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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Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
3 years ago

Yes, that’s a sound method. Questions of guilt are much harder to pin down, but it is useful to express disapproval even if it can’t be legally enforced. There is a general issue of scholarly deception, of which plagiarism is a special case. Standards of truthfulness seem to be slipping.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  Colin McGinn
3 years ago

What are your thoughts on extreme cases of insufficient engagement with the literature? Though it’s not plagiarism, it does seem to be a vice.Report

Michael Dougherty
Michael Dougherty
Reply to  Recent grad
3 years ago

I agree it is a vice. Hopefully most egregious omissions of the relevant literature can be identified during the peer-review process prior to publication (if qualified reviewers are selected for each manuscript). I suspect that the feeling that one’s own contributions are not adequately represented in the scholarship of others is common in academia. It doesn’t seem to me that insufficient engagement with the literature would be grounds for retraction, but the fault could be addressed downstream in later published literature.Report

Karl
Karl
3 years ago

What are the problems with pseudonymous publication? There may be many legitimate reasons for an author to want to shield her identity. Is the scholarly community served by exposing them? (i recently had an editor refuse to allow me to use one. I seriously considered withdrawing the submission.)Report

File Clerk
File Clerk
Reply to  Karl
3 years ago

What are some of the reasons you couldn’t use a name? Report

T
T
Reply to  File Clerk
3 years ago

See the very timely post and comments on http://dailynous.com/2018/06/14/moral-panic-campus-free-speech/ for good reasons.Report

Michael Dougherty
Michael Dougherty
Reply to  T
3 years ago

The use of undisclosed pseudonyms creates problems in the downstream literature. Consider “Time, Truth and Ability” published in Analysis. Sometimes it is attributed to Diodorus Cronus alone; sometimes to both Steven Cahn and Richard Taylor; and sometimes to Richard Taylor alone. In my view, a published correction in the pages of Analysis to clarify authorship would be helpful to future students and scholars.

The use of pseudonyms by David Lewis and Amélie Rorty, for example, have fooled many students:
http://dailynous.com/2017/10/13/amelie-rortys-use-pseudonym/
https://retractionwatch.com/2017/08/01/35-years-philosophy-journal-corrects-article-cat/

Some authors use pseudonyms to carry on dialogues with themselves under two names. Others use pseudonyms to give the appearance of another gender, to attack a colleague more severely than one would under one’s own name, or to hide one’s past in holding an alternate position. The use of pseudonyms can impede a genuine history of philosophy.

Most scientific/academic publishers require that work be published under a real name with a genuine academic affiliation and/or contact information. These requirements support author accountability for the content published, which is especially important if later there are allegations of research fraud (e.g., fabrication or plagiarism).
Report

Karl
Karl
Reply to  Michael Dougherty
3 years ago

I am still unclear why I have an obligation to make life easy for future scholars. Imagine (and my particular case is somewhat along these lines) I am asked to contribute a paper to an edited collection to be called “Gay philosophers on Gay Sex.” Since I believe what I have to say will add value to the collection I agree. Then I realize that my life would be considerably easier if my homophobic mother did not come across this collection while Googling me, which she does periodically.
There are many examples of pseudonymous or other kinds of authorship that make life difficult, but we rarely think that the authors of the Federalist Papers, _1984_, or _Alice in Wonderland_ did anything wrong. The history of Medieval thought is full of Anonymous commentary. Again, whence wrongdoing?
Imagine another case where the most prominent person in one’s chosen subfield of philosophy was, say, a nominalist or something. And you wanted to publish a paper arguing for Platonism. But you are pretty sure that the nominalist really is petty enough to ruin your career over a defense of Platonism. Why not just use a pseudonym?

And, while sock puppetting is weird, if both sides of the argument make it past peer review who is harmed?

People engage in deception all the time. We wear makeup to deceive people into thinking we look different. We exchange pleasantries to deceive others into thinking we care about them. Kant believes that we can’t deceive to prevent genocide. I’m not too impressed with invoking his name in defense of forcing someone to out themselves.

