When I was young, so young that I don’t remember the exact age or grade level, my teachers taught me something that I’d hear probably 100s of time over my academic career. Stealing someone’s content, without permission is a serious crime. Even stealing one word or line of a work without attributing had serious academic repercussions My journalism professors warned, speaking to the entire class, this type of behavior would lead to immediate expulsion.
I think we all have the message drilled into our heads. Do not steal content from others.
Apparently, the American Heart Association missed the message.
Plagiarism is illegal, unethical and not a victim-less crime.
The American Heart Association stole my work. Repeatedly. Even after I made them well aware.
They’ve harmed me on several levels. They’ve jeopardized my professional reputation.
A few notes before I outline this all. First, I’ve been absent here much longer than usual. I just want you to know I’m okay. I was a bit sick, but am feeling better. Honestly, I haven’t been pouring my heart into writing and advocacy work because after seeing my work stolen, the wind was taken out of my sails.
Second, this post will probably be much longer than anything I usually write. Please stick with me. Please help. I’ve been harmed by a mega-organization. I’ll need lots of help from you, other people like me that genuinely care about a cause and not the bottom line, to see that A. this doesn’t happen again. B. the American Heart Association does the right thing here and C. that other large organizations don’t think they can get away with stealing the work of bloggers.
Discovering the Stolen Content
In late April, I opened a monitoring service I use, to check for the latest articles about CCHD screening of newborns with pulse oximetry. If you’re new to my blog, this is a simple screening that might have found the heart defect that killed my daughter had she been screened. I’ve advocated for the screening and been vocal. In fact, I was able to successfully lobby for the first piece of legislation in the country here in my home state, Indiana.
I came across a letter to the editor submitted to a newspaper in Louisiana. I read the article and thought to myself, “Wow! That’s great, and exactly what I’ve been saying over and over!” I even posted it on Facebook, stating how right on it was. The work seemed familiar, but to be honest, I skim read it among 100s of other articles I looked at that day.
A few days later the same letter, with a different author and headline appeared in a different newspaper. This time, I read it closely and immediately knew why I agreed so much with the author. I was the author.
The submitted letter-to-the-editor.
Most of the content of these stolen letters was copied and pasted without any changes or attribution from my Baby Heart Screening Blog. Other sections were changed, little of the article was completely originally, except, of course, this at the end of the letter, “ I stand with the American Heart Association, that the routine exam is not enough.”
I’m the only author on that blog, and aside from cited cases of sharing others works with proper attribution, all of the content is written by me and automatically copyrighted. Interestingly, I did ask for a medical professional to review the post (and I of course mention that in the post) in question, so I have tons of emails back-and-forth of that post in drafts, proving I came up with the content last summer. That doesn’t really matter though, there is no question about it. The AHA stole my work. Numerous employees admitted stealing my work in emails I’ll share portions of later in this post.
I just happened to find this letter right before I was planning on going to sleep late in the evening. I didn’t sleep that night.
That early morning, I found my content stolen on two newspaper websites and one blog. I have a soft spot for bloggers and felt the blog might have been duped so emailed them directly, and we quickly came to an agreement. What I found interesting about that piece, is that it credited a quote I used directly from a research study to the doctor who signed on to the letter that was my plagiarized work. So in effect, the AHA plagiarized not only me but the authors of that study.
Don’t Be Confused, The AHA is Responsible
I knew right away who was responsible. The letters both ended differently than my original, with a big shout-out to the American Heart Association.
I’ve worked in non-profit public relations before so I knew it was common practice to write (or in this case steal) content about an issue that includes mention of your non-profit or makes your non-profit look good, find someone either influential in the community or with a strong tie to the issue, ask them to sign the letter and submit it to the newspaper. Makes all those heartfelt letters to the editor seem dirty huh?
That’s what happened. This letter was stolen by the American Heart Association and they then asked different people to attach their name.
Think I’m jumping to conclusions?
The AHA admitted doing so.
