No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man

Part 1. The ideal policy

Basbøll, as always, gets right to the point:

Andrew Gelman is not the plagiarism police because there is no such thing as the plagiarism police.

But, he continues:

There is, at any self-respecting university and any self-respecting academic journal, a plagiarism policy, and there sure as hell is a “morality” of writing in the world of scholarship. The cardinal rule is: don’t use other people’s words or ideas without attributing those words or ideas to the people you got them from.

What to do when the plagiarism (or, perhaps, sloppy quotation, to use a less loaded word) comes to light?

Everyone makes mistakes, but if you make one you have to correct it. Don’t explain why your mistake isn’t very serious or “set things right” by pointing to the “obvious” signs of your good intentions. . . . Don’t say you’ve cleared it with the original author. The real victim of your crime is not the other writer; it’s your reader. That’s whose trust you’ve betrayed.

But what if the copying-without-full-attribution is indeed mere sloppiness, an honest mistake? The correction should still be made:

Nobody said anything about motive. All they did was to point out an error of scholarship that needs to be fixed.

2. The example

Basbøll’s discussion arose out of a case I posted the other day, not an example I was personally aware of but an instance of minor plagiarism that someone sent in to me in unofficial role as “not the plagiarism police.” My post elicited a range of comments, with some people saying that the published paper should be corrected to make the sourcing more clear, and others saying that the copying was no big deal. Hence Basbøll’s argument that the requirement of clarification should not be contingent on intention. If I break a dish, I should replace it, even if I knocked it over by accident.

Several hours after my entry had been posted, I received a friendly email from one of the authors of the article:

Just want to set things right: our paper is an experimental test of the 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.

I reacted to this by appending the above paragraph to my blog post (with attribution, of course!) and adding:

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.”

I did not say that the unsourced quotation was not plagiarism, but I felt that it was not such a problem, hence I felt that the email I’d received had cleared things up. That said, just as I am not the plagiarism police, I’m not the plagiarism arbiter, and me saying it’s ok doesn’t make it ok. Basbøll has a good point above, and I like that he detaches the consequences and the remedy from the intentions.

Perhaps one problem is the analogy of plagiarism to theft. It’s hard to steal something by accident. Even when somebody “takes” something by accident (“hey, that bag was just sitting there on that bench!”), it’s likely he had an idea there was an owner. Instead, maybe we should analogize plagiarism to breaking a dish, which it’s possible to do by accident or even unknowingly via sloppy behavior (I say this as someone who is sloppy and breaks things sometimes). If I break a dish, I feel bad and I apologize, but I don’t feel like a bad person, I just see it as part of the cost of doing business, given my general level of obliviousness.

3. The problem

So where’s the difficulty? When I received that email, I felt bad, in that I had singled out these authors (although not mentioning them by name, but that was not hard to find via google). I posted a correction right away. (Much of this was due to the cordial nature of that email. Several months ago I had an unrelated instance of a blog post that annoyed someone who sent me an obnoxious cease-and-desist style email. That time I had no particular desire to make a correction, in fact I was tempted to post the entire letter online, but then I thought better of it.)

Here’s the deal (for me): if someone clearly seems to be acting like a “bad guy,” I have no problem slamming him. For example, Mark Hauser didn’t share his data, then denied and denied, even when his own lab assistants were telling their stories. Frank Fischer threatened legal action against the student who discovered his plagiarism. Ed Wegman did a Chris Rock and denied even after the evidence was obvious, and he also threw a former student under the bus, even though there were several instances of plagiarism in Wegman-authored publications not involving that student. Karl Weick, when is plagiarism was uncovered, bobbed and weaved, got cute, and never apologized or explained.

But once there’s some ambiguity and I must dismount from my moral high horse, it gets tougher.

