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Poli sci plagiarism update, and a note about the benefits of not caring

A recent story about academic plagiarism spurred me to some more general thoughts about the intellectual benefits of not giving a damn.

I’ll briefly summarize the plagiarism story and then get to my larger point.

Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings without attribution

Last month I linked to the story of Frank Fischer, an elderly professor of political science who was caught copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.

Apparently there’s some dispute about whether this constitutes plagiarism. On one hand, Harvard’s policy is that “in academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.” On the other hand, several of Fischer’s colleagues defend him by saying, “Mr. Fischer sometimes used the words of other authors. . . ” They also write:

The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own, and Mr. Fischer did nothing of the sort: He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on.

But, as Sokal points out:

Professor Fischer has repeatedly made this claim, but it is simply not true. In the cases of Goulet (Section 4), Ferguson (Section 5), the first Fairclough passage (Section 8), Polkinghorne 1988 (Section 13), Polkinghorne 1983 (Section 16) and Majone (Section 17), the author in question is either not cited at all in the book, or else cited only very far from the passages in question.

So my guess is that Fischer’s colleagues did not look at the evidence carefully and were too quick to grab on to this defense.

In any case, I’ll avoid the whole “plagiarism” concept by saying “copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution.” It’s a bit less convenient than the p-word but has the advantage of clarity. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.

I can see how, once this guy is caught, it’s natural for him to follow Chris Rock’s recommended strategy and deny everything. But it’s too bad he had to drag his friends into it.

The benefits of emotional distance

To me, the most interesting character in this story is not the luckless Frank Fischer and his “unintentional errors” but rather the reactions of others. I think that one reason Sokal is so clear in his arguments, and Fischer’s defenders so muddy, is that Sokal has nothing at stake. Sokal has no reason to care if Fischer gets fired, or reprimanded, or whatever. It just doesn’t matter to him and so he can feel free to be direct, without any need to overstate his case.

Compare this passage from Fischer’s colleagues:

So this is at most a misdemeanor of literary style, admitted and regretted, and finding 19 instances of it in five books does not appear particularly remarkable. This is a minor issue, and it is distracting us from the main game.

And now this from Sokal:

To put it bluntly, the issue is whether the passages from Fischer’s books quoted in pp. 2-51 of our report constitute plagiarism as defined by the codes of academic integrity at Rutgers University (Fischer’s employer) and virtually every other American university. . . . Let’s be clear: The 19 “instances” of copying-with-minor-modifications are not 19 sentences, but 19 passages that each range in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to several pages.

Sokal isn’t trying so hard to win the argument, so he can be direct (for example, discussing his own guesswork involved in selecting articles to compare), whereas Fischer’s defenders, who care so much, have to invent concepts such as “a misdemeanor of literary style.”

Keeping your eye on the ball

I want to point out one more bit from Sokal’s letter that I really like:

At the end of his letter, Professor Fischer raises one legitimate question: Why did Kresimir Petkovic and I [Sokal] reveal our evidence to The Chronicle of Higher Education rather than, say, to the president of Rutgers University? The answer is that plagiarism is not principally an offense against one’s employer–or even against the person whose words are plagiarized–but is rather an offense against the ethical norms of the scholarly community as a whole. [emphasis added] This is why there has been such intense public interest in this case, as exemplified by the 200-plus comments on The Chronicle’s Web site. And it is why Mr. Petkovic and I decided to make our information publicly available, so that each member of the scholarly community could evaluate it with his or her own brain.

Here’s the deal. To Fischer and his friends, this case is all about Fischer–what’s going to happen to him next, will his reputation fall, will he get fired, etc. So to them it would be natural for the case to be made at Rutgers University. But for Sokal, and for the rest of us who had never heard of Frank Fischer before this case arose, the concern is of academic standards. Academia, like other pursuits, will always have its share of time-servers and paper-pushers, but it is a bit disturbing to find a scholarly journal edited by somebody who violates scholarly practices. We’re talking about copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution, which, at the very least, would seem to add noise rather than signal to the academic conversation.

Seeing Sokal’s cool reply to the controversy reminded me of a legal case I consulted on a few years ago in which I was subject to a deposition for a few hours. The lawyer from the other side kept asking me what seemed to be barbed or trick questions, and I kept simply answering directly. Eventually he got frustrated and gave up. What made it easy for me was that I didn’t really care if my side won the case. As I saw it, my job was to be the expert; it was the lawyers’ job to try to win. In contrast, had this been a case involving me personally, I’m sure it would’ve been much tougher and maybe the lawyer deposing me would’ve been able to get me tied up in contradictions. I would’ve felt too much pressure to be strategic, to overstate my case or to hold things back or to volunteer additional information, But since I was just doing my job, I could just do it.