What follows is portions of an email from Mary Latham, assistant general counselor with the American Heart Association:
“We have carefully investigated the matter referenced in your letter dated April 29, 2013. After review, we have confirmed your unsourced content regarding pulse-oximetry appeared in American Heart Association letters-to-the-editor. We apologize for this error, and deeply regret that your content was not properly attributed.” -Mary Latham email to firstname.lastname@example.org on May 1, 2013.
(See how I did that? Used only as much of the original work as needed to make my point and attributed it properly?)
AHA and Me, the Back Story
Back to that morning when I found the work, I immediately contacted the American Heart Association via social media. I even reached out to a local person asking for national contacts. I also did some digging into the people who signed their names and tried to contact them. I left messages with the signers that were never returned.
Eventually, I got the contact for the AHA’s legal counsel and wrote them a long letter outlining the stolen content, what has been in my opinion a pattern of this type of behavior and what I expected to remedy the situation.
Did you catch that? Pattern of behavior.
Up until this point, I’ve kept my feelings about the American Heart Association relatively private. Since this can of worms was opened, I won’t any longer. In my opinion, based on what I’ve observed, the AHA has conducted itself in an unprofessional and unethical way in regards to pulse oximetry screening advocacy.
I repeatedly attempted contact after meeting a national-level advocacy contact to see how parents and the AHA could work together. I was more-or-less brushed off.
In my opinion, the American Heart Association saw an opportunity to garner media mentions and goodwill by attaching to “cupcake bills.” These bills have little opposition and are saving babies. Even better, in my opinion much of the ground work was already done by other people. I feel the American Heart Association jumped in, made it appear to the average reader they’d done a ton of work on the issue and spun this to something they could use to increase donations. In some states, I’ll content parent advocates have told me the AHA helped a lot. However, in others, parent advocates have reported and I’ve noticed the AHA took credit for the work done by others. Again, this accusation is my opinion. I’m not speaking for every parent’s experience, and can’t speak for this community as a whole. However, I can reasonably say based on what I’ve been told, I’m not the only one who has had a horrible experience working “alongside” the American Heart Association on CCHD screening advocacy.
This is a precarious situation because the AHA is so huge. I’d like to awknowledge that some of their employees are great at their jobs and a few of the pulse ox bills wouldn’t have passed without them in some states, to be fair, again all in my opinion.
Another reason I feel the AHA’s advocacy work with CCHD screening has been sneaky and underhanded is that I’ve been suspicious that the AHA staff members were following my work and the work of others and simply emulating it in marketing and advocacy efforts. I was extremely private with those feelings because I didn’t have proof. I even tried to “play nice” with the AHA repeatedly thinking that perhaps these incidences of taking credit for the work of others, of producing marketing content I felt heavily borrowed from materials created elsewhere and making advocacy choices I didn’t support in some states could be chalked up to coincidence or mistake.
Here in Indiana, the American Heart Association as an organization wasn’t even supporting standard pulse ox screening for all newborns when I worked to get a bill introduced and worked that bill into what eventually became law. I’ve been told on other issues, the AHA local offices couldn’t advocate for something that wasn’t supported at the national level, so if that is to be believed, they not only didn’t help, they couldn’t help. Imagine my surprise when in February, 2012 I stumbled upon a fundraising article listing all of the wonderful things AHA has done. More or less a puff piece to get readers to donate or otherwise the AHA (again in my opinion). In that article, guess what was listed as an accomplishment? Yup. CCHD screening. Cora’s Law.
I left a comment asking for a correction of the false information and before I knew it was on the phone with someone from the Indiana office reporting “the entire office was upset at the comment.” I quickly set her straight. I was quite more than upset. How dare the AHA use my work to try to get donations for their organization? You might be thinking, wouldn’t I want to help out the cause? I feel the AHA isn’t a good steward of donations, so no, I don’t want to fundraise for them, and I don’t want them to use my work and words to further their agenda.
Then the obvious case of plagiarism landed in my inbox. I suddenly felt less off base for my previous suspicious.
