In November of last year, Daily Nous hosted a guest post that exposed the extraordinary plagiarism of Iranian philosopher Mahmoud Khatami (follow-ups here and here). One of the articles alleged to be a work of plagiarism was a 2007 article of his in Topoi: An International Review of Philosophy, entitled “On the illuminationist approach to imaginal power: outline of a perspective.” It has now been shown that much of the article is lifted from Mikel Dufrenne’s 1973 book The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Now, in an essay in Topoi, the journal’s editor-in-chief, Fabio Paglieri, discusses the case, provides an account of what makes plagiarism objectionable, and lays out policies about plagiarism that he is instituting at Topoi and which he hopes other journals and publishers will adopt.
Professor Paglieri writes:
What is worst in plagiarism is not its utter lack of originality, nor the violation of the authors’ right to be properly acknowledged, although that’s bad enough; the worst is the breach in the mutual trust academics have (and should continue to have) in each other. All scholars want peer reviewing to be as rigorous as possible, but they also know very well, as reviewers of an increasing number of papers, that their resources are limited. Thus we want them to be free of focusing their attention on matters of content, not on policing sentence by sentence whether the author is plagiarizing someone else-—where ‘‘someone else’’ could be any published material in history, no less. Precisely because we want reviewers to be manically methodical and precise in assessing the merits of an article, we need them to be able to take some basic facts for granted: proper acknowledgment of quoted sources is one of these facts. This, of course, creates a vulnerability: trust is needed for the system to work, and plagiarists abuse this trust. Nor is this an isolated or unfamiliar instance. The collective construction of knowledge is a public good, and as any public good it is vulnerable to cheaters. Cheater-detection mechanisms are in place, but they are far from perfect, and necessarily so. So we must complement ex ante cheater-detection with ex post punishment of cheaters, once their misdeeds come to light. Punishment, in this context, should not be understood as a morally justified sanction against some original sin, but rather as a necessary incentive to ensure the smooth functioning of a system worth preserving.
He goes on to argue that the punishment must be public and non-proportional, so as to serve as an effect system-preserving deterrent. He suggests the following policies, which I have extracted and numbered for ease of discussion.
1. Submissions that contain plagiarism will be “rejected without further justification (if they are caught prior to publication) or promptly retracted (if the plagiarism is identified later on)”.
2. Authors found to have submitted plagiarized work in the past will have all of their subsequent submissions “rejected without review, regardless of whether they contain further plagiarism, and with no consideration for any other value they might have.”
3. Editors should “take steps to spread this ostracism as widely as possible,” urging other journals and publishers to adopt the same stance towards the future work of proven plagiarizers.
4. Journals and publishers should “never blame cases of undetected plagiarism on reviewers or editors of the articles in question.”
5. Journals and publishers should “not ask reviewers to become ‘plagiarism sleuths.'”
6. Instances of plagiarism should be “publicly denounced,” and steps should be taken to “alert the whole academic community of the fraud.”
7. The accused should have access to “due process” and “be given ample opportunity to explain themselves and, whenever appropriate, to rectify any unintentional blunder.”
The entire essay, “Reflections on Plagiarism,” is here.
Point 4 strikes me as too strong. No doubt even very good referee work will sometimes miss cases of plagiarism (as when, for example, source material is obscure). But in other cases, there’s blame to go around — as when, for example, source material is well known to all who are competent in the field. In such cases, referees and editors may well deserve a little thrashing for sloppy work.Report
Not wholly relevant, but I have often wondered about related cases that are indecent but not strictly plagiarism, and would like to know what more experienced people think should or could be done.
To give an example from my own experience, when I was applying for MAs, I emailed a few UK scholars in my particular field to ask if they would be interested in supervising a very specific theme that was largely overlooked in the literature. One young scholar at a top UK institution said he was interested in my subject, but thought the very specific theme I wanted to cover was uninteresting. He nonetheless asked what my angle on the specific theme was, and in reply I told him what my problem was with the established view, but not my own re-interpretation, and left it at that.
Shortly after, I got a rejection from that university. Then, when I was researching my MA topic at a different institution the next academic year, I saw he was just about to publish a new paper on the specific theme I had suggested (i.e. the theme he thought was uninteresting), and has criticised the precise weakness I myself had notified him of. (To his credit, his reinterpretation was his own, but of course I had not told him mine, so there was no possibility of him drawing on it.)
Obviously this is not a case of plagiarism, since I had not published anything on this topic. However it does seem highly indecent and dishonest to lure a perspective MA student in disclosing their ideas in this way.