Forcing people to use their own names can be alternately cruel or at best deprive the world of some good arguments. Report

Michael Dougherty
Michael Dougherty
Reply to  Karl
3 years ago

Some journals (and I’m thinking of examples in the field of sexuality studies) allow the publication of articles with *disclosed* pseudonyms. That is, 1) the editor knows that true identity of the manuscript author, and 2) the published manuscript has a note that says something like “X is the pseudonym of an associate professor of psychology in the United States.”

Sometimes the use of a pseudonym is meant to deceive the journal editor, rather than the journal readership, however, so disclosed pseudonyms don’t work in cases like that. The Journal of Philosophy just issued a corrigendum to correct one such case:

https://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=jphil&id=jphil_2017_0114_0007_0392_0392

Philosopher Neven Sesardic explained his use of a pseudonym in this case as: “What exactly was the problem with my name being known to the journal editors, who were to read my manuscript and decide about it? Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about this delicate matter. It should suffice to say that several years ago one of the editors took umbrage at my published criticism of his views and even became angry (on his own admission).”

See: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/01/31/where-world-carmen-de-macedo
Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Karl
3 years ago

Michael Dougherty touches on this above, but I think an important reason to disallow pseudonymous publishing is accountability for research misconduct. The peer-review process can’t realistically be guaranteed to catch all or even most cases of plagiarism or other misconduct before publication, but since intentional plagiarism or data falsification is (rightly) a career-killer, there is a very strong deterrent incentive for people not to do it: even if it takes years for them to be caught, the professional consequences for them will be disastrous. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
3 years ago

Using a pseudonym is also inherently deceptive, a type of lie. What would Kant say about it?Report

Hilarious Bookbinder
Hilarious Bookbinder
Reply to  Colin McGinn
3 years ago

I never could understand Kant on lying, but surely Kierkegaard, at least, would object strongly to the use of pseudonyms, especially by philosophers.
Report

Michael Dougherty
Michael Dougherty
Reply to  Hilarious Bookbinder
3 years ago

In all seriousness, we can distinguish between the expectations of declared authorship for scholarship today and the expectations of past ages. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works are are published today under his real name. (The pseudonymous works of Michel Foucault and Alain Badiou have also been republished under the respective genuine names.) For medieval texts, “pseudo-” is added to names in present-day additions to correct false authorial attributions.Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
3 years ago

In academic work truth-telling is of paramount importance. This is a duty that should only be overridden in very special circumstances, not on a whim or as a means of self-advancement (or self-concealment). Report

David Bourget
3 years ago

We would be happy to publish publisher-issued retractions on PhilPapers for plagiarized papers. The tricky part is automatically collecting this information from publishers. I don’t know how Medline does it, but they’re a part of the US gov with a huge budget (compared to us), so what they do might not be doable for us. We’ll investigate and see what we can do. (Incidentally, anyone who finds issues with PhilPapers should feel free to tell us by email–we like and are responsive to suggestions!) Report

S
S
3 years ago

For years I have considered writing a paper defending plagiarism by students. (Well, not defending it precisely, but pointing out that the standard arguments for punishing plagiarising students don’t fit very well with lots of other aspects of the University.) I feel fairly certain that a) even if my argument is wrong, it would be an interesting paper, and b) were I to publish it under my own name, I would be in all sorts of trouble with my employers and colleagues. I really don’t understand why my obligations to future historians of philosophy is supposed to outweigh my legitimate interest in using a pseudonym here. And as for the topic of research misconduct, well, that’s kind of the topic under discussion in the paper – I would have thought philosophers might be interested in questioning whether the research and publication norms of other disciplines automatically apply to philosophy (and, of course, there is a good literature in philosophy of science on whether they work very well in the sciences anyway – it’s not as if the norms which sites like retraction watch enforce are clearly epistemically and ethically watertight). Report

Eva
Eva
3 years ago

I’m appalled by the kind of plagiarism that involves taking credit for someone else’s work. But I’ve had short papers published in proceedings, and then had expanded versions of these published elsewhere (with permission from both publishers and footnotes indicating this in the later, longer publication). Is that considered a transgression as well?Report