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Double standard? Plagiarizing journos get slammed, plagiarizing profs just shrug it off

Dan Kahan writes on what seems to be the topic of the week:

In reflecting on Lehrer, I [Kahan] have to wonder why the sanction is so much more severe — basically career “death penalty” subject to parole [I think he means “life imprisonment” — ed.], I suppose, if he manages decades of “good behavior” — for this science journalist when scholars who stick plagiarized material in their “popular science” writing don’t even get slap on wrist — more like shrug of the shoulders. I do think the behavior is comparable; if anything, it’s probably “less wrong” to make up innocuous filler quotes (the Dylan one is, for sure), then to stick paragraphs of someone else’s writing into a book. But the cause is the same: laziness. (The plagarism I’m talking about is not the sort done by Wegman; its sort done by scholars who use factory production techniques to write popular press books — teams of research assistants who write memos, which the “author” then knits together & passes off as learned research; predictable that factory workers’ memos will now & then just be cribbed material, which the synthesizing “author” misses b/c he/she has never read the sources). The “fraud” element, too, is comparable…. My sense is that the sanctions should be brought into line by adjusted the penalty substantially upward for the “scholars” & likely downward for guy like Lehrer (who actually is a talented guy; so much for “unity of the virtues”).

Let me first get one thing out of the way. I’m amused that Jonah Lehrer shares a last name with a man who wrote an entire song about plagiarism (see above clip). Pinsk to Minsk to me, indeed.

But now back to Dan’s question: is there a double standard? My quick answer is no, there’s no “standard” at all. Sanctions are not being done in any organized or centralized way. I think the decisions we’ve seen involving misconduct make some sense if you consider the options and costs involved for the decision makers.

Let’s consider some examples.

Start with Jonah Lehrer. He had his book pulled, some paid lectures canceled, and got fired from his magazine job. This all makes sense: If his book isn’t pulled, I assume his publishers could get sued by Bob Dylan. In any case, who wants to read a book full of fake quotes? Similarly, nobody wants the embarrassment of paying $20K or whatever to hear the stylings of a fabricator, not is the New Yorker going to sell a lot of copies to people who have a burning desire to learn the latest in faked and recycled science.

Now consider some perpetrators of academic misconduct. It always seems to have to be a big big deal before these guys get kicked out. Marc Hauser was in the news for years before Harvard finally gave him the boot. Ed Wegman, Frank Fischer, and Karl Weick are, I believe, still around at their state universities. Why? I think it’s because the default is to keep these guys on. Sure, it’s embarrassing for these universities to have fraudsters and plagiarists on campus, but perhaps they feel it’s even worse to get the publicity that would happen when these dudes are fired. (As I’ve noted in previous posts, I’m bothered not just by the cheating but by the cheaters’ chutzpah in not apologizing, even when the evidence is all out there and everybody knows they’ve done it.)

Or, for another example, should Harvard fire Laurence Tribe or should Yale fire Ian Ayres for plagiarism? I don’t know, but I feel that I recently got some insight into legal plagiarism after recently working as an expert witness in a court case (yup, I did it for the money). I did some work and wrote it up, then the people at the law firm rewrote it to be in the standard format for an expert witness report. The result was long, awkward, and repetitive—but it was what they were looking for, so that was fine with me. The point is: they wrote much of it but my name was on it. I asked the lawyers if this was OK, and they said Yes, my name on it means that I stand behind it, not that I wrote every word. I did read every word but if something had been copied without attribution from some other source, I might not have known.

Anyway, I assume that lawyers such as Tribe and Ayres have lots of experience putting their names on reports that they have not written, and this is standard practice. So then they get into the habit. And then, as Dan puts it (and I agree), laziness kicks in. Once you get into the habit of riding the elevator, who wants to take the stairs? Only weirdo exercise nuts.

So maybe the legal world really is different from academia and commercial publishing in having a more relaxed attitude toward attributions. And, to the extent that a lot of organizations are run by lawyers (or run things by lawyers), that might explain a general level of tolerance toward such offenses, especially in law schools.

But there’s something deeper, I think, something I don’t fully understand but seems to be going on. Consider the perpetrator a much bigger scandal than those listed above, Jerry Sandusky, the football coach who molested kids and then was protected by his employers. Much of the discussion of this case focused on the oversized influence of the football program at Penn State. To me, though, football didn’t have much to do with it. Consider all the academic plagiarism cases. Frank Fischer and Ed Wegman are not Joe-Paterno-level bigshots but their universities protected them anyway.

There just seems to be a general pattern of institutions getting self-protective. I see the paradox that, once an organization suspects someone of misconduct, then the tendency is to back off and seek to avoid conflict. To put it another way: if Penn State were not a football power and Joe Paterno had not been considered so indispensible, I could well imagine the same thing happening.

One thing that strikes me about all these case is how solicitous the powers-that-be are toward the rulebreakers, even after the violations are clearly known. I suspect what’s going on is that, once these administrators realize for real that something is going on, they switch to legal-paranoid mode and are afraid of doing anything over the line in case the perp sues them.