In the example discussed above the authors seem reasonable (hey, one of them sent me a nice email), and after all they did cite the earlier article 8 times. If someone wrote a paper in a high-profile journal to replicate one of my papers and they cited me so clearly, I wouldn’t mind if they copied some lines from my exposition. (As Basbøll notes, it’s not just about the authors of the original and new papers, the scholarly community is also involved. So I’m not saying that the copying-without-full-sourcing is OK, just that it doesn’t seem bad in the way of some of those other cases.)

Or consider Bruno Frey, the self-plagiarist, whom I actually met once (when we were introduced, he said, “Gelman—you wrote that zombies paper,” which of course made me happy). He demonstrated the strong form of Arrow’s theorem by publishing the same article in 5 different journals. That’s not cool; on the other hand, it was more of a waste of people’s time than anything else. Self-plagiarism isn’t as bad as real plagiarism, and Frey did in fact apologized (and it was a real apology, not a non-apology apology of the form, “I’m sorry there was something I did that led to a perception of wrongdoing” etc). Sure, talk is cheap, but the point is that many people who are caught don’t apologize. Apology is an important step because it establishes the principle that this is something that shouldn’t be done. Anyway, the Frey case seemed ambiguous to me so I wasn’t so comfortable with mocking him.

Here’s another example. Carl Blackman is a scientist who, many years ago, published a weak statistical analysis and then refused to share his data. This annoyed me enough that I used it as the central example in my first Chance column on ethics. When he and his colleague Dennis House saw my article, they were annoyed and wrote letters to the editor (which I posted and discussed here). Although I did not back down from my claim that their refusal to share data was unethical, I did feel a little bad about the situation: my impression now is that Blackman and House were in over their head, and that they did not perceive any general duty to share data with other researchers, even though they worked at a government agency. Hence I felt the larger problem was not with these particular people but rather with the lack of general agreement that researchers have a duty to share data and methods where possible. I did think Blackman should’ve apologized (if for no other reason than that the progress of science in his subfield would have been advanced by a better published analysis of his data) but I can understand that people find it difficult to apologize after what they perceive as an unprovoked attack.

Just as with tabloid-headline crimes (or, more recently, with outrage-of-the-week bloggers), it’s much more fun to write about these cases when there’s a clear and unambiguous bad guy. Once you start sympathizing with the perp, it’s harder to keep tasing and clubbing. That’s why Basbøll’s attitude, harsh and unforgiving as it might seem, is probably the right approach, to separate the act from the motivation.

P.S. Is there a term for reverse plagiarism, where you write something and attribute it to someone else? When the “someone else” is not a real person, this is called “sock puppetry” (some notorious examples in the blogosphere include Mary Rosh, Dilbert, and that cranky middle-aged guy from the New Republic who doesn’t like bloggers). But what if, for example, you edit a wikipedia entry and then cite wikipedia? I don’t think this behavior is unethical but it does involve a bit of misdirection. One might call it “text laundering.”

P.P.S. This is silly, I know, but . . . I get such a satisfying feeling of power every time I hit option-o to type the ø in Basbøll. I should program such simple key combinations for à, è, and é as well; those guys really slow me down.

22 thoughts on “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man

  1. It seems like we should acknowledge a difference between misattributing ideas and misattributing words. The advance of science is best served by writing papers with the clearest language possible. If someone else has written something with exceptional clarity, and i want to build on that idea, it does nobody any good if i rephrase that idea in my own worse diction, in order to avoid plagiarism. I could also make extensive use of quotes, which would also make for clunky reading. What if four of their paragraphs perfectly introduce my Original research question? It is unheard of in an academic article to include such a long quote, even if such an approach would offer the clearest exposition.

    In science, the goal is to ensure that people’s ideas are attributed correctly. People’s careers are made on ideas and execution, not diction. If copy pasting other people’s sentences makes our work more clear to the reader, it should be encouraged. Citations should be made, but i don’t see who benefits from making a distinction between referencing someone’s idea, and doing so in their own precise language.

