Plagiarism is a symptom not a disease

What is plagiarism?

imagePlagiarism is a bit like the weather. Everybody talks about the topic but nobody does anything much about it. Sure students are admonished not to and punished when caught; but that is about it, other than out-sourcing much of the issue to money-making outfits like There are many reasons for this and I intend to discuss a few of them.

The Oxford dictionary defines plagiarism as a noun for “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own” and gives the example of usage “there were accusations of plagiarism.” This, like all definitions, leaves open many things, like how much work or how big an idea must be involved. There are legal tomes and screeds on just that subject [3].  But even assuming the definition is clear, the question of why is not mentioned let alone answered.

Why do we care?

Here are three brief answers.

  1. We may care because it protects the value in the originator’s work, be it financial or reputational. Some of this overlaps with more general issues of intellectual property. Here I think the matter was put wonderfully by Jefferson:

    [1] If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. [2] Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. [3] That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. [4] Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

    This is in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Issac McPherson (August 13, 1813), collected in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson part 6., and I read it first on page 94 of The future of ideas by Lawrence Lessig, Random House, 2001. That is a full citation but it is now easily found on the Internet: try the lustrous phrase in italics.

  2. We may care because originality is a requirement for achieving degrees or passing courses. Such requirements have changed over time and what is improper today may be good practice in 2050. It is unlikely that submitting the same essay in two different undergraduate courses in two different years will ever be kosher. But bundling together one’s own published papers for a doctorate now certainly is. It was not always so.
  3. We may care because it helps us verify the genesis and correctness of an idea. This might be for scholarly reasons or it might be to ensure the structural integrity of a bridge. This for me is the main rationale, and keeping this in mind help anchor all my further maundering.


A confession

Let me continue with a confession. I have deliberately plagiarized. In the mid-eighties when I was no-less-foolish than now but a lot younger, I signed a contract to coauthor the Collins Dictionary of Mathematics with Ephraim Borowski. This authoring was both a fascinating and searing experience, as I have discussed at some length in [1].

We allowed ourselves one joke per edition. In the first edition we printed a picture of the null graph. In the second we defined plagiarism as a labour-saving but lawyer-enriching form of research. After this we asserted it was relatively rare in mathematics. We then copied, without attribution, some lovely text from the New York Times about plagiarism in which the Times had quoted liberally, with attribution, from Tom Lehrer’s classic song “Plagiarize.” We could not resist the self-referent pleasure of plagiarizing a definition of plagiarism. After all, who could sue us with a straight face?

The contract we signed had inadvertently left us the “musical and electronic rights.” The latter were later very valuable [1], and Collins, treating us a “trade book,” also told us that we were plagiarizing if we copied eight words in sequel. This test works quite well for “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats,” but it does not work for science, and especially not in mathematics.

That is because accuracy and originality are often at odds with each other. The best ways of defining an Abelian group or Gaussian curvature have long been known; actually these are both now common nouns so the caps are voluntary.. The last thing we typically need is novelty. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works recognizes this tension and exempts mathematical formulas.

Authority versus authorship

Artistic mimesis or scientific theft? We all plagiarize Shakespeare, Emerson, Franklin, Dylan (Thomas or Bob), Bob Marley, and others. Without borrowing there is no cultural inheritance. With too much attribution, there is only stilted name-dropping conversation. There is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9
New International Version (NIV)).

BitTorrent, twitter and the blogosphere have merely roiled the waters. None of my postgraduate students see anything wrong with grabbing whatever copies of research monographs are electronically accessible. Copyright issues are not in their forebrains.  It took only  minutes before the tweat of ‘Thatcher is dead.’ was causing much more traffic as ‘That cher is dead.’  Take that, accuracy and ownership.

Who cares? Whether to attribute my new idea to Aristotle or to me depends on the time, the place, and the audience. The balance has changed over the ages, as illustrated in Stephen Greenblatt’s description of the rediscovery of Lucretius’ “The nature of things” in his Pulitzer winning The Swerve.