I feel a similar way when blogging or writing books–I don’t have to out-think or anticipate the reactions of a referee, I can just be direct. It’s so refreshing to just be able to say what you know without having to claim a larger certainty. And I see this in Sokal’s letter as well. I think some people are good at being strategic, but that word doesn’t really describe Sokal or me, and I like to think that directness and openness is a virtue in scientific writing. For example, clearly citing the works we draw from, even when such citing of secondary sources might make us appear less erudite. But I can see how some scholars might feel a pressure to cover their traces.

And, on an unrelated matter

I still can’t get over that this guy‘s upcoming book is called “Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.” What’s the next step? Writing columns for the Wall Street Journal?

15 Comments

  1. vdp says:

    This reminds me of the recent wegman plagiarism case in climate science. I find that case more disturbing though.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Yes, one of the odd things about the Fischer case is that nobody really cares about the substance of it.

  3. Phil says:

    Your legal story reminds me of a nice story from the book "Why Buildings Fall Down", by Levy and Salvadori. Salvadori is on the stand, giving expert testimony in a case in which a water heater exploded and shot through a couple of apartments like a missile (see the Mythbusters shows about this, it's amazing). As I recall, the question at issue was, was the pressure relief valve defective (so the pressure got too high), or was the failure caused by something else? This particular tank normally had bottom (or maybe it was the top) that was concave: its surface curved _into_ the tank. But before the tank exploded, the dome got pushed through — like pushing a contact lens from one state to the other — and Salvadori had calculated what the pressure had to be in order for that to happen. It turns out that there is a formula for how much pressure it takes to "push through" a dome, as a function of the properties of the material and the dimensions and so on. The equation was calculated for use by engineers working on nuclear power plant containment domes, or something like that, but of course that doesn't mean it doesn't work for other things.

    Anyway, Salvadori is on the stand, testifying for…I think it was the plaintiff, not sure exactly. The plaintiff's attorney had coached him: only answer direct questions, don't be led into anything. Give short answers, only answering what you are asked and nothing more. Things like that. As Salvadori reports it, the cross-examination sounds pretty funny. Something like:
    Lawyer: … so you took this formula that applies to huge power plant containment domes, and applied it to the thin metal of a small water heater.
    Salvadori: [silent, because he hasn't been asked a question.]
    Lawyer: Isn't that right?
    Salvadori: Yes.
    Lawyer: But the power plant domes are much, much larger and are made of different material.
    Salvadori: [silent]
    Lawyer: How can that possibly be a reasonable thing to do?
    Salvadori: There is a term in the formula for the size of the dome, and there are also terms that quantify the important properties of the material.
    Lawyer: It says on your resume that your degrees are from universities in Italy, not here in the United States.

    Eh, I guess you have to read the real thing, it's a lot better than it sounds here. Great book, too.

  4. Manuel Moe G says:

    If I came across a source of such quality that I felt compelled to copy big blocks of text from another's writing, you could not keep me from shouting this fine fellow's name from the hills.

    This is the saddest part. I am not an academic, but I have fallen in love with the papers and literature of my areas of specialization. To the best of my ability, I must be a conduit to the best of the literature, to all people who have some interest. Because of love.

    Anything less from a scholar, he should gown and cap run through the wood-chipper, with or without removal of the person first.

  5. Megan Pledger says:

    I read some of the work that was considered plagarism and I didn't think it was plagarism myself even though their were large paragraphs from other's work with attribution.

    The reason for me was that the work was talking about someone else's fairly abstract concept. In order to define it accurately he had to use most of the words that the original author used or else it wouldn't convey the same meaning. And where the occassional words were changed it was done to enhance meaning.

    Because some words were changed, he couldn't use a block quote and so he attributed at the end of the paragraph. I didn't think he had written it so that anyone would think that the concept he was describing was his own.

  6. Andrew Gelman says:

    Megan:

    He could've written something such as, "Scholar X wrote a clear summary of Y's work. We paraphrase Scholar X's summary as follows…" I doubt he wanted to take claim for the concept; my guess is that he wanted to summarize but was a bit embarrassed about taking his entire summary from a secondary source. I think it's fine to use a secondary source but it's not so cool to avoid giving credit for it.