    In fact, it would be pretty easy to write software that tells you exactly which sentences were copied wholesale from other work, for anyone who cares. The paper you referenced in your last post seemed to fit exactly this category: work that could be expressed most clearly through re-use of another author’s language, without in any way attempting to take credit for the original idea.

    • Paul:

      Everyone agrees that it’s ok to copy people’s words exactly. The rule, though, is to put them in quotes (or indent them) and give the source right there. I do this every day on my blog; I don’t see why it should be a problem for someone writing a scientific article.

      Again: you say, “If copy pasting other people’s sentences makes our work more clear to the reader, it should be encouraged.” I agree. And to be even clearer, put in the quotation marks and the citation.

      • How often do you see frames in quotes? It’s unheard of in my discipline (as in Paul’s). So that’s not really a feasible option. It’s especially problematic if you want to share most of the framing, but emphasize slightly different things. What I would like to be able to do is start the paper with a footnote like “our exposition follows [xxx]” then include the text unquoted, with modifications.

        Compare this to self-plagiarism. I self-plagiarize my frame all the time — when publishing multiple papers on a topic, I think carefully about framing for the first paper. Since the frame isn’t the point of the followup work, it’s silly to change it for the sake of changing it. But since my understanding evolves over time, the text will change slightly.

        If it’s fine for me to copy from my earlier work in an area, why shouldn’t someone else be able to? In some cases, such as when the authors don’t have good English, this will make the resulting paper be substantially better.

        • Eric:

          It would be completely feasible for Fischer, Wegman, Weick, Gneezy, Goodwin, Tribe, Ayres, and all the others to use quotation marks. Nobody is stopping them from doing so. But, sure, if you really want, instead of using quotes, you could put a footnote at the end of the quote saying something like: The preceding three sentences are taken from ***.

          The problem with not identifying the source is that it’s hard to evaluate work without knowing where it’s coming from. Gneezy maybe we can trust. Weick would seem trustworthy, but he keeps changing the meaning of his story, something that would be harder to do if he were to keep the sourcing clear. Wegman was an apparent authority but he didn’t know what he was doing at all, at one point losing an exponent when copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia, and at another point distorting the work of the source he was copying from. With clearer citations it’s harder to do this sort of thing. If you start with the presumption that there will be no transmission errors (due to laziness, dishonesty, or simple mistakes), you can imagine relaxing all sorts of rules. But the rules are there for a reason: errors do occur. A few quotation marks are a small price to pay for the goal of clarity.

    • A paper does not represent an idea only, it represents the ideas of its author(s). The paper does not tell us something that is true; it tells us that someone thinks something is true. So your rephrasing is important and does us a lot of good. If you include four paragraphs of someone else’s writing, we don’t know what you think, we know only that you think that this other person is right. That’s why you don’t just quote someone else’s frame. It wouldn’t be plagiarism, but it would not be competent research writing. Leaving off the quotation marks just hides this incompetence.

      I want to know how you frame your research question because I might want to engage you in conversation about your results. The idea that someone else has already said it much better than you ever could really puts a damper on that conversation. Imagine, for example, if instead of writing this comment myself, I just copy pasted some boilerplate from a standard plagiarism policy. Wouldn’t that be somewhat off-putting? It would probably state the same idea, more or less, and would no doubt be clear (probably clearer than I normally am in a comment field.)

      In research, being able to write clearly about something is part and parcel of knowing something. If you can’t write your own sentences, I’m simply not going to trust your judgment.

      • Thomas: a slight disagreement, perhaps pf taste, and it clearly varies from case to case.
        If your research frame is A+B, or where A raised a question you are hoping to answer, I would rather see A quoted, and affirmed (if agreed with), with the energy put into good articulation of B, i.e., where the value-add is, especially if A is at all well-known. It is valuable to know that the framing came from elsewhere, and this is building new work atop it. Sometimes a good frame can generate numerous interesting questions, bu of course it better be properly attributed.

