“I know you aren’t the plagiarism police, but . . .”

Someone I don’t know writes in:

I have followed your thoughts on plagiarism rather closely, and I ran across something in the Economics literature that I felt might interest you (and if you were to share this, I’d rather remain anonymous as a junior faculty not looking to step on toes anywhere). I know you aren’t the plagiarism police, but figured you would have some input.

I’ve been reading up on some literature regarding all-pay auctions for some research I have been working on and came across an interesting paper in J. Political Economy (1998) with the following intro:

“Many economic allocations are decided by competition for a prize on the basis of costly activities. For example, monopoly licenses may be awarded to the person (or group) that lobbies the hardest (Tullock, 1967), or tickets may be given to those who wait in line the longest (Holt and Sherman 1982). In such contests, losers’ efforts are costly and are generally not compensated. These situations, which are especially common in nonmarket allocations, are of concern to economists precisely because competition involves the expenditure of real resources, or ‘‘rent-seeking’’ behavior. Krueger (1974) estimated the annual welfare costs of rent seeking induced by price and quantity controls to be 7 percent of gross national product in India and somewhat higher in Turkey.”

I also ran across another paper in J. Economic Behavior & Organization (2006, 8 years later) by different authors, with the following introductory passage:

“Many economic allocations are decided by competition for a prize on the basis of costly activities. Some well-known examples for such competitions are research and development (R&D) races, political campaigns, awarding of monopoly licenses, selling franchises, and so on. In such contests, participants’ efforts are quite costly, and losers are not compensated for these efforts. To model such situations, in which competition involves real expenditures, or ‘rent seeking’ behavior, researchers find the all-pay auction quite appealing”………………”It turns out that in a variety of cases where rent-seeking behavior is exercised, total efforts exceed the value of the prize. Krueger (1974), for example, estimates that annual welfare costs induced by price and quantity controls in India are approximately 7% of gross national product. In Turkey, the figures are estimated as somewhat higher.”

We see similar patterns in the conclusion sections (same order as above):

(1) “The all-pay auction has been widely studied because it is an allocation mechanism in which competition for a prize involves the expenditure of real resources, for example, lobbying.”

(2) “The all-pay auction has been widely studied because it is often used as an allocation mechanism in competitions for a prize where players’ effort involves the expenditure of resources. Examples of such competitions are lobbying,…”

I thought I had accidentally downloaded the same paper twice until looking at the title again. I found the similarities rather troubling, and these are not the types of journals that get tucked away as a “line on the C.V.” We all know JPE is top tier, and JEBO is a high quality journal as well. The second article does cite the first, but does not give credit specifically to the introduction. It cites that it is comparing results with that paper, and ultimately the meat of the paper is slightly different.

Anyway, I felt that this would be up your alley of much of your discussions recently and was curious about your thoughts here.

My reply: I don’t know anything about this area of research, but it does seem a bit tacky to quote someone else without the use of quotation marks. Perhaps a statistics group at some state university in the Virginia suburbs could do some research into the social networks involved here?

P.S. I heard from Uri Gneezy, the author of the 2006 article, who writes:

Just want to set things right: our [Gneezy and Smorodinsky’s] paper is an experimental test of the [earlier] JPE modeling paper. It is based on that paper; we cite the JPE paper 8 (!) times in our paper, comparing our results to their prediction. Our paper is an empirical test of the JPE model. As we clearly state in the paper, the motivating economic issue and literature are the same. This is why we cite them 8 times! Our paper also benefited from comments (prior to publication) from the authors of the JPE paper.

Given this, it sounds like credit was given fairly. And so I would change my above “it does seem a bit tacky” sentence to: “It seems like a mistake to not use quotation marks, even in a case such as this where the work is clearly labeled as following up from an earlier paper.”

It’s an interesting example of how things can look different from the outside than from close up. (Also, different from the Fischer and Wegman stories, where the more information was unearthed, the worse things looked.) I’m glad to be able to clear this up on the same day it appeared.

