Let No-one Else’s Work Evade Your Eyes

by Henry on December 14, 2004

The Chronicle of Higher Education isn’t a newspaper that you would normally associate with traditional investigative journalism. However, when it does investigate, it does a pretty good job; it’s just put up the report of an investigation into plagiarism where it names and shames four academics who look to be guilty on all charges. A cultural geographer who seems to have committed extensive serial plagiarism, including writing an article which had “several paragraphs that appear to be copied from a Web site on surf music.” A historian who was found guilty of plagiarism by the American Historical Association – but whose current employer seems to be unaware of the fact. Another historian who appears to have copied extensively from an obscure 1960’s book. And a British international relations scholar who copied five pages of the introduction to his book directly from an article in the well-known journal International Studies Quarterly. Another article (behind the Chronicle’s paywall) talks about a senior scientist (a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and member of the President’s Council on Science and Technology) who appears to have copied large chunks from an article written by one of his proteges without permission (something which I suspect is pretty common in many fields). As the Chronicle reporters suggest, this is almost certainly symptomatic of a wider problem.

While this article delves into a few cases we uncovered, our reporting suggests that what we found is not exceptional. Indeed, an editor at History News Network receives so many tips about purported plagiarism that he now investigates only those involving well-known scholars. A professor at Texas A&M International University was bombarded with hundreds of e-mail messages after writing about being plagiarized. Many of them were from graduate students and professors who believed that they, too, had been victims.

As the Chronicle suggests, there isn’t any very effective means of policing plagiarism given current structures in the academy. Professional associations are reluctant to take on plagiarism cases, or to publicize them when they do. Individual departments may punish plagiarists, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll take action – and if they do, very often, nobody outside the department in question knows about it. The reluctance to take serious action against plagiarists isn’t a conspiracy – it’s due to a combination of a lack of resources, a reluctance to get involved in controversy, and, perhaps, a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God …” (it’s every academic’s nightmare to be accused of plagiarism because of carelessness or sloppy footnoting). Yet it means that in practice there’s an implicit tolerance for plagiarism. It isn’t an endemic problem, but it’s a real and persistent one – most working academics will know someone who has been plagiarized at one stage or another. Academics frequently hark back to the idea that they form a sort of guild. If this has any meaning at all, the academy should do better in carrying out the primary job of a guild; policing the behaviour of their members.

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{ 22 comments }

1

nichole 12.14.04 at 5:08 pm

“I have a friend in Minsk…”
Great post title!

2

Jimmy Doyle 12.14.04 at 5:27 pm

My own view is that plagiarism isn’t an endemic problem, but it’s a real and persistent one – most working academics will know someone who has been plagiarized at one stage or another.

3

David 12.14.04 at 5:43 pm

there’s an implicit tolerance for plagiarism.

By colleagues, perhaps.

But by one’s students or graduate students?

If I had plagiarized (and been caught) on any of my undergraduate or graduate work, I’d have had my head handed to me on a platter.

It can’t but strike students/grad. students as grossly unfair when they see careers ended for such infractions, and compare it to what happens to teachers who are caught doing the same thing.

4

anon 12.14.04 at 6:11 pm

While not exactly plagiarism,a related problem is taking authorship credit for work not one’s own. I sat in a deposition as an expert where the graduate student of a highly regarded academic in the sciences said he placed his advisor’s name second on a publication of his “as a courtesy”. Meanwhile the academic was denying he did any work whatsoever on the paper at issue, stating that it was “customary” for advisors to get credit for their students work.

5

ogged 12.14.04 at 6:21 pm

Technological solutions to moral problems and all that, but oughtn’t Google’s just-announced digitization project eventually make it very easy to check all manuscripts against existing works?

6

rilkefan 12.14.04 at 6:30 pm

Surely someone will write software to take a passage and replace a significant fraction of the words with close synonyms (would probably require some contextual understanding, but not as much as reading requires), making the search ogged proposes difficult.

7

nevelichko 12.14.04 at 6:47 pm

well, working in “hard sciences” one is also forced to deal with a somewhat more subtle aspect of this problem.