At this point I wish to flag two important observed phenomena. These are the Matthew effect (unto those who have shall be given) and Stigler’s principle of eponymy (a scientific idea is never named after the first to discover it).

In the sociology of science, the “Matthew effect” was a term coined by Robert K. Merton to describe how, among other things, eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar; it also means that credit will usually be given to researchers who already are famous. For example, a prize will almost always be awarded to the most senior researcher involved in a project, even if all the work was done by a graduate student. This was later jokingly coined Stigler’s law, with Stigler explicitly naming Merton as the true discover.

The take-away idea here should be that scholarship is hard and secondary sources are unreliable, while primary ones are often unavailable, inaccessible or impenetrable.

Accusations stick. Remember Fared Zakaria, Jane Goodall, Martin Amis and Jakob Epstein, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kernes Goodwin? I recalled that each of them have been recently tarnished by plagiarism accusations, but in most cases I had to go look up the events to remind myself of who was accused of doing what to whom and by whom.

All but Martin Amis appear to have broken the rules, and non trivially so — even if a significant amount is explained by their copying material too freely from that digital apple of Eden the world wide web. I quote Jon Sutherland on Amis and Epstein:

Raine and Amis are of the same generation (young), and of the same university, and their careers in literary journalism have intertwined. They are held to belong to a coterie which has been termed – embarrassingly for them, doubtless the New Oxford Wits. Given a degree of literary fraternity, there is no reason why Amis should not have experimented in fiction with Raine’s Martian perspective. The law allows no copyright in technique or device, any more than in ideas. (Jacob Epstein’s offence, allegedly, was to use forms of wording from The Rachel Papers.)

How well an individual survives the accusations depends on objective facts (was it a few lines in a great book?) how much credibility does the accuser have?)and subjective ones (was it a slow news week? does the accused act like an egoistic jerk?)

Fabrication, plagiarism and self-plagiarism

A case I remember more clearly is that of Jonah Lehrer. His is definitely a 21st century dossier. The sheer scale of his fabrications (quotes invented from meetings not held, whole scale recycling of his own blogs, and copious plagiarism) puts him in the big leagues. His disgrace has led not only to his being fired by the New York Times but to his best selling books being recalled by his publisher (see Wikipedia’s list of plagiarism incidents.)

Elsewhere David H. Bailey and I have written about error and fraud in the sciences. The Dutch social psychologist Stapel is arguably in a league with Lehrer. Fabrication is generally a much more serious issue than plagiarism in the sciences. Most scientists aim to be fine researchers not true scholars. So while we care just as deeply when our own priority is filched, with the work of others, while not condoning plagiarism, we are likely more concerned with a result’s correctness and replicability rather than its patrimony.

Intentional bullshit. Perhaps the best known example was the 1996 Sokal hoax, where as we wrote

New York University physics professor Alan Sokal succeeded in publishing a paper in Social Text, a prominent journal in the postmodern science studies field. As Sokal revealed after its publication, he deliberately salted his paper with numerous instances of utter scientific nonsense and politically-charged rhetoric, as well as approving (and equally nonsensical) quotes by leading figures in the field. He noted that these items could easily have been detected and should have raised red flags if any attempt had been made to subject the paper to a rigorous technical review.

More recently computer generated nonsense papers have been accepted by nominally referred conferences. But I digress.

How to plagiarize successfully in mathematics

Here is my recipe. It will not produce breakthrough results. It will produce papers that do what the vast majority of papers do in any field. It places correct results in the literature, adds to a curriculum vitals, and may help secure a job, promotion or tenure. The method is, I fear, largely inapplicable in the experimental sciences, but I suspect it adapts well in the humanities and social sciences.