  7. Kieran says:

    The reason for me was that the work was talking about someone else's fairly abstract concept. In order to define it accurately he had to use most of the words that the original author used or else it wouldn't convey the same meaning. And where the occassional words were changed it was done to enhance meaning.

    As it happens I am working on a book called "How to Visualize and Analyze Data with Multilevel and Hierarchical Regression Methods". It's going to be awesome.

  8. Numeric says:

    Frank Lloyd Wright was on the stand and was asked by opposing counsel what his profession was. He replied "I'm the world's greatest architect." Afterwards, a friend of his remonstrated with him as to how he could say such a thing. He replied, "But I was under oath!"

    More to the point, I've been reading about "truth meters" that work on verbal modulations since the days of Watergate (allegedly it should Nixon was lying and John Dean was telling the truth). Anyway, if such a thing exists, I would recommend making it a standard fixture at academic conferences. When people make false claims, it would be nice to determine if they were simply stupid or gaming.

  9. Sebastian says:

    The only person involved I had heard of before this was Sokal, whose Hoax and subsequent book I enjoyed.

    I think Fischer doesn't come out of this looking good. I think Sokal clearly shows this is plagiarism. Still, I wonder how bad it really is. It seems like Fischer mainly lifted discussions of some literature from other sources. There aren't any, afaict, originally ideas plagiarized. The main problem with plagiarism to me is if you pass someone else's ideas or research of as your own (the latter seems to be the case for Kearns Goodwin or whatever her name is). That doesn't seem to apply here. So I do think these are lesser charges in many ways.

    I think Fischer's threat of a lawsuit is quite a nasty move. I can understand how that riled Sokal.
    That said, Petkovic comes across as batshit crazy. He's combative, presumptuous, doesn't understand the peer-review process and doesn't understand or follow common academic courtesy – which would have been, among other things, to send a copy of the 2nd paper to the person he attacks – at hominem for that matter – prior to circulating it and sending it out for publication. And so I wonder – and this is really just wondering aloud – if such a nasty, quarrelsome person isn't doing academia more harm than people who engage in what I'd call, for the lack of a better term, 2nd degree plagiarism.

  10. Nick Cox says:

    Sebastian:

    I'd say that feeling free to denigrate someone in public as "nasty, quarrelsome" (and much else besides) on the basis on what you have read is not itself much of a good example of the best academic standards. Why leap to any such conclusions?

  11. Jsmith says:

    I like the idea of introducing such sections with the language "Scholar X wrote a clear summary of Y's work. We paraphrase Scholar X's summary as follows…".

    I do not see much value in forcing someone to find a new wording for a old concept that has already been clearly stated in a previous paper. Yet it seems to me this is often considered the "correct" thing to do.

  12. Sebastian says:

    Nick – it's not like I'm basing this on a third person's description of Petkovic – I've read his correspondence and writing as he has published it himself (it's part of the reports and papers linked to from CHE) and used that to arrive at a conclusion.
    I can see no "leaping" on my part. At some point it's gotta be OK to call things by their name (for what it's worth, though, I do believe that different voices are suitable for different fora and I'm more contentious in the comment section of a blog than in academic writing or person.)

  13. SpaceWrangler says:

    I don't think this is the reason for the difference in style between Sokal and F.'s defenders. Sokal is a physicist. He thinks with precision and clarity and knows the limits of his evidence and assumptions used to get it. F.'s defenders are soft polisci/humanities types. They are used to inventing and multiplying concepts like "literary style." Each side is simply doing what it does.

  14. Nick Cox says:

    I disagree, but I thank you for making your stance very clear. To me public denigration of a person is public denigration, regardless of whether your full name and identity are evident.

  15. I don't know how I feel about plagiarism.
    I think primacy should be given to making knowledge productive and useful to all of us in society -here the analogy is like squatting.

    Productively employing knowledge seems to me to be more important than properly attributing it.

    Anyways, it should be fairly easy for 3rd parties to properly attribute plagiarized work.

    Definitionally, I suspect most plagiarism that isn't immediate detected but later becomes scandalous is done by authors of prominent works plagiarizing relatively obscure works. I think we should fairly weight to intellectual work of the plagiarizing author in successfully raising the prominence of the plagiarized ideas.

    At the least, I think we should have some real-world nuance, experimentation with regulation and empirical open-mindedness when it comes to optimizing the scientific enterprise -our approach should be something more than rote, unthinking, "always attribute properly" norms.

    We see the flawed works, but we don't see the uncreated works because anti-plagiarism norms and punishments being set to high, so we should be conscious of that possible bias.