After about a week, the same attorney for the AHA quoted above emailed me with the “results of their investigation.” The work was stolen. Apparently someone in an office in another state lifted the content for an internal education document (what else of mine or others is floating around the AHA right now) and another person in another state submitted as letters to the editor not knowing the content had been stolen from me.
All along, I’ve posted a few status updates about the entire situation on Facebook, but was careful.
I wanted this to be resolved to my satisfaction behind closed doors because I didn’t want to sink negativity into my social networks and websites.
I’m also quite mindful that some people in my community, the congenital heart defects community, support the American Heart Association. They fundraise for the organization or go to the heart balls. They love the staff at their local office. I didn’t want my friends in that position to feel awkward or caught in the middle.
So I stopped to think about where to go next after getting the email with the AHA’s proposed remedy (what amounted to in my eyes as I’m sorry, we’ll work to take it down, we’re making changes so it doesn’t happen again).
Honestly, I held back for another reason as well. I’m internally seeing the best in people and have trouble thinking anyone, much less a large nonprofit organization, wouldn’t step up and work to do the right thing. I thought they’d be mortified and work around-the-clock to get the letters pulled and to make sure I felt the damage done to me had been sufficiently repaired.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t satisfied, mainly because I don’t think the AHA is accepting full culpability. From the email, they act like it was fine to circulate the content internally, it wasn’t. They just don’t get it.
From the email from Mary Latham:
“An AHA employee based in Florida collected information on pulse-oximetry from various sources as background information on the issue. The text of your blog post was included in these materials. The employee passed this information to a second employee who prepared a letter-to-the-editor. Since the content was not labeled otherwise, the second employee incorrectly assumed all the resource information was AHA content.”
I have no idea what else is circulating internally within the AHA, unsourced. It’s not okay to lift all of my information, even for “background information” without including attribution. It’s highly unethical to me to take all of my work, or all of the work of others, use it as inspiration and not cite it or recognize the others working on this issue whom you’ve emulated.
Then today, it happened again. I found another letter-to-the-editor, signed by someone else with the same lifted content published just two days ago, or six days after the AHA’s assurances it wouldn’t happen again.
I still value my friend’s opinions who support the organization. However, plagiarism is serious. Repeated plagiarism when the organization is fully aware the content was lifted and has promised to not to it again is something I can’t keep to myself.
Ask yourself, if they stole my content, what else have they taken? Is that the sort of organization you trust?
This is something that donors, board members, volunteers, staff members and the general public need to know.
A major nonprofit organization plagiarized and they think getting a small correction in the newspaper and weak attempts (I think I am safe in calling them weak attempts because it happened again) at stopping future plagiarism are enough.
I didn’t ask for that much. In my original letter, I ask for the following, nothing really of personal gain:
“Written apology from AHA national office and the Louisiana local office (can be delivered via email). In addition, apologies from the two people whose names were attached to the articles, so I know they are aware and acknowledge the plagiarism…A financial settlement. AHA obviously benefited much from stealing my work. AHA should be willing to share the financial benefit it received from my work, so that it serves the purposes for which I have worked so hard. We can discuss the specifics, but I envision a substantial grant or donation to (a nonprofit I’m redacting for now) to help sustain my work with pulse ox screening, and would be open to other suggestions along those lines. A letter from the AHA acknowledging the work the CCHD parental community has done to get pulse ox screening endorsed by AHA, passed legislatively and accepted by a large part of the medical community. This needs to be released publicly as soon as possible.”
But, It’s for a Good Cause
Folks are funny when it comes to stealing graphics and words. I think many people view it as a victim-less crime (in many states and jurisdictions plagiarism is indeed a crime, a misdemeanor). What’s the harm in taking a few paragraphs of someone’s work?
From my experience, that thought pattern is especially true when it comes to a nonprofit or cause stealing something.