I suspect the idea that the admins have is that, once they’re pretty sure they’ll be getting rid of somebody, they’re willing to pay a lot to not have to think about it. Hence Sandusky’s and Paterno’s monster severance packages and various funny business I’ve seen elsewhere. And, after all, Fischer and Wegman are pretty old, so why rock the boat, why not wait till they retire (perhaps with juicy severance packages to get rid of them faster)?

To return to Jonah Lehrer: it just seems to me that the economic decisions are clearer in his case. You have a bunch of organizations that have the alternative of (a) paying him real money, or (b) costlessly getting rid of him. It’s no surprise they choose (b). In the case of Ayres, Wegman, etc., for whatever reason it doesn’t seem that option (b) is available. The administrators must feel that to get rid of these guys would be highly costly, either in the form of an expensive shut-up-and-bother-someone-else severance package of the Sandusky variety, or in the form of lawsuits, bad publicity, etc. The other factor, perhaps, is that the media love media scandals. As a statistician, I am much more disgusted by Wegman’s actions than by Lehrer’s, but Lehrer gets more news coverage. I didn’t see Wegman in Gawker even once!

Here’s another example: John Gribbin, a former physicist who did not plagiarized but did the unethical (to me) behavior of writing a book full of fraudulent science. Many years later, this guy is still publishing in large-circulation magazines. As I wrote earlier, I analogize this to analogy is to a businessperson who held up a liquor store when he was in his late twenties, never actually got arrested for the crime, and since then has gone into the iffy-mortgage-loan business. Everyone deserves a second chance and the guy obviously has a lot of energy, but I wouldn’t actually trust him on anything. This may be Jonah Lehrer some day.

A useful framing here, I believe, is to consider that a person’s positive traits are often defined relative to his or her background. I’m considered an entertaining speaker, but that’s in comparison to other statisticians. Being the second-most-entertaining statistician wouldn’t get me far if I wanted to do stand-up. If I lost my credibility as a statistician, people wouldn’t come to hear me give amusing lectures. In contrast, David Sedaris made stuff up, and . . . who cares, he’s funny. Ed Wegman was asked by Congress to write a report partly because of his status within the field of statistics. If he’s just gonna make stuff up (and garble it in the process), then what’s the point? And so on. Laurence Tribe’s plagiarism might be a bigger deal if anyone anywhere cared about Laurence Tribe.

A science writer who makes stuff up is pretty bad, but I guess all these publications need copy, and motivational speaker series need motivational speakers. The challenge for Lehrer, if he wishes to continue his career as writer and speaker, is that now he’ll have to write solid material and give good talks judged by those standards, he can no longer coast on his reputation. If people want to pay to hear him speak it will be to hear what he has to say, not to hear from the boy wonder New Yorker writer.

15 Comments

  1. Dan says:

    Lehrer’s self-plagiarism is more of a controversy for the magazines/blogs getting into a pissing match over who owns the material. I’m not sure that academic journals and publishers really care that much.

    I’d say the fraud committed by Lehrer is far more serious. He was essentially using the Fox News method of presenting facts: take quotes out of context and then make stuff up. Jonathan Keats’ book review of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” suggested that Lehrer formed multiple arguments based on misleading information and fabrication. So the controversy on the Dylan quotes is not without precedent. What’s funny is that nobody really paid attention to Keats’ criticism until now.

    What’s the probability that Lehrer ends up as a scientific correspondent for Fox News?

  2. George says:

    Some men of history were accused of plagiarism: Plato, Paul the apostle, Moliere, Shakespeare, Dumas… Interestingly there were those who admitted it without apologies: Shakespeare response was: “it (the piece plagiarized) is a child whom I have withdrawn from bad company, to introduce it into good society.” And Moliere’s : “ I take my property wherever I find it”. Of course one should protect what is hers, but in the grand scheme of things, who cares. We probably wouldn’t have heard of some great works if they were not (or parts of it) plagiarized. That does not mean I don’t feel for the original creators…

    • Andrew says:

      George,

      Martin Luther King and Helen Keller plagiarized too. But they did a number of other impressive things.

      To put it another way, if Ed Wegman wrote like Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be so bothered by his plagiarism. Unfortunately, he writes like a bad copy of Wikipedia.

    • Thomas says:

      George, I like the way you quote Shakespeare like Jonah Lehrer quotes Dylan. (See footnote here.)

      • idiot says:

        Well, the footnote did point out that “fake quoting” was common practice, so maybe it was just acceptable behavior at the time (maybe the fake quotes give more insight into the personality of the “real human” more so than a real quote would do). Now, “fake quoting” is (mostly) rare, so when it does happen, it becomes much less unacceptable.

      • George says:

        Thomas, don’t get distracted by the footnote. It is irrelevant to the point that the effects of a plagiarized work on the rest of us may be independent of its creator. And, in some cases we wouldn’t have known of some great works if they were not plagiarized.

        • Andrew says:

          It’s true: there’s some obscure Wikipedia material that I never would’ve heard about had Wegman not plagiarized it!

