Skip to content
 

Plaig!

Tom Scocca discusses some plagiarism that was done by a former New York Times editor:

There was no ambiguity about it; Abramson clearly and obviously committed textbook plagiarism. Her text lifted whole sentences from other sources word for word, or with light revisions, presenting the same facts laid out in the same order as in the originals. . . .

How did this arise? According to Scocca, “partly because she got significant facts wrong, in the galley version of her book . . .”

This reminds me of something that Thomas Basbøll and I noticed awhile ago, that plagiarism and factual error seem to go together:

We propose that plagiarism is a statistical crime. It involves the hiding of important information regarding the source and context of the copied work in its original form. Such information can dramatically alter the statistical inferences made about the work.

I think it’s no coincidence that Abramson had errors as well as plagiarism: When you as an author destroy the paper trail, it’s harder for you as well as others to keep track of what’s really happening. A similar thing happened with Brian Wansink in his notorious retracted papers: the connections between his actual data and what he reported were so tangled that it seemed that he himself had no idea what was real and what was not.

It’s hard enough to keep straight what is happening even if you carefully document everything. So no surprise that if you can’t even source the writing in your book, you’ll get the facts wrong.

Remember what happened to Ed Wegman when he copied from Wikipedia and garbled the results?

P.S. Scocca quotes a law professor defending the plagiarism, which is pretty funny given that so many prominent law professors have themselves been accused of plagiarism (for example, here, here, and here), without it seeming to do much to their careers.

I think Scocca nails it when he writes:

Whether or not there are separate classes of writing, with separate value, there are definitely separate classes of writers.

It’s not the status of the words that defines the offense, it’s the status of the person who originally wrote the words compared to the person who copied them. . . . Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Juan Williams—above a certain level, a public figure is immune to any real career consequences for stealing work from the lower castes.

We saw something similar in the case of mathematician Christian Hesse, who took material written by others and didn’t credit them. This was not plagiarizing because it was not the exact words that Chrissy copied, just content—but like Abramson, and for that matter Wegman, there was the same consequence that Chrissy by copying introduced errors into his writing. He didn’t take responsibility, and by not clearly labeling his sources he made it that much more difficult for readers to track down these stories.

30 Comments

    • Andrew says:

      Sameera:

      Posner writes:

      Readers of popular histories are not professional historians, and most don’t care a straw how original the historian is. The public wants a good read, a good show, and the fact that a book or a play may be the work of many hands—as, in truth, most art and entertainment are—is of no consequence to it. The harm is not to the reader but to those writers whose work does not glitter with stolen gold.

      That makes sense. In journalism, though, I think plagiarism can more directly harm the reader. When reading journalism, don’t just want “a good read, a good show”—we want to learn some facts about the world. Journalists can get facts wrong, so it’s important to know their sources. This is similar to the concerns that Basbøll and I express regarding plagiarism in academic work.

      • I agree with you because I’m often fascinated by the content of citations. It’s not simply the practice of plagiarism that can harm the reader. It’s the misuse of citations that can harm the reader. Each case is unique.

        My apologies for repeating the following for the umpteenth time: I spent a lot of time with my Dad and his colleagues, many of whom wrote histories of South Asia, Iran, ME, and religions. They were mostly academics. In hindsight even they did not cite all their sources. In fact, I can pinpoint whose non-credited idea or concept was implicated. John Rawls told me that charismatic ideation cultivated by eclectics provide the content for academia.

        History is an extremely challenging endeavor. Readers tend to read one or two accounts and cite the content without questioning it. Here on your blog, as elsewhere, people read their own biases into them sometimes. Or read content into them that the author did not claim.

  1. yyw says:

    It certainly seems that high profile people don’t suffer too much long-term damage from plagiarism. Still, I don’t understand why they do it since there is little benefit doing it. I wonder how much they delegate their writings to their assistants etc.

    • isaac says:

      “…since there is little benefit doing it.”

      but you only know about the plagiarists who were caught/exposed — undetected plagiarists might benefit significantly.

      exposed plagiarists are not a random sample of that plagiarist population

      • yyw says:

        My thinking is if what you steal is of great intellectual value and it is already in the public domain, then the odds of getting caught sooner or later seem high. If what you steal is of little value, then why do it especially if you are already well established like those people?

        • LemmusLemmus says:

          I’ve spent quite some time around academics, but I keep being amazed at how much many people hate the act of writing, and how bad they are at it. So, I think the answer to your question is that it saves a lot of time, and time spent on something they hate.

          • Kyle C says:

            Off topic here, but, same with a lot of judges! They have decideophobia. Luckily for judges, they get to plagiarize (“apply precedent” and crib from parties’ briefs), it’s almost part of the job.