The issue of plagiarism is obvious (in moral categories) when it comes to the actual “original results” presented in the paper. However what about the “introduction”, “applications” & “prior work reviewed” sections? I have found myself frustrated more than once trying to come up with a completely original intro for a research paper given 2 or 3 other well-known (& also quoted in my work) expository papers on the subject. When writing a series of articles on some topic, it is even harder to avoid repeating my own prior wording in these “general audience targeted” sections. In my field, simply using somebody else’s choice of words does not really constitute an intellectual theft (as long as the research approaches, methods & results are original), but does indicate scholarly laziness not appreciated by the better informed readers.

The best disclaimers are usually along the lines of “in this section we follow closely the exposition in [xx]”. But it is much more common to see several phrases or even an entire paragraph lifted from your work without any acknowledgement and followed by “we refer readers to [xx]” for more details.

Ironically, authors’ attempts to rephrase a succinct description found in a prior paper often lead to an obfuscated & misleading explanations of something, which was crystal clear in the original. Personally, I prefer them to quote directly rather than mangle my phrases & formulations.

8

Anderson 12.14.04 at 7:29 pm

We need a more refined vocabulary of plagiarism, to distinguish the range from an inadequate paraphrase, to omitted citation, to outright theft. Being able to make these distinctions would alleviate the worry that the post discusses, that one’s own slip-up will become a case of “plagiarism.”

Every case of plagiarism that I saw as a grad student and instructor was unmistakably egregious. If you haven’t got time to do it yourself, you probably haven’t got time to fake it sufficiently to create any plausible doubt, either.

I’m hoping the Internet, which has made plagiarism so much easier, will also make detection that much easier as well.

9

Another Damned Medievalist 12.14.04 at 7:41 pm

What surprises me is that some of these people are plagiarizing in areas where they’re bound to be caught because the specialization is so narrow. D’oh!

10

Jackmormon 12.14.04 at 8:37 pm

What do you think an appropriate venue for denouncing plagiarists would be?

11

Maynard Handley 12.14.04 at 9:20 pm

Hypothesis:
The current rash of stories on plagiarism is not simply a reflection of the fact that digital technology makes certain patterns easier to detect. Rather it is fanned and encouraged by the same media corporations that are behind perpetually lengthening copyright and the DMCA — corporations whose larger goal is not simply to prevent you from copying a CD from your friend (and thereby avoiding paying them $15) but the construction of a system whereby everything non-material — ideas, concepts, phrases on up, are owned.
You think I’m wrong — go read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig.

Stories of plagiarism feed into the agenda of these companies by promulgating the myth that there is no acceptable way of ever utilizing another’s “intellectual property”.
While I am sympathetic to the idea that genuine plagiarism does exist (along with equivalents like copying entire class papers off the internet), what I have seen of the way these stories are reported strikes me as insane; the infractions seem absolutely trivial (a sentence of two copied), an unremarkable metaphor used in the same place, that sort of thing. As far as I can tell, most of the current carping about plagiarism is more a social phenomenon — certain segments of the academic community feel (rightly or wrongly) that they don’t have the recognition they deserve, and they lash out by claiming that the success of others is the success that they deserve because of an idea they proposed at some seminar three years ago.

The larger issue is precisely the point of Free Culture. Surely a culture (and this includes the academic world) that is to remain vital operates by building on the past. This of course means reuse of ideas and concepts, which shades into reuse of metaphors and such; and if the cost of such reuse is that occasionally attribution is forgotten, or a sentence copied from a book is, when viewed a year later in one’s notes, imagined as being a sentence oneself wrote, that’s a price we all should pay.

12

Andrew Conway 12.14.04 at 9:40 pm

Even during my limited time in academia, I encountered a number of real villains: lechers who couldn’t be left alone in the company of female students; bullies who took advantage of their power over younger members of staff; drunkards who failed to carry out their teaching duties (and, in one case, ruined the careers of several promising PhD students by failing to supervise them adequately). Some of these individuals are still in post; others were quietly encouraged to take early retirement to avoid public scandal. The plagiarists exposed in the Chronicle article strike me as fairly harmless creatures by comparison, and it makes me uncomfortable to see them publicly named and shamed, and their reputations destroyed, when greater rogues get off scot-free. Plagiarism is wrong, to be sure, but it is not the sin against the Holy Ghost. There are many worse crimes that an academic can commit.

