Once you get into the habit of riding the elevator, who wants to take the stairs?

by Andrew Gelman on August 17, 2012 · 9 comments

in Media

Drezner on Zakaria:

As one has more gobs of money tossed at them than they ever expected out of life approaches League [of Extraordinary Pundits] status, three factors dramatically increases the likelihood of this kind of thing happening. First, since the distribution of punditry assignments likely follows a power law distribution, superstars are asked to write a lot more, the pressure builds up. Second, to compensate, the pundit has to hire a staff—and most people who get into the writing/thinking business are lousy at managing subordinates and staff. Third, if small shortcuts aren’t caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats.

I agree—especially the bit about the difficulty of managing subordinates and staff. And once you get in the habit of putting your name on things you didn’t write, all bets are off:

Should Harvard fire Laurence Tribe or should Yale fire Ian Ayres for plagiarism? I don’t know, but I feel that I recently got some insight into legal plagiarism after recently working as an expert witness in a court case (yup, I did it for the money). I did some work and wrote it up, then the people at the law firm rewrote it to be in the standard format for an expert witness report. The result was long, awkward, and repetitive—but it was what they were looking for, so that was fine with me. The point is: they wrote much of it but my name was on it. I asked the lawyers if this was OK, and they said Yes, my name on it means that I stand behind it, not that I wrote every word. I did read every word but if something had been copied without attribution from some other source, I might not have known.

Anyway, I assume that lawyers such as Tribe and Ayres have lots of experience putting their names on reports that they have not written, and this is standard practice. So then they get into the habit. And then, as Dan Kahan puts it (and I agree), laziness kicks in. Once you get into the habit of riding the elevator, who wants to take the stairs? Only weirdo exercise nuts.

Actually, though, I’m much less annoyed with Zakaria than with all these other copyists. Unlike the rest of them, he didn’t duck and weave, he just apologized.


Monkey C August 18, 2012 at 8:23 am

Zakaria did the honorable thing. I value his insight and writing, although I often do not agree with him. I expect he will be back.

J the Student August 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

This seems reflect our society’s general endency to outsource.

If everyone, from Supreme Court justices to public figures rely on hired writers to “deliver” their thoughts, it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise bigshot pundits are following the trend.

Andreas Moser August 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Ever since I saw SPEED, I won’t take the elevator again.

rici August 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Also see German plagiarism expert Debra Wulff-Webber on Zakaria, with a nicely coloured side-by-side analysis. If you’re interested in plagiarism, it’s an interesting blog.

talbot August 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

” As a professor of economics, one of the worst sins you can commit is to sign your name to something you did not write, but as a public official, it is a mark of effectiveness to do so as frequently as possible. ”

(U.S. Treasury Secretary L.H. Summers, Year 2000)

! August 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

Debra Wulff-Webber:

That German blogs just a bit scary. List of plagiarists with checks on if they’ve been punished by their universities. Seems a little…. vigilantly.

One of the examples was of conference papers. Seems someone (a small group) had sent the same paper to different conferences over a year and hadn’t sourced the previous presented paper (who sources their own conference papers?). It’s news to me that this, seemingly normal practice, deserves to have your name posted on a web site with plagiarist under it.

Debora Weber-Wulff August 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I was wondering where all the traffic was coming from!

@! – Yes, the VroniPlag Wiki group has been working for over a year and a half, documenting plagiarism in dissertations since the German Minister of Defence was found to have plagiarized on 94 % of the pages of *his* dissertation. The group is demonstrating that a) plagiarism is running rampant and b) the universities are dragging their feet doing something about it. All dissertations are published in Germany, so anyone can check the book out of the library and see for themselves what’s up.

Do you mean that you submit the same paper to multiple conferences? That is not okay! It is self-plagiarism if you don’t note in the latter ones that you published this previously. And the later conferences might just not accept your paper (unless it is one of those mock conferences that you pay high fees for and that will accept anything submitted). That is just inflating your CV, not contributing anything new to science. In my field, Computer Science, conferences are considered more important than journal articles. And all papers must be properly sourced.

! August 20, 2012 at 10:32 am

Hi Debora:

1. All dissertations are published in Germany, so anyone can check the book out of the library and see for themselves what’s up.

These things have happened in the US from time to time. Normally institutions deal with them reasonably quickly. Now all of a sudden I’m wondering if that’s a unsupported assumption!

2. In my field, Computer Science, conferences are considered more important than journal articles. And all papers must be properly sourced.

Think we may have differences due to field. In Political Science (as far as I know all the other Social Sciences) conferences aren’t considered to be publications. It’s routine to present them at multipule places. They’re thought of, at best, work in progress. Titles, authors, data, all sorts of things change but sometimes if you didn’t get any real commentary at the previous presentation you just send out the same one. The whole idea is present, get criticism, rework, present, get criticism, rework, and then send out for actual review to try to get a real publication (the only real publications are articles, chapters in edited columns, books). Now admittedly you shouldn’t do this for years without finishing or just as an excuse to travel but 2 or 3 presentations is normal. No one cites conference papers they always cite the finished publication (normally people put little notes asking to be contacted if you’d like to cite the paper so they can point you to a better finished version).

So I think it’s just a difference in field but something you should keep in mind when throwing out words like self-plagiarist! I bet every single productive political scientist in Germany does this, routinely. Conference presentations are just… proof of life.

Dan Nexon August 20, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Debora: that’s not at all a universal norm. Most US and UK political science conferences do not publish proceedings, such that there’s no plagiarism involved. Scholars simply present the paper at multiple conferences to get feedback and network.

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