  2. Being sloppy is not hard for any of us. I have become even more respectful of giving credit where credit is due.

  3. Brent Hutto says:

    This is neither here nor there, just a story that came to mind reading this.

    In high school I was assigned a term paper on Metternich. The Metternich biography most often referred to authoritative was written by Henry Kissinger. I requested the HS library to locate a copy but they were unable to do so before the paper was due. So I used what limited other sources I could put my hands on.

    As luck would have it, about the time I finished the paper a loan copy of Kissinger arrived. So my teacher picked it up from the library and apparently read through it before grading my paper.

    To this day that teacher is probably still convinced that I stole a certain argument directly from Kissinger. She made me re-write the paper and showed me the passage that seemed eerily similar (not in wording but in the order of the points leading to the conclusion). She thought I had somehow got hold of a copy without telling her and cribbed the paragraph in question.

    Wasn’t true. And in today’s world, at least among middle-class kids, presumably even a high-school student would be able to get access to just about anything ever published. But I had absolutely, positively realized the same point on my own that Kissinger had arrived at. Independently.

    Anyway, an anecdote proves nothing. Other than maybe it was a different world half a century ago than it is now…

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Nothing worse than a high school teacher who thinks they have a god-like power to “know your thinking” etc. (I had one, too.)

      • LemmusLemmus says:

        Ah, that reminds me of the story of the student who handed in her M.A. thesis and was told that she hadn’t written her thesis herself, which was untrue (according to her). They had no hypothesis on where the thesis had come from; they simply argued that it was “too good”.

        • Brent Hutto says:

          Did you ever see that (really bad) 1980’s Rodney Dangerfield movie “Back to School”?

          He was millionaire who moved into the dorm with his son and enrolled in college. He hired Kurt Vonnegut to write his term paper about “Slaughterhouse Five”. The teacher flunked him and said he’d obviously never red the novel.

  4. Bill says:

    In a business setting, I used to be fairly careful about quoting sources for ideas I presented. One day, a mentor dropped by to say that what I was doing was intimidating: I tended to read more than most managers, so my mentor perceived, and their reaction to my sourcing ideas was to become depressed that they hadn’t read all that material. To get more of my ideas considered, my mentor suggested I drop all the attributions and just state my idea: “No one thinks you’re /that/ smart anyway. :-) They know you likely got many of these ideas elsewhere; they just don’t want to be reminded of it.”

    I tried it for a while, and it seemed to work (all anecdotal, observational evidence).

    For better or (and?) worse, I think I’ve moved back towards attributing ideas to sources. I’m curious; to what if any degree to you here see plaig as domain-dependent?

  5. Andrew says:

    Yyw, Bill:

    I’m guessing that one reason so many law profs plagiarize without consequences is that it is standard practice in the legal world to sign one’s name to a document that someone else has written.

    In other cases, I think people copy without attribution to get credit for other people’s work. That could explain Chrissy’s behavior (see above link): he copied stories from other sources, but maybe he felt that if he credited every source, he wouldn’t get enough credit.

    I had an academic colleague who plagiarized from me—that is, he wrote stuff under his own name that I’d told him. When I asked him why he did it, he said that he felt he wasn’t getting enough credit for our joint work. I guess he was acting as a one-man credit redistribution crew.

    • yyw says:

      Reading the old post on Chrissy reminds me the story about Bob Dylan being accused of plagiarism in his songwriting. Lines about plagiarism seem to get fuzzier as we move into creative writing. I definitely think Chrissy should have credited his sources. Attribution of inspiration in songwriting would be nice too but that seems rare in the music world. Reading literature you also often see works that strongly suggestive of influence of early works. Attribution would be nice since an interested reader can go check out the works and compare and contrast, but it’s probably too much to ask.

    • The one that caught me by surprise was Doug Altman and Jon Deeks presenting work I had done while working as a research fellow in Oxford with them – without any mention of my involvement. When I asked about why they did not credit me, they replied that I had left the work unfinished and so they were not obligated to credit me. I checked with some others back in Oxford and found out that though frowned upon it was accepted. So institutionally acceptable plagiarism?

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        At best, lack of common courtesy.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          But also an example of how things sometimes might go in another direction: Once I spent a fair amount of time helping a grad student in another field learn to understand and use some specialized statistical techniques in analyzing her data. Her advisor asked if I would like to be listed as a co-author on the paper that resulted. I said no thank you, since I was not comfortable enough with the quality of the work to want to have my name on the paper.

  6. Michael Nelson says:

    The author of a trivia book, afraid of being plagiarized by other trivia authors, included a few fake and completely original items so as to catch any plagiarists. This is similar to a very, very old practice of cartographers including fictional islands, roads and such in their maps to prove that their work had been appropriated by another mapmaker. The author’s trap caught someone–Trivial Pursuit’s creators!–so he sued.

