A Tale of Two Matts: Plagiarism, Transparency and Outsourcing in the ideas economy

The Big Steal image from The Big Steal – totally unrelated but cool pic sourced here

there was a bit of a flurry of emails last week when infomaginationer and planner Matt Sadler noticed a think piece on the IPA website by Matt Harris, Data and CRM partner at Rapier which bore a remarkable resemblance to his President's Prize-winning essay, also about data.

without going thru the full story, here are the essential basics…  last Tuesday Matt S notices the similarity between Matt H's article in the IPA newsletter.  Matt S emails Matt H outlining the similarity and asking for an explanation.  on Wednesday Matt H replies to Matt S claiming to know nothing about his essay.

but by end of play on Wednesday all was resolved.  Matt H realised that he'd been the victim of some lazy freelancers and apologised to Matt S, the article was removed from the IPA site, and Matt S had forgiven everyone and suggested that Matt H and he may even collaborate on an article sometime.  as Matt S put it, "forgiveness rocks!"

forgiveness may well rock but there's an incredibly worrying thread to this whole tale.  one, an established, articulate and informed agency partner's response to being asked to write a think piece was to outsource it.  two, some freelance writers who had been asked to write said think piece responded by copying, thought for thought, the work of someone else.

what I am not in any way seeking to do is antagonise a situation that has been resolved by the parties involved (full credit to them).  what I am going to do is ask some serious questions that this unfortunate incident raises…  because the fact is that we all of us use ideas and inspiration from other people within and beyond the industry all the time…  if we didn't, ideas wouldn't spread and new, better ways of approaching what we do wouldn't get momentum and consensus.

indeed there's more than a little been written of late about the benefit of setting ideas free, of letting the crowd build on them and improve them, and on how all of us are better by remixing each others thoughts for mutual benefit.

but we do two things…  (1) we source them and (2) we add to them from our own experience before presenting them to a client or to each other.  neither of which was done in this case.  I worry that there's a sense that we feel if we didn't originate an idea then we can't use it.  which is madness.  at an IPA event only a few weeks ago Rory Sutherland instigated a project on Behavioural Economics and suggested that we all of us as an industry co-operated to understand it, use it and monetise it collectively as best as possible.

in the idea-led economy in which we all live and work we need each others' ideas.  we just need to be brave about using them, honest about the source of them, and demonstrate our expertise by using and adding to them in relevant and appropriate ways.  if there's anything to be learned from our Tale of two Matts it is this.  and if there's anything to be gained its everyone realising that being transparent about building on other people's ideas makes us more not less credible thinkers.

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