35 thoughts on ““I know you aren’t the plagiarism police, but . . .”

  1. Its ironic though that if you google the first sentence of the paragraph the top results are this site, the 1998 JPE article and another article that is also very close in wording but is not the 2006 J. Economic Behavior & Organization article.

  2. Why would the second paper cite the first one if the authors wanted to plagiarize? That being said the way they paraphrased the first paper’s statements looks very bad.

    • IMO, there are many worse sins. As you note, they cite the article in their lit review. Yes, they should quote the paraphrase or otherwise clearly cite it to make it clear that this goes back to the 1998 paper. But the papers themselves are different: one is full of equations, the other is an experiment. The content of the research itself doesn’t seem to be plagarized, although I admit I have only skimmed both papers.

      I think an apology and maybe a beer at the next conference they are both at is sufficient.

  3. Looks like a no-brainer to me. The 2006 should probably be retracted for re-using the 1998 paper’s prose verbatim. I just used Google to find the papers in question and will have a look at it tonight. If my initial impression holds, I’ll send a note to the editors of JEBO, cc JPE. It’s one of those cases where simple plagiarism is probably part of a larger pattern of careless work and worth looking into.

  4. I thought at first maybe it was just a PhD student who didn’t know how to contextualise their own work, but nope.

    Very weird and lazy. Surely if you’re going to plagiarise, you’d at least copy something valuable (results, a model, etc.). Not context.

  5. As usual when this topic comes up (wherever, including on the web), I always caution people against relying upon their intuition when making judgments about possible plagiarism. Intuition — as is evidenced almost universally in these discussions — is that long sequences of text simply cannot be exact or nearly-exact duplicates of another without deliberate plagiarism. But that’s simply not true. The intuition relies upon our commonsense notions about memory, which are, by and large, erroneous.

    It’s entirely possible for people to unknowingly recall perfectly or almost perfectly long sequences of texts and unwittingly attribute it to themselves. Because of our intuition, we generally disbelieve writers accused of plagiarism when they claim that this is the case; however, there are numerous other examples where the circumstances are such that there’s little or no reason to assume that the writer is lying.

    Harvard’s Daniel Schacter, one of the world’s leading experts on memory, has written on this topic extensively. A decent pop-science account of this and related issues is his 2001 book, “The Seven Sins of Memory”.

    It’s disappointing to me that otherwise informed and scientifically-inclined laypeople, the courts, and the press seem to be almost willfully indifferent to what is clearly a research area deeply relevant to all discussions of plagiarism.

    This is not to say that deliberate plagiarism doesn’t happen — of course, it does. But I have absolutely no clue about what the relative quantities are between accidental and deliberate plagiarism — I strongly suspect that given that it’s so much easier to unknowingly remember moderate-length portions of text (and almost certainly much more so when it’s something that is of particular interest) and then misattribute it to oneself in an accidental recreation, that this occurs far more often than people realize and were we to look for it, we’d find it to be commonplace. (That is, right now we only look for this in quite narrow contexts and with limited access to a corpus for comparison).

    This paper is arguably a good example — someone asks why would someone plagiarize a work that they cite? But it’s possible that, being very familiar with the papers they cite, a later revision of this one included an unwitting recapitulation of a portion of a source. And, at that later date, the author had no cause to look again at the source and notice what he/she had done. It seems to me that unknowingly recapitulating a bit of a source text is much more likely in this context than in others. We shouldn’t assume that because the text seems incredibly similar, more than what we intuit is possible accidentally, that this was deliberate. Our intuition is often unreliable. Indeed, the folk here should have internalized this as a general principle long ago.

    I’m no less upset at deliberate plagiarism than anyone else — but I think that it’s simply a matter of fact that we cannot assume that the existence of plagiarism is prima facie proof of deliberate plagiarism. As with many, many other things, we have to determine innocence or guilt, intent or accident, on the basis of other evidence, not merely the result.