        To some extent, this is is like legal contracts.
        X starts with the text for some standard contract, then edits it and presents it to Y.
        Y has to plow through it to check everything.

        Alternatively, there is a standard well-known contract Z, with fill-in-the-blanks for a few places, and a place for amendments and additions.

        I know which one I’d rather deal with, as it focuses the efforts on departures or additions, where the potential value-add really lies.

  2. It’s interesting that the email you got didn’t say, “We shouldn’t have copied that first paragraph almost verbatim; that was wrong and if one of our undergraduate students had done that they would have been subject to charges of academic misconduct.”

    The point you make about breaking a dish is a good one. I’ve argued before that the plagiarism = theft metaphor is often misleading.

    • “I’ve argued before that the plagiarism = theft metaphor is often misleading.”

      Right, it can be. Sometimes it is theft, sometimes it’s truly not deliberate. Basbøll quotes me and claims, as Thomas does, that intention is a red herring. But it’s clear that what Andrew is partly grappling with here is that in practice accusations of plagiarism are unambiguously claims about moral conduct. It is far more often the case than not that the presumption is deliberate theft, not accident.

      Were it the case if, as some are proposing, the framing was “take responsibility for the broken dish, whatever the circumstances”, then, yes, absolutely, intent would be a red herring, distracting us from the importance of correcting the problem, benefiting the greater good. Because, yes, what’s most important here is not blame and punishment, but communal intellectual integrity.

      But this isn’t the case. Plagiarism is an accusation with significant moral content. Anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous because every public discussion about every claimed instance of plagiarism includes moralizing language and exhortations of punishment. This is also almost certainly why there’s so much defensiveness and evasion from the accused, even when you otherwise might expect them to be willing to acknowledge that they knocked the dish of the counter and that it’s their fault.

      I don’t argue that we should be aware that plagiarism might be, and almost certainly is, far more often unwitting than it is deliberate because I want to minimize or dismiss the importance of the intellectual integrity that plagiarism dilutes. Far from it. Indeed, my purpose is to make distinct the moral issues involved with intent from the issues involved with communal intellectual integrity — because these moral issues involved with intent are, at present, dominant; they interfere with our ability to individually and institutionally manage plagiarism (as Basbøll mentions), and, not the least, they result in (some) people being branded as thieves and frauds who have actually merely unwittingly done something that most of the accusers have also unknowingly done.

      Finally, intent is no less relevant here than it is with dish-breaking. That is to say, first and foremost we want people to take responsibility for breaking dishes, to try to avoid breaking dishes, to replace the dishes they break. But, given that, we also care a great deal when we learn that someone deliberately broke a dish, as opposed to doing so accidentally. In criminal law, intent matters a great deal, even though it’s often so difficult to assess, much less prove. There are deliberate plagiarists — they are deliberate frauds and, importantly, they are often serial offenders. We naturally want to separate those from the accidental/careless, we naturally want to harshly punish them. So, in almost all respects, intent does matter. The one way in which it doesn’t, is that it cannot somehow make plagiarism itself harmless. But I never have argued this.

      • I think the best approach is to say that an clear case of plagiarism (like that first sentence in the articles we’ve discussing here) is prima facie evidence of sloppiness (not fraudulence). If the plagiarist then insists that they’ve done nothing wrong (in order to deflect the charge of sloppiness) they are saying, in effect, that they’ve done (whatever they did) deliberately. Either way, we don’t have to discuss intention because we just ask the author directly (after showing them the source that raised our suspicions): did you write that sentence (that way) deliberately? And they can then either say it was a mistake or not.

        Most of these cases run aground rhetorically because the accused authors (or their defenders) refuse to look at the evidence because (they are convinced) they did not intend to plagiarize.

        The idea that “plagiarism is an accusation with significant moral content” needs to be dismantled. We can begin by noticing that it has no such content when a trusted peer reads the manuscript before publication. “I think you left out some quotation marks here,” one might say. There is no “moral” accusation here. After publication, it willy-nilly becomes colored by the moralism of all public life. But it’s still the same mistake. Still very much in need of correction.