13

alkali 12.14.04 at 9:49 pm

To follow up anderson: it is too rarely acknowledged that there is a distinction between intentional and negligent plagiarism. Turning in a term paper copied from the encyclopedia is one thing; inadvertently lifting a sentence is another. The abuse heaped on Doris Kearns Goodwin is wildly disproportionate to her fault; the idea that she can appropriately be classed with Michael Bellesiles is just silly. Slapping the likes of her on the wrist is not tantamount to condoing academic fraud.

14

Nikolai 12.14.04 at 9:53 pm

I think Maynard Handley’s point is very perceptive. If some of the language used by the Chronicle was being used in relation to IP, “theft” “stole” “her ideas”, we’d be outraged.

Take this:

“[Mr. Tong] cited Ms. Wu’s dissertation multiple times. Those citations, however, don’t tell the whole story.”

“Ms. Wu went through Mr. Tong’s chapter word by word. She highlighted in yellow those portions of the text that were borrowed directly or altered slightly. She highlighted in green those sections that were paraphrased versions of her arguments and research. When she was finished, only one paragraph of the 15-page essay had escaped the highlighter.”

This may not be a worthy piece of research (and misrepresenting the archival research he did may be fraud). But reworking someone elses research (and citing them for it) is surely legitimate?

Frankly, I think the problem is with academic quality control. If people publishing stuff don’t realise that it’s not an original contibution to knowledge and isn’t worthy of publication, and so publish it where they shouldn’t, that’s the problem. Not a minority of people cuting and pasting others work. The quality control issue is much broader and goes much further than just plagiarism.

15

Ralph Luker 12.14.04 at 10:59 pm

I don’t know that anyone has _ever_ claimed that plagiarism is the only problem. To my knowledge, Michael Bellesiles didn’t do any plagiarizing. And, yet, the use of other people’s words and ideas without attribution is theft. I don’t see how you can avoid or excuse it. How it can be policed is more difficult. About the only thing that the AHA could threaten to do to the most egregious thief was to bar him from membership in the organization. What kind of penalty is that? It isn’t as if membership in the organization is a license to practice.

16

Michael Cross 12.15.04 at 1:02 am

I edited a Canadian academic journal in the 1970’s. Two cases of plagiarism by prominent academics were brought to our attention, by the victims. Lawyers for the journal’s publisher insisted that we could not expose the plagiarism; Canadian law at the time was so weak that we were likely to be subjected to successful lawsuits by the plagiarists. My view of academics, and the law, was never quite the same after that.

17

Tracy 12.15.04 at 8:24 am

Is there a case for academic police – paid for out of general tax revenues?

It’s this post that got me wondering about it, but of course the main benefit would be not for plagarism but more outright scientific fraud that is likely to result in bad public policy (or judge’s decisions or buildings falling down, etc). E.g someone who checks that a scientist actually did the study they said they did and didn’t just make the figures up from thin air, someone who goes back and asks any human subjects what *they* answered (I’m thinking of that case with the boy brought up as a girl), someone who checks the citations to see that the sources cited say what they do say?

Sheer plagarism doesn’t strike me as that big a deal, but the problems of lack of time and energy in tracking it down do seem to also reduce investigation of academic fraud with more serious consequences.

18

Angry Moderate 12.15.04 at 1:33 pm

Richard Ellickson’s marvellous book, Order Without Law, notes that the first and usually most effective sanction against violators of a community norm is, “truthful malicious gossip.” In my experience, this is quite common with regard to plagiarists – and the worst plagiarism is not copying off some web-site but stealing other scholars’ ideas and/or empirical material before they publish it – and quite appropriate and quite effective. The only problem is the equally large circulation of untruthful malicious gossip.

19

des von bladet 12.15.04 at 2:20 pm

The problem with plagiarism isn’t so much theft in the sense of depriving someone of goods or property (e.g., royalties); it’s the fraudulent claim of having originated the stuff.

Even the Creative Commons type licenses generally make a point of saying “Share and enjoy, but give due credit”. Stealing “property” is a thing, but usurping kudos is surely far, far worse in the eyes of those of us with negligible commercial value.

20

Henry 12.15.04 at 3:33 pm

Des – funnily enough you’ve anticipated the basic argument of a post I’m about to write.

21

des von bladet 12.15.04 at 4:12 pm

Henry: Oh good! My arguments generally improve a lot when someone else makes them. (Mr Nietzsche is particularly good.)

22

Patterico 12.21.04 at 6:56 am

Count me as another person who liked the title of the post.

“Remember why the good Lord made your eyes . . .”

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