Is this something that happens a lot? And can anything be done? Perhaps this deserves a thread of its own if it is a widespread issue.Report
Let’s be clear as to what is implied here: the proposal is that plagiarism is a career-ender, at least for anyone in a research-related role.
That seems about right to me, but we’d better make sure we’re recognising this explicitly.Report
Does this cover self-plagairism or not?Report
What is the definition of plagiarism here? Surely, for a case as extensive as the one given here these policies seem warranted. But what if the plagiarism is minimal, e.g. just one sentence? or one paragraph? Furthermore, who determines that plagiarism has indeed occurred? Policy 7 seems especially relevant here, but who will guarantuee a fair ‘trial’?Report
I second the call for a discussion of text recycling/ self-plagiarism. While a newly minted grad student, I discovered a case of text recycling in the preeminent online encyclopedia of philosophy. When I informed the editors and the author, I was told by the editors that it was no big deal and told by the author, a senior scholar, that he had done nothing wrong since the words were his – this despite my pointing out that the source text was a journal article where the copyright had been transferred to the publisher. Eventually a footnote was added to the article marking the reuse of text. I remain appalled at the attitudes of those involved. I’ll add that the audience and argumentative function of the recycled section seemed very different in its original and its transferred context.Report
Thanks to all who commented on the editorial I wrote and on our stance on plagiarism. A few replies:
@real_email_fake_name: Sure, editors and referees deserve a little thrashing for sloppy work, but that’s precisely because (and when) it *is* sloppy work. The same thrashing would be warranted for, say, failing to spot blatant gaps in literature coverage, obvious non sequitur in the line of argument, and other manifest flaws that they are supposed to catch: the sloppiness (or not) of their work is not specifically tied to plagiarism. Our concern, however, is with making sure that, when no sloppiness is involved (as I argue it was in this case), the blame for plagiarism does not spread over where it doesn’t belong. Allowing that to happen would only worsen the threat plagiarism poses to academic integrity.
@David Jones Wallace: Indeed, the idea is to make sure plagiarism is risky enough to deter people from practicing it, in spite of the relative ease by which it can be perpetrated. Of course, the power to end one’s academic career does not lie in the hands on an editor or a publisher, nor it should. All we can promise to do is to create incentives against plagiarism, including making it the subject of vigorous public debate.
@anonpq: As explained in the editorial (footnote 1), the abovementioned policies are not intended for self-plagiarism. This does not necessarily imply that self-plagiarism is not an issue worth worrying about. However, it does reflect my belief that self-plagiarism, insofar as it is problematic, it is so mostly for different reasons than those applying to plagiarism of someone else’s work.
@Jasper: Providing a precise definition of what constitutes “minimal plagiarism” is indeed tricky. Consider the title of my editorial, “Reflections on plagiarism”: a quick Google search will show you that it has been used by several other scholars in the past, a fact of which I wasn’t aware when I wrote the piece; therefore, none of these fellow “reflectors on plagiarism” is quoted in my text. Does this make me a plagiarist? Certainly not, unless you are prepared to be called a plagiarist anytime you use any three words combinations already included in previously published material: at most, you may find my choice of title relatively boring and uninspired. But then, where is the boundary? To me, the key criterion is whether the textual material give you reason to presumptively conclude that (i) the author could not have written that particular sentence (or paragraph, or full paper) in that specific way without deliberately lifting it from the plagiarized material, and yet (ii) no mention whatsoever of that source is provided in the text. The qualification, “presumptively”, is essential: of course in principle I could write an exact copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason without copying it, just because I happen to concatenate the words in exactly the same order as he did. The likelihood of this happening, however, is so abysmal as to make such a line of defense untenable: on balance, concluding I have plagiarized Kant is much more convincing, at which point (and only at that point) the burden of proof is on the accused to prove his/her innocence. But who is that decide on that crucial balance of considerations? I have no problem admitting that it is a judgment call, one that falls on a group of people: basically, the editors of the journal (or volume) and the relevant staff of the publisher, after having reviewed the textual material and listened to what the accused author had to say. Precisely because it is judgment call, it *has* to be public, as it was in this case. We (i.e., the publisher and the editor of Topoi) found Mr. Khatami guilty in this instance, and proceeded accordingly: but the evidence of the matter, as well as the nature of our decision, are freely available to all, including Mr. Khatami himself. Anyone interested to review the case can do so, and if they find fault with our decision, they are welcome to protest it – in fact, I think we should all be ready to vehemently protest, whenever we perceive an innocent has been unjustly accused of plagiarism and made to suffer the high price of that accusation. This still does not make the process perfect (nothing is, in real life), but it guarantees full accountability, which is good enough.Report