First of all, even when it’s for a good cause, it’s not okay. Would it be okay for XYZ nonprofit to steal $5 out of my checkbook “for the cause?” Obviously, this isn’t the same. But, would it be okay for XYZ nonprofit to take a chair from my front porch because they needed it and thought it would really help the cause? It’s much clearer when we’re talking about taking physical things. It is a different kind of theft, of course, but it is never okay for anyone to plagiarize for any reason, ever.
This particular case gets even more nuanced. Honestly, if a fellow advocacy blogger had stolen my words or images (as has happened), I wouldn’t be writing this. It wouldn’t be okay. I’d still go through all the hoops to get the situation remedied. I outlined just some of the reasons I’m not a supporter of the AHA above.
AHA employees are paid, and arguably well. According to filings on Guide Star, their president makes over $600,000 a year. I do believe in fair pay for nonprofit employees, however I am not paid. I do all of this because I am driven to do so. I believe the AHA largely doesn’t share my motives.
In short, I don’t feel the AHA is a good cause. Sure, some of their individual employees have done great work. Some of their grants have funding important research. I support some aspects of what the organization does, but not the organization.
People need to know about this plagiarism.
Donors deserve to know when an organization they support or might potentially support has done something of this magnitude.
What I Need From You
The decision to write about this, something so negative, on the blog I write in memory of daughter was something that I took time to reach.
However, I came to the conclusion that people need to know.
Plagiarism is a big deal. Plagiarism by one of the most well-known nonprofits in the nation is in the public’s interest. You needed to know.
I’m asking you to share this post on your social networks. People need to know.
Known Plagiarized Content
Plagiarized letter on Times Picaynne website, posted April 22, 2013, still online as of May 13, 2013.
Plagiarized letter on The News Star website, posted April 24, 2013, still online as of May 13, 2012.
New Orleans Moms Blog (the updated post seems to have been deleted entirely, and the bloggers answered my email immediately and made changes within minutes).
Plagiarized letter on The Ouachita Citizen, posted May 2, 2013.
Post edited for clarity and typos May 15, 2013 10:30 p.m.
Update: Late last night, the American Heart Association on their Facebook:
“We made a mistake, and we are sorry. Content from blogger Kristine Brite McCormick, a pulse-oximetry advocate, appeared unsourced in several of our letters-to-the-editor. Please know we’ve already reached out to the newspapers to run corrections and are hoping those will print soon. In the meantime, we would like to publicly apologize to Kristine and will continue to try to work with her to make amends.”
I acknowledge the American Heart Association’s apology and do recognize that the AHA reacted relatively quickly after my blog post was published (weeks after knowing about the incident). I look forward to continuing discussions about how we all, AHA included, can work together for people born with a congenital heart defect. I hope this discussion results in even more advocacy for CCHD screening with pulse oximetry by the AHA, with parents leading the movement. I hope these changes are quick so the focus can return where it belongs, on doing what is best for babies born with undiagnosed heart defects. I think the public, including AHA donors and supporters, have a right to know the entire story, which I outline in my blog post. It is my hope this chain of incidents brings sweeping and well thought-out change to the organization, and that the congenital heart community is included in those changes.
The feedback from this post has been overwhelming. I’ve heard from many people who sadly had similar stories to tell. I’ve heard from many people who were frustrated with the AHA for other reasons. What has been most interesting has been hearing from others who are frustrated in general with large nonprofit corporations. That’s a conversation I do plan on facilitating soon.
As I mentioned, this blog post was something I thought about for a long time, after giving the AHA time to do the right thing.
The apology was a start. A pattern I see developing from AHA communications to me and publicly is that they seem to think they get to decide what makes for appropriate remedy in this situation. I clearly outline extremely reasonable remedy guidelines to the AHA. As the person impacted, I think it’s reasonable for the AHA to listen to me.
While most feedback has been wonderful, some AHA supporters have a different perspective. All of this feedback has been on the AHA Facebook page from what seem to be AHA supporters. I understand to an AHA supporter with no back story, standing up for your organization might come as an immediate response. I acknowledge not everyone will get it. In this day of copy-and-paste and the share button, plagiarism isn’t a huge issue to some.