A recent story about academic plagiarism spurred me to some more general thoughts about the intellectual benefits of not giving a damn.
I’ll briefly summarize the plagiarism story and then get to my larger point.
Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings without attribution
Last month I linked to the story of Frank Fischer, an elderly professor of political science who was caught copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.
Apparently there’s some dispute about whether this constitutes plagiarism. On one hand, Harvard’s policy is that “in academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.” On the other hand, several of Fischer’s colleagues defend him by saying, “Mr. Fischer sometimes used the words of other authors. . . ” They also write:
The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own, and Mr. Fischer did nothing of the sort: He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on.
But, as Sokal points out:
Professor Fischer has repeatedly made this claim, but it is simply not true. In the cases of Goulet (Section 4), Ferguson (Section 5), the first Fairclough passage (Section 8), Polkinghorne 1988 (Section 13), Polkinghorne 1983 (Section 16) and Majone (Section 17), the author in question is either not cited at all in the book, or else cited only very far from the passages in question.
So my guess is that Fischer’s colleagues did not look at the evidence carefully and were too quick to grab on to this defense.
In any case, I’ll avoid the whole “plagiarism” concept by saying “copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution.” It’s a bit less convenient than the p-word but has the advantage of clarity. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text from others’ writings (with minor modifications) without attribution. Copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution.
I can see how, once this guy is caught, it’s natural for him to follow Chris Rock’s recommended strategy and deny everything. But it’s too bad he had to drag his friends into it.
The benefits of emotional distance
To me, the most interesting character in this story is not the luckless Frank Fischer and his “unintentional errors” but rather the reactions of others. I think that one reason Sokal is so clear in his arguments, and Fischer’s defenders so muddy, is that Sokal has nothing at stake. Sokal has no reason to care if Fischer gets fired, or reprimanded, or whatever. It just doesn’t matter to him and so he can feel free to be direct, without any need to overstate his case.
Compare this passage from Fischer’s colleagues:
So this is at most a misdemeanor of literary style, admitted and regretted, and finding 19 instances of it in five books does not appear particularly remarkable. This is a minor issue, and it is distracting us from the main game.
And now this from Sokal:
To put it bluntly, the issue is whether the passages from Fischer’s books quoted in pp. 2-51 of our report constitute plagiarism as defined by the codes of academic integrity at Rutgers University (Fischer’s employer) and virtually every other American university. . . . Let’s be clear: The 19 “instances” of copying-with-minor-modifications are not 19 sentences, but 19 passages that each range in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to several pages.
Sokal isn’t trying so hard to win the argument, so he can be direct (for example, discussing his own guesswork involved in selecting articles to compare), whereas Fischer’s defenders, who care so much, have to invent concepts such as “a misdemeanor of literary style.”
Keeping your eye on the ball
I want to point out one more bit from Sokal’s letter that I really like:
At the end of his letter, Professor Fischer raises one legitimate question: Why did Kresimir Petkovic and I [Sokal] reveal our evidence to The Chronicle of Higher Education rather than, say, to the president of Rutgers University? The answer is that plagiarism is not principally an offense against one’s employer—or even against the person whose words are plagiarized—but is rather an offense against the ethical norms of the scholarly community as a whole. [emphasis added] This is why there has been such intense public interest in this case, as exemplified by the 200-plus comments on The Chronicle’s Web site. And it is why Mr. Petkovic and I decided to make our information publicly available, so that each member of the scholarly community could evaluate it with his or her own brain.
Here’s the deal. To Fischer and his friends, this case is all about Fischer—what’s going to happen to him next, will his reputation fall, will he get fired, etc. So to them it would be natural for the case to be made at Rutgers University. But for Sokal, and for the rest of us who had never heard of Frank Fischer before this case arose, the concern is of academic standards. Academia, like other pursuits, will always have its share of time-servers and paper-pushers, but it is a bit disturbing to find a scholarly journal edited by somebody who violates scholarly practices. We’re talking about copying big blocks of text (with minor modifications) from others’ writings without attribution, which, at the very least, would seem to add noise rather than signal to the academic conversation.
Seeing Sokal’s cool reply to the controversy reminded me of a legal case I consulted on a few years ago in which I was subject to a deposition for a few hours. The lawyer from the other side kept asking me what seemed to be barbed or trick questions, and I kept simply answering directly. Eventually he got frustrated and gave up. What made it easy for me was that I didn’t really care if my side won the case. As I saw it, my job was to be the expert; it was the lawyers’ job to try to win. In contrast, had this been a case involving me personally, I’m sure it would’ve been much tougher and maybe the lawyer deposing me would’ve been able to get me tied up in contradictions. I would’ve felt too much pressure to be strategic, to overstate my case or to hold things back or to volunteer additional information, But since I was just doing my job, I could just do it.
I feel a similar way when blogging or writing books—I don’t have to out-think or anticipate the reactions of a referee, I can just be direct. It’s so refreshing to just be able to say what you know without having to claim a larger certainty. And I see this in Sokal’s letter as well. I think some people are good at being strategic, but that word doesn’t really describe Sokal or me, and I like to think that directness and openness is a virtue in scientific writing. For example, clearly citing the works we draw from, even when such citing of secondary sources might make us appear less erudite. But I can see how some scholars might feel a pressure to cover their traces.
And, on an unrelated matter