    • I side with those who don’t define plagiarism in terms of intention. If one text includes unattributed quotations from another text then this is something that should be pointed out and corrected. There is no need to quibble about whether or not it was deliberate. If someone has “unknowingly recapitulated a bit of a source text” then that same someone may also have, and is likely to have, unwittingly distorted that source text. I know of plenty of examples where plagiarism and misprision appear together. In some cases an author will plagiarize the source in one part of the article and then misquote it in another. After we spot the plagiarism we go looking for other errors that stem from the same source: carelessness.

      In any case, in my view, the argument that a particular instance of plagiarism is not deliberate is a red herring. Naturally, it is something that needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about disciplinary action against an author. But as a criticism of the text, the facts are all that matter.

      • Of course accidental misappropriation of material matters, and such mistakes need to be corrected. However, it would seem that accidentally missing a required citation for a sentence in a manuscript is quite different from deliberately trying to take credit for someone else’s work (a sort of stealing). If one uses the same term, plagiarism, for both cases, one is simply conflating two very different actions.

        Incidentally, I just read an interesting mini-essay on the meaning of plagiarism, which may be of interest: http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/plagiarism.html

  6. Well, I’ve had a look now and I definitely think this should be brought to the attention of the authors of the 1998 paper and both journals. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar pattern: scholarship in an established social science like economics is sloppily imported into management studies. It’s another example of the serious need to raise the standards of scholarship in the managerial “sciences”.

    I see that Dave Backus is already informing the original authors. I look forward to seeing how the case is dealt with. At correction is, at the very least, in order. But, like I say, someone with the relevant expertise should have a closer look at the rest of the paper, its sources, and probably also the data. It’s all now been cast into doubt.

    • Hi Thomas – could you be clearer on that? Do you mean that they’ve (possibly) plagiarised the models / data, or just sections of the introduction?

      Obviously the latter is pretty sloppy scholarship, but on its own it doesn’t seem quite that outrageous.

      • I’ve only looked at the examples described in my post and confirmed for myself that they are indeed instances of plagiarism. I am not outraged by them in themselves. But they make me question the seriousness of the writers who published it. See my reply to Andrew below.

      • This doesn’t quite clear it up for me. I did consider the very likely possibility that Anderson et. al are already aware of this and don’t care. To that end, I checked the acknowledgements actually, where they are not mentioned.

        While Gneezy and Smorodinsky do cite Anderson et al. eight times, it is not in fact clear that the former is “based on” the latter, nor that it constitutes “an experimental test” of, primarily, their earlier work. It is precisely the “basis” of their paper that has been obscured.

        So I still think it’s important to publish a correction. (And, therefore, that this post of yours is an important event, small as it is.) Your anonymous emailer was confused by the similarity between the two papers. I, for one, have let the similarities undermine my trust in the 2006 paper’s scholarship for now. A note that informs us that the editors and authors are aware of their mistake and acknowledge it as a mistake would help. Also, I would like a complete set of errata: I want to know where all the missing quotation marks should go.

        An apology and a beer (as zbicyclist suggests above) may straighten things out between the authors, but it will not repair Gneezy and Smorodinsky’s relationships with their readers, which will be damaged every time someone who does not know that Anderson et. al are cool with it (if they are) discovers the same striking similarity.

        Knowing what I know I would never cite Gneezy and Smorodinsky’s result if the editors of JEBO had not assured me that they are aware of the problem and have determined that it does not indicate any further sloppiness in the research process of the authors. I.e., that the results can be trusted.

        • Thomas:

          Without knowing anything about the case except what is reported in this thread, I see the message as that, when a paper is written, a lot of important things about its motivation go unsaid. It was clear to Gneezy and Smorodinsky that their work was an experimental test of the earlier JPE modeling paper. But G&S did not state this explicitly in their article: to them, it may have seemed obvious that this was their purpose, given the 8 citations of that earlier paper. But this was not so clear to others.

          In general, I think there are a lot of disincentives to make clear one’s original motivating for doing a project. This may be especially a problem in academic writing, where we are typically encouraged or even required to write in a highly stylized form. But even journalism has this problem, in its own way.

