to distinguish precisely how different your recipe is from the original. What conditions should we meet in order to say we have "adapted" a recipe from a source? Substituting cane sugar for white sugar in a cookie recipe does not seem a very significant change, yet it represents one 'ingredient' alteration. On the other hand, reducing the sugar by half, adding in pureed pumpkin, and changing the main flavor from lemon to cherry might constitute so dramatic a change as to be an entirely new recipe.
  • I suggest a category "inspired by" for (re)creating a recipe based on a sufficiently unique idea. Often we are inspired by the title for a dish, or a dish we tasted at a recipe and tried to recreate but have never seen the exact recipe for. Because we haven't seen the recipe, we can't be guilty of plagiarizing, even if our recreation comes quite close in content. But we would still be borrowing the idea for the recipe, even if not its specific execution. And ideas are surely worth crediting


3. Originality: The only way to totally resolve lack of clarity about original versus borrowed material is to also make sure that you clearly demarcate your original work. As I came to appreciate this problem, I myself began putting an italicized line beneath every recipe title where I say where that recipe is from, either myself or elsewhere. Coconut and Lime has received a lot of press for dedication to creation of original recipes, as opposed to reposting the recipes of others. She does not distinguish the authorship of each and every recipe because her sidebar makes clear, "Since 2004, Coconut & Lime has been the only food blog that features only 100% original recipes. All recipes, text and photographs on this site are the original creations and property of the author. "

Here's a random review of what some folks out there have done on their own to try to craft an ethical approach to food blogging:

  1. The truly excellent Blogger Relations 101 for Marketing and PR types, and her Review Policies and Guidelines written by the Sensual Gourmet. Both should be considered industry standards and best practices for bloggers.

  2. "Most of what I post here is something that I have created. I will make my best effort to attribute any other sources who have inspired or had a nontrivial part in contributing to a dish" Mike's Table.

  3. The Gourmet Project. In the same vein as the Julie/Julia project and any other number of sites devoted to plowing through an opus of some kind. She is cooking through Gourmet Cookbook. She doesn't list the recipes themselves, just reviews and grades them. Where possible she provides a link to the recipe content online. If it is not available online she write that it is unavailable online.


By contrast, sites like Sara's Kitchen represent, in my opinion, some of the worst practices. This site proudly proclaims: "FINDING THE BEST RECIPES ON THE NET AND SHARING SOME OF OURS © Copyright "NOT HERE" "THE WEB IS PUBLIC DOMAIN" "IF YA DON'T WANT PEOPLE TO SEE IT..DON'T POST IT!" "CUDOS TO THE ORIGINATORS OF MANY RECIPES, UNFORTUNATELY, THEY ARE ALL PROBABLY DEAD""
There appears to be no differentiation among recipes on her site, so it is impossible to tell which are her originals and which belong to others. From the widely varying quality of photos, I am also wondering if she has lifted some unattributed photos as well.

Sites:Sara's KitchenCare2.com
Post Dates:March 31, 2008April 16, 2001
References:NoneAdapted from Vegetarian Planet, by Didi Emmons (Harvard Common Press, 1997).
Ingredients:1 large Russet potato, peeled and cubed
1 large sweet potato, peeled and quartered
1 cup corn
1 teaspoon prepared Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cucumber, halved lengthwise and chopped
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 large russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 large sweet potato, peeled and quartered
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons canola or corn oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1 cucumber, peeled, halved
lengthwise, and sliced into thin half-rounds
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
1/4 cup finely chopped dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts
Directions:Put the Russet potato pieces into a large saucepan, and cover them with salted water. Bring the potatoes to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium, and simmer the potatoes for 10 minutes. Add the sweet potato pieces, and cook about 15 minutes more. Remove a piece of each potato, and cut in half to see if it has cooked enough. You should feel a bit of resistance with both potatoes; don't let them cook until they are breaking apart. Once the potatoes are tender, promptly add the corn kernels, and cook another 30 seconds. Quickly drain the vegetables in a colander, and fill the saucepan with cold water. Drop the potatoes and corn into the cold water, and leave them for 5 minutes to stop the cooking. In a large bowl, combine the mustard, lime juice, cilantro, and garlic. Stir with a whisk. Slowly add the oil while whisking. Add the salt and pepper. Drain the cooled sweet and white potatoes, and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Add the potato, the cucumber, and the red onion to the vinaigrette. Toss well. Serve the salad at room temperature or chilled. Covered in the refrigerator, this salad keeps for 3 to 4 days.1. Put the russet potato pieces into a large saucepan, and cover them with salted water. Bring the potatoes to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium, and simmer the potatoes for 10 minutes. Add the sweet potato pieces, and cook about 15 minutes more. Remove a piece of each potato, and cut in half to see if it has cooked enough. You should feel a bit of resistance with both potatoes; don’t let them cook until they are breaking apart. Once the potatoes are tender, promptly add the corn kernels, and cook another 30 seconds. Quickly drain the vegetables in a colander, and fill the saucepan with cold water. Drop the potatoes and corn into the cold water, and leave them for 5 minutes to stop the cooking.

2. In a large bowl, combine the mustard, lime juice, cilantro, and garlic. Stir with a whisk. Slowly add the oil while whisking. Add the salt and pepper.

3. Drain the cooled sweet and white potatoes, and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Add the potato, the cucumber, and the red onion to the vinaigrette. Toss well.

4. Serve the salad at room temperature or chilled. Toss the peanuts in just before serving. Well covered in the refrigerator, this salad keeps for 3 to 4 days.

Serves 5.

In fairness to Sara's Kitchen, I should mention the same recipe is also plagiarized word for word on Destroy All Bloggers, a no-longer updating blog that posted regularly in 2005.

Be a good food blogging citizen and sign on to uphold the code!

6 comments:

chou said...

Erin,
Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I'll be certain to take a look over the code proposed, and see how I measure up. And, if needed, make changes!

Sweetie Pie said...

This was both thought provoking and helpful! Thanks for posting!

Kristi said...

I think it is a great idea! My husband is a professor - I hear his frustration over this at least once a semester. Let's just call it plainly what it is - stealing!

Annabel said...

Stumbled upon your blog (I can't remember exactly whom to give attribution for indirectly directing me here! lol) and love it!
this was an amazing post - and must say - truly relevant and thought-provoking. As someone whose worked in the legal industry before, i have to say this is definitely a hurdle to tackle with copyright law. I'm new to blogging myself and have found a few of my posts to be duplicated elsewhere without attribution. it's always hard to know if someone is just blatantly copying you w/o remorse, inspired by you, struck by the same bolt of creative lightning or if i'm just too vain :/
sorry for rambling. great post and blog!
Annabel
www.feedmeimcranky.com

ttfn300 said...

i've always tried to err on the side of cautiousness, but it's always good to think about!

Anonymous said...

Your posts reminds me of a book used to teach five-year olds, it's called, "Who Made You the Boss, Banana Monkey?" Apparently your 'academic credentials' are the self-license to trash another site (for the record, I've never heard of Sarah's Kitchen before) and at the same time hold up your own actions as exemplary.

Truly, truly, this is the worst example of food blog camaraderie observed in six years of food blogging. I am particularly sorry that BlogHer has given you this platform for bashing other sites.

I have no intent in engaging further in this self-righteous attack and thus, am commenting anonymously.

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