        And at that point, I am arguing, everyone should simply stop talking about intention and look at the facts. How many sentences have in fact been plagiarized, they should ask? Not, why would Author X do such a stupid thing even once?

      • A chef who doesn’t wash her hands and poisons his / her customers is still culpable. Or gets raw chicken blood into the salad by not keeping materials separate. Sh/e didn’t mean to get anyone sick! There should be a moral discourse of plagiarism even if it is not intentional like theft or fraud.

        It could be a case of negligence and still carry an ethical charge. Accidents can still carry blame, even if they are not intentional. Maybe civil law is a better source of metaphors here than criminal.

        But even accidents can carry criminal penalties.

  3. Just this morning (November 24, 2012), I heard this NPR broadcast about plagiarism among “More than half a dozen politicians in Germany.” Go to for the details. Things started in 2011 when the Defence Minister, a rapidly rising star whose last name is Guttenberg (he has a fistful of given names) resigned and had his doctorate revoked due to accusations of plagiarism. The Guardian,, said “Guttenberg has received yet more nicknames, most notably Baron zu Googleberg, the minister for cut and paste.”
    An interesting aspect of this succession of stories is the connection with an American professor named Debora Weber-Wulff who was teaching in Germany; she noticed that one of her students when writing in English used the unusual word “inculcate.” From this it was a short step to “German public interest in the subject began to grow. Some Germans created collaborative websites, or wikis, where they posted plagiarized passages they uncovered.” “New wikis began popping up, including one called Vroniplag that was named for a politician’s daughter accused of plagiarism.” Even though “there weren’t strict policies in Germany. Nor were there any serious government or academic efforts to prevent or ferret out plagiarism,” it would seem that they play rough in Germany once they get started.

  4. There have been a number of interesting articles/ blog posts on plagiarism, self- and otherwise concerning authors who supposedly plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell. In short, Gladwell’s point is some of these are blown out of proportion.

    I “plagiarize myself” all of the time if by that it means I re-use the same examples in a blog post, conference paper and lecture. Yes, I think it is bad and sloppy if you leave out quotes that you should have inserted. On the other hand, if you did cite the author 8 times, it’s rather unlikely a deliberate effort to mislead the reader was being made. My point is – and I think you are getting at this – although there is no time when plagiarism is “okay”, sometimes plagiarism is a hanging offense and sometimes it’s a hand-slapping offense.

  5. AnnMaria:

    Yes, see this comment in earlier thread.

    NSF, and
    Universities committees, such as this one at OSU, make these determinations *all the time* in response to formal complaints.

    Now, they may draw the the line in different places, and differently for different people, given the expectation that senior people ought to know better. Sometimes it is unclear there the line is, because they don’t publish the cases they think are due minor wrist-slaps, but one can certainly find numerous examples of behavior deemed over the line.

  6. Just a quick FYI
    Option+e allows you then to put an accent on a vowel (é or á) and Option +~ allows you to put a backwards tilde on a character (à or è)

    You may already know that, but if not it may keep them from slowing you down much.

  7. [hmm… first attempt to post seems to have vanished; I’ll try it again without any links]

    “Is there a term for reverse plagiarism, where you write something and attribute it to someone else?”

    Pseudoepigraphy would cover that, i think (though it also includes cases where the erroneous attribution comes later, rather than from the actual author).

    This used to be rather common practice in pre-modern times: claiming your poem about the Trojan War was actually Homer’s, or that your medical/alchemical treatise was written by Jābir ibn Hayyān/Geber. There are various pre-modern writers known only as Pseudo-SomoneFamous (pseudo-Dionyius, pseudo-Aristotle, pseudo-Geber), since all we know is that they wrote something they (or later people) attributed to SomeoneFamous.

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