  1. Find an old fairly technical, longish but not too long paper (how old and how long will depend on the field) with no citations. Praise it with language like “In a sadly neglected work Magnus Kopfrechnener produced some lovely results. Our gal is to extend these results and to bring them to the attention of current researchers.”
  2. The results must be old enough that notation in the field has changed. In topology, classical algebra, or descriptive set theory this is especially easy. Reproduce the main results verbatim in modern notation, using a nice version of LaTex. If you can, add some neat specializations.
  3. Make sure to add some recent references by individuals who are active but not-too active-in the field. Praise them also but modestly.
  4. Add some computations in Maple or Mathematica and perhaps even a figure or two.
  5. Proofread carefully, and submit to a legitimate if unimpressive journal in a slightly tangential field.

The chances of acceptance are high, and the chances of being accused of misconduct near zero. Moreover, if it is published, you can with a straight face assert that, unlike most recently published papers, it is not only correct but interesting. As Brown, discussing constructivism and intuitionism [2], has written:

Philosophical theses may still be churned out about it, … but the question of nonconstructive existence proofs or the heinous sins committed with the axiom of choice arouses little interest in the average mathematician. Like Ol’ Man River, mathematics just keeps rolling along and produces at an accelerating rate “200,000 mathematical theorems of the traditional handcrafted variety … annually.” Although sometimes proofs can be mistaken—sometimes spectacularly—and it is a matter of contention as to what exactly a “proof” is—there is absolutely no doubt that the bulk of this output is correct (though probably uninteresting) mathematics.” (Richard C. Brown)

All of these five steps are hugely assisted by a level of skill in the use of Mathematical Reviews and a fair ability with LaTex. This recipe is not recommended for other than fluent English speakers. Indeed much of the plagiarism I have uncovered as an editor arises with speakers of “globish,” who copy large swathes of good mathematical English, marred only by the errors in their interpolations.

We catch only unsuccessful plagiarists.

How we handle it in the Academy? Some personal experiences

Just as with computer viruses, there is an unending battle being waged between plagiarizers and gatekeepers. It has never been easier to plagiarize, as my suggested recipe intimates, and there have never been so many tools to check for and apprehend plagiarism. Those tools are usually costly and often intrusive Neither eduction nor the research enterprise has been designed to catch crooks.

As with airline travel, too much vigilance aimed at catching a few makes life unpleasant for the many. Arguably it merely trains the determined and catches the inept. Even when caught, legal niceties lead to a lot of, perhaps unavoidable, pussyfooting. An article everyone can see is wholly plagiarized, will have the attention of the reader’s attention drawn to its similarity to the original article. Sometimes everyone is in on the joke. A legendary plagiarizehas a series of plagiarisms and auto-plagiarisms noted in Mathematical Reviews noted by back referencing to the earlier reviews.

I turn to several personal anecdotes relating to treating the symptom, plagiarism, rather than the disease, lack of nous. Plagiarism interruptus. More than twenty-five years ago I sat on the academic appeals committee of a Gof13 Canadian university. Cases that got to us had failed to be resolved despite many hundreds of hours of work by academics, lawyers and others. The cases we saw involved impersonation at an examination, sordid things done to a cat, and much else. Only a few involved plagiarism. One that did was a doozie.

A final year jock, called Jock, had already failed a required sociology course and had to pass it to complete a degree. On the day the final course project was due, his coach begged on his behalf for a two week extension. The day before the deadline, the instructor saw what appeared to be Jock’s essay neatly typed in the departmental secretary’s outbox. The secretary confirmed this to be the case. As this grade was all that stood between the instructor and Christmas, she took it to her office. To her amazement, other than the title page the essay was an exact copy of s paper one of her colleagues had published the previous year. A failing grade was entered and the plagiarism was reported.