        • Like I say, I don’t really buy the idea that the purpose of the paper clears things up. Even if they had said, say, “This paper tests the assumption of Anderson et al. 1998 experimentally,” they would have no excuse for the borrowed language. Like I say, Gneezy and Smorodinsky have obscured, either intentionally or accidentally, the relationship between their paper and Anderson et al. 1998. That’s where a re-examination of the paper should begin. It should not end when an author who is guilty of (at least unintentional) plagiarism “set[s] things right” about their intentions. These intention “may have seemed obvious” to them; or it may in fact have been something they wanted to conceal. We don’t know. There is doubt. And that’s why we should never use other people’s prose the way Gneezy and Smorodinsky have. It’s a dubious practice that suggests the possibility of all sorts of other dubious practices.

          How many times do we have to accept the initial explanations of the Lehrer’s of the world before we stop letting anyone (even those who have, in fact, made an honest mistake) talk around the central issue like this, and instead get them to acknowledge the central fact and issue a prompt correction?

  7. I have to say I find it extraordinarily difficult to get agitated about this. Even if I were the original author, I can’t imagine I’d care. It’s all pretty bog-standard, boilerplate, text-book level intro text. Who really cares if the wording is similar?

    To be honest, what I find more disturbing is that both intros are citing a paper over 20 years old as evidence of the magnitude of a problem.

    • I think the two issues are related. As I pointed out in the Fischer case: “Passing off another’s twenty-year-old paraphrase as one’s own ‘innovative’ reading of the master will simply not do.”

      Actually, the handling of the Tullock 1980 reference is a good example of the distortions that result from plagiarizing your frame. Anderson et al. said that the literature “follows Tullock” in making the key assumption; Gneezy and Smorodinsky use Tullock as an example (“e.g.”) of “the assumption, commonly used in the rent seeking literature…” (my emphasis). A 26-year-old reference is hardly a good basis for a claim about current assumptions, but it is fine to cite it as the point of origin of a still-current one. The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s precisely the kind of error that careful scholarship would avoid in writing up the result, instead of just moving words around that have been taken from another context.

      One suspects Gneezy’s and Smorodinsky’s familiarity with Tullock begins and ends with Anderson et al. That suspicion may be wrong, but it is not unjustified. The verbatim plagiarism justifies any suspicion about carelessness until the editors assure us otherwise.

  8. I agree this is a minor sin, compared with what we’ve seen reported on this blog and elsewhere. The sentences in question do not make or break the paper. Using quotation marks or lightly rewriting the sentences would solve the problem. Small potatoes, and certainly not grounds for retracting the paper. But the principle of the thing matters: the authors should apologize and perhaps ask the journal to publish an official correction attributing those sentences to the original article.

  9. Andrew, I’m surprised you don’t feel a stronger sense of kinship with fellow child prodigy Colin Camerer, considering you too were one. Most people who frequent this blog are not aware that you attended University of Maryland while still in high school, and even qualified to be on UMCP’s 1981 Putnam team at the amazingly young age of 16 (and you made Top 100 nationwide). Interestingly, that team also comprised 2 other prodigies (remember Ravi & Brian?) who were also 18 or below. And you tease Camerer for stating he received his PhD at 22 when you yourself received yours at 25. If you had just continued at UMCP (like those folks hoped you would) instead of going to MIT perhaps you too might have received your PhD by 22. Just saying….

    • Angela,
      I went to high school (and, indeed, junior high) with Andrew. Although he qualifies as a child prodigy by many standards, he was not an outlier among the nerdy students we went to school with. One of our classmates went on to win a McArthur “genius grant,” for example. At least one (actually I think it was two) of our mutual friends took university classes while in high school, along with Andrew. Andrew’s career, which has been very successful even by the standards of our high-achieving high school classmates, is outstanding due to a gradual but relentless pulling away from the crowd rather than his starting with a big head start due to childhood prodigiousness.

