Philosophy’s Plagiarism Patrol


The body of published scholarship in my discipline—academic philosophy—suffers from a host of authorship violations, including plagiarism, undisclosed pseudonyms, and duplicate publication. These problems appear to be largely unknown to many in the field, even though some of the most egregious cases have appeared with the top presses.

That’s Michael Dougherty, Professor & Sr. Ruth Caspar Chair in Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University, in an interview at Retraction Watch. Since 2009, he has identified and reported on dozens of instances of plagiarism and other authorship violations in philosophy. He currently has a queue of 10 open cases. It is a time consuming task:

Preparing retraction requests to send to journals and publishers (with extensive documentation) can be tedious and time-consuming, and cases can take years to be resolved. I typically spend several hours per week working on plagiarism cases. However, I find the work to be important: I want my students and my colleagues to have a trustworthy body of published scholarship. My wife jokes that over the course of my career I’ll have gotten more publications retracted in my field than I have personally contributed through my own scholarship. Perhaps that is ok: there are various ways to contribute to the betterment of one’s field.

It’s also typically a thankless, if not professionally dangerous job. Earlier this year the employer of a plagiarist Professor Dougherty caught tried to cast aspersions on him. Another time, he notes, editors at a Taylor & Francis journal “wrote to a senior administrator at my university—on the journal’s letterhead—to complain that my retraction requests constituted a waste of my university’s time and that ‘the ethical basis for those actions is highly questionable.'”

Professor Dougherty doesn’t just identify plagiarism cases; he also keeps track of institutional responses to them. See, for example, this post from last year on his work on how publishers have dealt with plagiarism.

Asked whether philosophy has a particularly bad plagiarism problem, Professor Dougherty responds:

I am not sure. But I can say that solving the plagiarism problem in philosophy is more difficult than doing so in other fields for at least three reasons. First, an article in a philosophy journal generally has a longer shelf-life than, say, an article in an oncology journal. This means that citable literature can go back very far, and that defective articles can have a long-lasting destructive influence. Second, the basic tools for maintaining a reliable record of the scholarly literature in other disciplines are not currently available to philosophy. Much of the scholarship in philosophy is not citable through a DOI. This means that it cannot be discussed on the excellent DOI-based post-publication review venue PubPeer. Third, unlike the MEDLINE database for the biomedical disciplines, the two major databases in philosophy, The Philosopher’s Index and PhilPapers, do not update their entries to indicate when articles have been retracted or subject to a published correction (e.g., corrigendum, erratum, or expression of concern). So, in short: post-publication review in philosophy is more difficult, and even if a publisher issues a correction, it isn’t reflected in the standard databases of the field. Working on retractions in philosophy is not for the faint-hearted; even if one succeeds in getting a plagiarized article retracted, the retraction might remain unknown in the field. It is very common to see retracted articles in philosophy still cited in the downstream literature.

The full interview is here.

Rebecca Stuckey, “Uso Della Parete”

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