Cutting to the chase, Jock gave a simply incredible story as to how his name appeared on someone else’s paper. Nonetheless, we determined that Jock had not committed plagiarism as he had never submitted the paper. He was allowed to submit another essay and ultimately got a pass. Such is the nature of academic decision making when everything is subject to external legal challenge. The effect of cases like this is depressing. Some instructors bail on reporting plagiarism as the anticipated consequences are too daunting. Others become hyper-officious and never allow students any variation from the regulations. In both cases everyone suffers

King Lear, in Africa, twenty years later. I ended up back at the same university and for a year on its reformed disciplinary committee. This time every case we saw involved web plagiarism. Some were simple, even touching. A young man when asked why he plagiarized the 5th assignment in a course replied, “What else could I do?, I got an ‘F’ for my own work on the first four.” Few denied the charges, some did not bother to appear.

This later group included a fourth year Honours English student whose teacher had accused her of plagiarizing an essay on King Lear. As is usual in this case we were presented with a copy of the offending material side-by-side with the original. In this case it came along with a very carefully written, overly detailed description of all related events.

The offending essay started: “King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies,” so far so good, it continued with something like “is set in early twentieth-century North Africa just as Turkish power is ebbing away.” In an attempt to finish the essay on time, the student had plagiarized large swathes of the description of a travesty production worthy of Peter Brook on LSD. It had Lear as a Ghadafi character and so on.

All of this was dutifully noted in the plagiarized essay. The student was quickly found guilty of plagiarism. but none of the documentation mentioned the much larger crime of criminal and what Johnson would have called unnatural stupidity:

Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature. [Samuel Johnson, of Sheridan, from James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1763)]

How was it possible that an honours student at a good institution knew so little about her subject that the plagiarized text seemed persuasive? And until I brought the matter up, the student’s ignorance played no role in the hearing.

Gratuitous plagiarism. A decade ago I was a thesis committee member for a thesis in chemistry for which I was supposed to vet the mathematics. The mathematics was not great but the chemists seemed satisfied with the chemistry, as did the external reader. He pointed out that the long appendix on the life of Gauss was entirely plagiarized. He explained that he had become suspicious because the English of the appendix was so much better than what came before.

Then the discovery was only a google away. The committee in its wisdom decided that since the plagiarism was not relayed to the meat of the thesis, no action other than a request to remove the offending appendix would occur. So not all plagiarisms are equal.

Accuracy versus originality. In the 2002 second edition of our dictionary we wished to add the Clay institute’s seven Millennium problems (each with a million dollar prize, six are still open) to our list of Hilbert’s 23 problems (which had had a profound influence on twentieth century mathematics). For reasons I can not now explain, rather than asking the institute for permission to quote from their nice descriptions, we wrote our own. Since only two of seven were within our domain of true expertise, it was luck rather than skill if nothing was mangled or at best less clear.

Teaching judgment, not training seals

Despite the frivolous tone of the previous section these are serious matters. Which does less damage: to fail to cite a quote such as “never ascribe to malevolence what is well explained by incompetence” or to attribute it to a current personality after a thoughtless web search? (Napoleon and Goethe both said something like the quote.)

Mathematics has an unusually robust and reliable literature. The sheer scale of academic literature and the speed at which things happen makes it imperative that we teach our students, especially our replacements, how to judge the likely validity of an argument or when to trust a source. That is, teaching good sense is much more important than teaching adherence to the Chicago style manual. This is not meant to condone plagiarism but it is an appeal to dal with the agree issues.

I finish by referring to the following blogs that address many of these points: sloppy science and fraud, sloppy press reporting, reproducibility in scientific research, and the need for stable, non-politically-directed scientific funding to reduce the pressure for hasty press coverage. In these four articles, we have analyzed the reasons such events seem to be occurring with increasing frequency, and have made some suggestions on how to reduce their future occurrence.

References [1] Jonathan M. Borwein, “The Oxford Users’ Guide to Mathematics,” Featured SIAM REVIEW, 48:3 (2006), 585-594. [2] Richard C.. Brown, Are Science and Mathematics Socially Constructed? World Scientific, 2009, [3] Copyright and Piracy: An Interdisciplinary Critique (Cambridge Intellectual Property and Information Law) , Lionel Bently (Editor), Jennifer Davis (Editor), Jane C. Ginsburg (Editor), Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.

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