    The conclusion of the story is relevant to this post in two ways: first, in addition to copying the false trivia items, Trivial Pursuit also copied typographical errors–apparently offering further evidence that plagiarists perpetuate errors. Second, the courts found that Trivial Pursuit’s actions didn’t qualify as plagiarism because a) facts can’t be copyrighted, b) if you draw from a number of reference works, not just one source, it counts as compiling uncopyrightable general knowledge, and c) Trivial Pursuit’s copying fell under the fair use exception to copyright law because their game was a transformative work. They didn’t just copy, they changed the statements into questions and built them into a game. This is why you don’t hear about movie studies raking in the big bucks by suing everyone who makes or shares a GIF.

    So, in the legal sense (as opposed to ethical), Chrissy is completely off the hook for plagiarism. He took facts about games from various reference sources and transformed them into a book. Perhaps the best way to describe his offense is unethical copying, depending on whose ethics you’re going by.

    Wikipedia entry on the trivia lawsuit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trivia_Encyclopedia

    • Andrew says:

      Michael:

      Yes, this came up in one of my posts on Chrissy. Facts (or even false facts, in his case) are not copyrighted.

      Here’s what I wrote at the time:

      Christian correctly pointed out that “Chess games, chess positions are in the public domain and can be written about by anybody giving his own take on them or telling new stories about them,” but this misses the point because in the excerpts considered in this discussion, he was not telling new stories, rather he was recounting old stories and getting some of them wrong. But, again, it’s not plagiarism.

      • someone says:

        Christian Hesse’s plagiarism was also of the selection of games and positions. Games and positions are in the public domain, but it takes a lot of work to choose from millions of them in the public domain small subsets that are very interesting.

  7. Renzo Alves says:

    When it comes to song-writers/composers, influence is everywhere and it’s a judgement call how much is enough to require sharing credit/royalties. Musicians generally aren’t lawyers. If the source composer thinks otherwise, she’ll retain a legal professional who will then do what needs to be done, if it’s worth doing (because the borrowing work was a bit hit). In addition, a composer can acknowledge inspiration from someone else, but (1) that might open doors to copyright infringement actions, or at least alert the lawyers that there is potential money to be made, and (2) the artist/composer doesn’t generally decide what gets printed on a record label or in LP liner notes, and there is limited and conventional spaces for doing that. Also, copyright law is pretty vague about the specific elements of music compositions.
    Last, (I was a musician, this is advice I got from an older, very successful jazz artist): If you record someone’s song and credit them, you have to pay composer royalties, but it’s worth it because information-asymmetric potential buyers will be looking for familiar titles on an unknown artists debut records. Even if the song retains nothing other than the title. Often the original artist didn’t “write” the title, so she’s getting paid for something she didn’t do. However, always credit the copyright owner on the record (as your promsise that you will eventually pay them), even if you don’t pay the royalties due. In other words, it’s complicated.

  8. Dzhaughn says:

    Abramson’s defense is risible. When she copies a sentence that lists 3 facts, she is appropriating both the work required to discover those facts, and also the idea that those 3 facts out of all facts are significant and related.

  9. Ethan Bolker says:

    Related experience on my mind at the moment – the web is an echo chamber. tl;dr

    I am preparing a second edition of a textbook whose focus is teaching students how to pay attention to quantitative information they encounter in the news or in their lives. A second edition is called for since what was current a while ago may not be now.

    The book is structured around analyzing quotes from the news. All come with
    a reference to my source – usually a link. Since links age, I’m checking them all (with a script). When I find one broken I search for a sentence from the quote to find out where the page has been rehosted or renamed. (The US government constantly rearranges it web pages.) Often I get hits to multiple sources, all but one of which have copied from one another, rarely with attribution, sometimes over many years. Someone must have composed the words once, but I can rarely locate the original.

    This is bad enough when the numbers are right. But statements off by orders of magnitude propagate the same way.

    Citing sources properly (let alone teaching students to do so) is often effectively impossible.

  10. Eric B Rasmusen says:

    The post:”It’s hard enough to keep straight what is happening even if you carefully document everything. So no surprise that if you can’t even source the writing in your book, you’ll get the facts wrong.”

    That is a big and important idea. To elaborate: if the author does not keep track of his sources, he isn’t keeping track of how reliable his information is either.

    The American Economic Review is increasing the stringency of its data and code publication requirement. This will reduce plagiarism and make replication easier, but maybe those aren’t the most important benefits. Maybe it is that authors will be forced to do what they should do for their own sake anyway: keep their data organized and their code simple enough that they themselves can understand and check it. We all need nudges to do that kind of drudgery, even if we know it will reduce our work in the end.

Leave a Reply