Skip to content

Social science plaig update

OK, we got two items for you, one in political science and one in history. Both are updates on cases we’ve discussed in the past on this blog. I have no personal connection to any of the people involved; my only interest is annoyance at the ways in which plagiarism pollutes scientific understanding and the ways in which third parties go to great efforts to protect plagiarists, I assume because of the desire to avoid bad publicity for their organizations.

1. The award for the political science book

Frank Fischer, a professor of political science who was caught copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.

Last November I received the following email last year from a political scientist who wishes to remain anonymous:

Your recent posts on plagrism refreshed my memories about Frank Fischer.
You and Basboll already wrote on his clear cut case long ago. So I was totally taken aback when Fischer received the Aaron Wildavsky Enduring Contribution Award from the American Political Science Association.

They even cited his plagiarized work in the announcement.

Bottom line: Congrats to Fischer for getting plagiarized work recognized as an enduring contribution to the field!

A blog post would surely boost attention to the problem, but I would like to remain anonymous.

My correspondent told me that “lots of senior people in the discipline” discouraged him from getting involved in this one.

Hey, I knew Aaron Wildavsky a bit. Not personally, but we were both professors at Berkeley at the same time and I saw him in some seminars. He was a bit of a wild man, kinda out of control in the way he’d react or overreact to things that people said.

Anyway, rather than blog the above item directly, I thought I’d approach the relevant committee directly, so I sent off an email to the APSA Public Policy Section recommending that, if they don’t want to retract their 2017 Aaron Wildavsky Enduring Contribution Award to Frank Fischer for his 2003 book Reframing Public Policy, that they also give it to Giandomenico Majone and David Walsh, who wrote two of the works from which Fischer copied in his 2003 book without appropriate attribution:

Majone, G., 1989. Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Walsh, D., 1972. Sociology and the Social World. In: Filmer, Paul, Phillipson, Michael, Silverman, David and Walsh, David, New Directions in Sociological Theory. London, Collier-Macmillan: 15-35. [Also published by MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1973.]

I also emphasized that I am not an expert in this area and have no intention of pursuing any formal process here. I just wanted to let the committee be aware of this situation so that they could have the opportunity to fix it.

Pretty stunning that the APSA gave out that Enduring Contribution Award, several years after the copying-without-attribution came out. And the story was no secret: it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. The award for the history book

Balazs Szalontai updates us on this story from a couple years ago:

You may have heard the news that Professor Armstrong is to retire from Columbia in 2020.

The way the Columbia administration handled the case perfectly justified the concerns that you had expressed here. The Standing Committee on the Conduct of Research drastically whittled down the original recommendations of the Investigation Committee, effectively depriving me of any public vindication. First they vetoed the idea that Armstrong should formally acknowledge his misconduct and that the plagiarized book be withdrawn, and later they discarded the public statement, too.

I replied: Like with his namesake Lance, the problem was not just the violation of norms but also his use of his privileged position to attack people who pointed out what he was doing.

Szalontai pointed me to this bit from a review by Armstrong published in 2011 in the Journal of Asian Studies:

Stone-cold history prof Armstrong uses his gatekeeper role to patronizingly dismiss Szalontai’s work. As Szalontai puts it, it’s “as if a fabricated Russian source was more valuable than a genuine Hungarian source.” In a 2006 article, though, Armstrong described Szalontai’s book as “extensively researched, impressively detailed and insightful” that “does a great service to the fields of Korean studies, Cold War history and the history of communist regimes.”

Armstrong even wrote that Szalontai’s book “should be required reading for anyone curious about the workings of this reclusive country [North Korea] . . . filled with fascinating bits of information.” Good enough to plagiarize, I guess!

The country club mentality

Fischer and Armstrong are pretty obscure figures, even within social-science academia. The only reason I’d heard of either of them was from the plagiarism scandals.

It’s no surprise that writers plagiarize: writing a book is hard work, it’s less hard if you copy others’ work, and, conditional on copying others’ work, you’ll get more credit if you don’t cite where it’s coming from. It’s very simple: you want the credit without putting in the effort, so you cheat.

What’s really bad is when the cheaters do a Lance Armstrong and attack the people who reveal the problem. When engaging in this attack on truth-tellers, the cheaters often play the Javert card, acting as if it’s completely fine to plagiarize, and that their critics are obsessed weirdos. It’s as if all the people that matter are buddies at a country club, and they have to deal with impertinent caddies who call them out on every damn mulligan. They may get even more annoyed at people like Sokal and me who are members of the club but still side with the caddies.

One Comment

  1. Dan F. says:

    I recently caught plagiarism in an undergraduate thesis. The administrative reaction was to oblige the student to repair the errors. This was inadequately done (grossly so) with the approval of the thesis director, and therein lies the fundamental problem. The student was simply doing what he had been taught (or not taught) to do, and the supervisor considered his initial behavior, and its correction, completely normal, and could not understand why I was making so much trouble.

    In Spain there is a saying that translates roughly as – the thief thinks that everyone has his condition – that summarizes the problem. The academic world is full of actors whose motivations are everything but intellectual, and for whom this is simply a career path, a way to a steady or even very good income, and a source of incredible job security, and whose behavioral models have never been good (those of this mindset gravitate to professors of this mindset). To them cutting corners, copying, plagiarizing, fudging data, are all simply part of the game, ways of getting ahead of the chumps, and things you have to do if you don’t want to be a chump. In this mindframe it’s not a big deal if you get caught, because everyone else is doing it, and that someone has succeeded without getting caught just means he’s playing the game better than you. The system of h-indices and impact factors and the like rewards this behavior, and the conclusion is natural, particularly for those of an authoritarian mindset – the institution for which I work supports my way of doing things.

Leave a Reply