      But in any case, I think Andrew probably shares my feeling that the risible thing about Camerer’s being a “childhood prodigy” is not that he was one — which is great and is a fine thing to be proud of — it’s that, 30 years later, he is still bragging about it. For instance, his faculty web page mentions, in the second paragraph, the dates that he got his BA, MBA, and PhD…that’s normal…but it also mentions the age at which he got his PhD (age 22). That’s unusual. I don’t mention how old I was when I got my PhD, and I don’t think Andrew does either; indeed I don’t know anyone else who does. If Camerer were 25 years old and wanted people to know that he already had his PhD, that would be understandable, but the man is 52 years old! You don’t expect someone to prominently cite a 30-year-old accomplishment if they’ve done better stuff since then. So if Camerer were less accomplished, this would be almost pathetic, like a 52-year-old actor who always tells people as soon as he meets them that he used to play a high school student in Welcome Back, Kotter. But in fact Camerer has had a solid career, so he avoids seeming pathetic; instead it just seems a bit insecure (or something) for him to still be talking about how smart he was when he was younger. OK, sure, he was really smart 30 years ago, but what has he done for us lately?

  10. 1) Gneezy is at UCSD, these days a plausible explanation of papers at UCSD.
    I don’t know the domain, so cannot comment on quality, but he has certainly published often on topics that seem related.

    When it is obvious that a few snippets of text, at least were copied, it may be that:
    a) The authors are quite familiar with the field, were just sloppy in introductory material in wish to get on with the new results, and having cited the original paper numerous times, weren’t hiding anything.
    This is not to condone this, but it seems solvable by a note, not a retraction.

    b) Author(s) are totally unfamiliar with field, and the few snippets are hints that much more will be found, and they have copied masses of introductory material in an effort to seem knowledgeable. See PDF @ See No Evil… for numerous examples. This is more in the style of undergrad plagiarism, i.e., plagiarism not to claim new work, but to claim credibility.

    2) In the US, anyway, most schools follow the OSTP / NSF / ORI guidelines on handling of formal complaints of academic misconduct. I’ve looked at dozens of these, and most are pretty similar. Federal funding rules require notification at certain points(*), but except for such notification, for simplicity, most US schools have a general policy applicable whether or not there is such funding. Iv’e studied dozens of these things, and would summarize:

    a) Complaint arrives at school. Somebody {VP Research, RIO, Vice-Provost, Dean} takes a quick look to see if it merits an inquiry. IF SO:

    b) Inquiry committee (usually ~3 faculty) is named, does an inquiry, produces a report to see whether investigation is needed. If so (*b), and continue. This is supposed to be a relatively quick effort.

    c) Investigation committee (a separate committee, again, usually faculty, usually 3 people, but the URL above (Appendix A.7) has examples of two committees of 5 people. A report is produced. (*c)

    d) Ajudication by administration, with various possibilities for appeal, can go as high as President of school. Final report(*d)

    e) If Federal funding was involved, the relevant agencies will have (*b, *c, *d) and can tell the school to redo it.

    As Thomas notes, the existence of plagiarism is independent of intent. However, (according to academic misconduct experts I’ve consulted), for plagiarism to rise to academic misconduct, people want to see evidence of intent, not just sloppiness. I’d guess that the original information in this post (ignoring the PS) would be insufficient to get beyond a), whose likely result would be {somebody} sending a note to the authors: try to be more careful. See p.1 of PDF @ Strange Falsifications…: the slide labeled “Progression of honest errors to intentional fraud.” I found that a useful framework.

    Sometimes, inquiry might establish plagiarism, but investigation has to dig out the extent and see whether or not there is a pattern. Sometimes, it’s not the individual snippet, but the overall pattern, which means that to get complaints taken seriously:
    a) It is valuable to document as many details as possible, and then
    b) Display them in ways that make patterns obvious, if at all possible.

    An investigation committee might go dig around for more problems, given a few snippets, and they might find some, but without more documentation, this might stop at a) or b).