        • Thomas says:

          I feel for readers though. They should not be misled into citing second-rate hacks for ideas that can be found in greater works. In any case, I give poets all the license they need. Profs and journos, not so much.

  3. JustBob81 says:

    I agree with your general point about there being no real standard reaction to plagiarism. As you point out, this is partly because of the different institutional structures within which plagiarism happens and also because there are varying degrees of plagiarism. However, I think you went a bit off the rails on your Penn State example.

    As you mention, Sandusky was ‘fired’ in 1998 and then his continued criminal behavior was facilitated, knowingly or not, by the University’s involvement with his charity. A more direct analogy would be a publisher continuing to publish someone accused of plagiarism without checking their work and ignoring mounting evidence of their wrongdoing. As internal emails show, school officials expressed concern in 2001 that they would be potentially liable if Sandusky ‘did not get the message’. I just can’t imagine such protections being awarded to a former faculty member in any other situation. The cost to the University, which was foreseeable, is going to be gigantic. The unique nature of that football program and its coach seems to me an indispensable part of any explanation of the decision making of school officials.

    • John Mashey says:

      “A more direct analogy would be a publisher continuing to publish someone accused of plagiarism without checking their work and ignoring mounting evidence of their wrongdoing.”

      The PSU situation is awful, but in some ways, GMU may be more pervasively worse.

      This is a good analogy for GMU’s treatment of Wegman and Said.
      See See No Evil at George Mason University.
      From March 2010 through June 2011, GMU was given formal complaints for about 80 pages of alleged plagiarism (and some falsification for spice), some via distinguished academics, including an experienced expert in academic misconduct.
      The ~80 pages included 35 from the Wegman Report, plus 4 PhD dissertations, 7 articles (4 with Federal funding), lectures, and a patent.
      Copyrighted material was plagiarized, but so was Wikipedia, liberally.

      After nearly 2 years, GMU rejected or (more often) ignored everything except the 1.5 pages of a paper that Elsevier had forced to be retracted in May 2011. GMU never volunteered any status to complainants or gave anyone a report, including the original complainant Ray Bradley. GMU often misled or even gave demonstrably-false information to Bradley and Dan Vergano at USA Today.
      “Stonewall” is a good description.

      In February 2012, Provost Peter Stearns sent a letter to his faculty (but *not* to Bradley). Stearns seemed* to invent an extra investigation committee, perhaps to cover the contradiction of having a 5.l5 page section of the Wegman Report be OK, while its 1.5 page subset in the Elsevier journal was plagiarism. Stearns forced Wegman to retract the already-retracted article, apologize to the journal (meaning his long-time friend Stanley Azen, who had tried to help Wegman avoid the retraction), and place a reprimand in his file. Savage punishment. It also turns out that GMU doesn’t think plagiarism in introductory/context sections is actually plagiarism. Some undergrads will cheer.

      Stearns also complained about publicity, said GMU took misconduct seriously, and there was no basis for any criticism on delays.
      GMU is all for free enterprise, but in the 4 enterprises in which I’ve been a manager, anyone who did such a poor job on schedule would be long gone.

      GMU falsely blamed Bradley for breaking a confidentiality rule, never having informed him of their policy or ogtten any such agreement. He kept quiet for 6 months of nonsense and only mentioned it when asked. In any case, Wegman himself had revealed the complaint earlier on Facebook.

      GMU then claimed that Bradley refused to be interviewed, a dubious, year-late request anyway for a simple plagiarism complaint, but implying he was uncooperative. He was on the interview call, but Wegman didn’t show up. Then Ray had to leave for Peru, since climate scientists actually do field work.

      GMU has the standard policy on “retaliation”, i.e., protecting complainants *against* it. In this case, they seem to have been implementing it. If this is what they do with outside complainants, I might guess that inside complainants might think twice before speaking up. Would people bet there have never been any problems before this?

      * There in fact was only one investigation committee, not two. Provost Stearns wrote untruths to his own faculty about the process they followed. There was also only one inquiry committee.. Both recommended Bradley be informed of results.

      GMU gets about $80M/year in research grants that originate with Federal government, although the yearly $11M+ that comes from Charles Koch and friends may be more important and less accountable.

      If a school cannot handle even a simple plagiarism complaint (the original was for 9.5 pages of text experts thought was “obvious” or “shocking”), how likely are they to be able to handle anything more complex? If you were a GMU student or junior faculty, would you report problems? Would you expect anything to be done?

      There is more to come, and we haven’t even gotten to Wiley yet.

  4. lylebot says:

    A couple of recent posts on Language Log make some interesting comparisons w.r.t. Lehrer’s fabricated quotes. It seems that journalists—and New Yorker journalists in particular—have not actually been slammed very hard for such violations; one even went to the Supreme Court over it and won! Lehrer seems to be an exception, not the rule.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4110

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4113

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  7. Jonathan says:

    Maybe the penalty for Lehrer isn’t as tough as we thought…

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/bensmith/wired-to-publish-jonah-lehrer

  8. […] weeks about the plagiarism and journalistic misconduct of science writer Jonah Lehrer (here, here, here). This morning I noticed a similar story about the well-known international affairs expert […]