    For display, several of us have evolved a style (see first URL above, p.15), in which in-order identical text is highlighted cyan, shown side-by-side, reformatted to align the text. Trivial changes are shown in yellow. After a reader gets used to it, the cyan especially drops out of attention, which can then be focused on the remaining text, to see whether it is original or well-paraphrased.
    Of course, massive cut-and-paste with trivial changes is pretty obvious … but I don’t think that’s what occurred in the papers of this post, at least from the data so far.

    Some schools take academic misconduct seriously and react quite quickly to well-documented complaints. Others can stand on their heads to ignore all this, even the Federal reporting rules.

    • I said above that it should “probably be retracted”. That may be a bit strong.

      My point is that the examples are clearly plagiarism, though I grant that they may just be isolated cases of sloppiness. We don’t know until the editors of JEBO investigate further, and they would be within their rights (I think) simply to retract the paper to avoid the effort (faced with positive proof of sloppiness, they now have to prove a negative: that there are no other sloppy parts in the paper). There is nothing in the way the JEBO paper was written that suggests to me that they are somehow entitled to the prose in question.

      I agree with John that this can be dealt with quickly and effectively. I do not agree with those who seem to be implying that all this is so much ado about nothing. It is a little to do about something. Just because it is easily fixed does not mean it should not be fixed.

  11. A question for the academics here (I am not). It is my understanding that the plagiarism rules for academic writing require quotation rather than paraphrase for all but specified small snippets from a prior work. Thus, an accurate, well attributed paraphrase can be plagiarism in academic writing when it would not be considered problematical in a less technical medium. Is that accurate? If so, doesn’t that weigh on the scales here against the 2006 authors?

    • I’m not sure I understand the question, but “an accurate, well-attributed paraphrase” can never be considered plagiarism. If it is plagiarism it will always involve some inadequacy in the attribution. What the authors in question have done here is to use to use the exact words of other authors without attributing those words to the rightful authors. No particular “academic” rules need to be invoked. The attribution lacks both a reference (which says that this is where these ideas came from) and quotation marks (which say that these are the exact words as they appear in the source).

  12. This is for Thomas. You really shouldn’t talk about stuff you don’t understand. What you call management “science” (your words), is acctually economics. You seems to be a expert on many things (I judge it by the way you write); uderstanding the economics literature is not one of them. In my view throwing accusations without understanding is a significantly greater sin than repeating a literature review while citing the original paper 8 times. Moreover, they couldn’t use the quatation marks, since they changed important details in the content. On top of that, citing the classical paper in the field is what you want,and should, do. Whether the paper is 20 or 200 years old.

    How about limiting yourself to stuff in which you make sense?

    • Hmm. I take it we agree that you wouldn’t cite Adam Smith to support a claim about “commonly used” assumptions in economics today. That was my only point. I was saying that the Anderson at al. use of Tullock seems right to me, and the Gneezy and Smorodinsky use seems to be sloppily copied from them. I also take it we agree that you shouldn’t use someone’s exact words without enclosing them in quotation marks and following them with a reference.

      You don’t have to be an economist to understand or discuss any of these issues. I mention management studies because Gneezy and Smorodinsky are employed at management schools.

      I participate in blog discussions like this out of interest in the subject of plagiarism (which I’ve studies very closely over the years), not economics. I don’t think I’ve said anything that requires or claims to have an understanding of the economics literature. Finally, making an error in a blog comment stream can’t possibly constitute “a significantly greater sin” than making a referencing error in a published, scholarly paper.

  13. Uri Gneezy, the author of the 2006 article, who writes:
    Just want to set things right: our [Gneezy and Smorodinsky’s] paper is an experimental test of the [earlier] JPE modeling paper.

    That’s just in: Uri Gneezy is a pathetic plagiarist. His abstract quite unequivocally lifted the abstract from another paper. Whatever his intentions might have been then, his failure to acknowledge the theft is more than enough to judge what happened. Hey, the guy has Endowed Chair in Behavioral Economics at UCSD. Clearly, theft is rewarded.

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