A commission formed by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has issued a statement defending a researcher in medieval philosophy against multiple charges of plagiarism.
Last fall, several articles by Magali Roques were retracted owing to them containing passages copied from others without attribution (details here). A commission composed of “three experts in the field, all foreigners” [see update 7, below] was tasked by CNRS to investigate, and the results of that investigation have recently been made public by CNRS.
Using a conception of plagiarism according to which plagiarism “signifies above all the theft of another author’s whole argument or the structure of their work or their fundamental ideas,” distinguishing between “plagiarism” and “unacknowledged borrowings,” and noting that they were unable to discern in Roques’ writings “a wish to appropriate anyone else’s ideas or of an intention to deceive the reader about the origin of the ideas put forward in the articles,” the commission concludes that though they are “seriously flawed by the regular presence of bad scholarly practices,” her writings contain “neither academic fraud nor plagiarism properly so called.”
Here are the commission’s “primary findings” (the report refers to Roques as “MR”):
- The results of our qualitative analysis show that there is neither academic fraud nor plagiarism properly so called in MR’s English articles. Moreover, there is no sign to be found of a wish to appropriate anyone else’s ideas or of an intention to deceive the reader about the origin of the ideas put forward in the articles.
- The results of our quantitative analysis have shown that the proportion of unacknowledged borrowings is relatively limited—sometimes even minimal—in comparison to the total size of each article. Admittedly, a brute calculation of the passages borrowed by MR from third-parties
would tend, at first glance, to justify the accusations made against her. A more careful calculation, however—one which, in particular, takes into account the nature of the borrowings, has shown that in a number of cases it is not a matter of undeclared borrowings in the strict sense. Once the Commission had thus come to realize that many passages had been wrongly accused of being plagiarized, the proportion of borrowings open to accusation in the various articles became considerably smaller.
- The qualitative and quantitative analysis of the publications under accusation has led the Commission to reach a dual conclusion. On the one hand, it is undeniable that MR has been the victim of an injustice, because her accusers have fashioned and diffused, wrongly, if not with ill intent, the shameful image of a ‘serial plagiarist’, who composed all her writings simply by copying what others have written (see ‘Philosopher Revealed as serial Plagiarist’ [multiple updates], Daily Nous). On the other hand, it is also equally undeniable that the whole body of work in English published by MR is seriously flawed by the regular presence of bad scholarly practices, by what might be called a sort of active negligence, which, although not a matter of academic fraud, cannot be excused.
- In her publications in English, MR has quite clearly lacked rigour in her way of making references and has not respected the academic standards accepted in the area. These publications suffer from serious, persistent negligence in the manner of referring to the secondary literature and sometimes also in references to the sources. In these articles, MR has therefore failed to keep to the requirement for a scrupulous and irreproachable method of work, which every researcher should observe.
- In her defence, MR cites various reasons to explain the deficiencies noted in her articles in English. Some of them (such as ‘youthful errors’ and a lack of awareness about plagiarism) did not do much to convince the Commission. The Commission did, however, accept her lack of assurance in writing English as a credible reason for MR’s frequent borrowings of technical terms and formulations from authoritative studies published in the Anglophone world. Moreover, trying to forge an academic career in an ever more competitive world, MR seems to have engaged in a race to publish, writing many articles in English at breakneck speed, but cutting corners in a number of her publications, in the method, quality and rigorousness of her research. The Commission accepts that MR’s explanations are sincere and in good faith, yet it wishes to emphasize strongly that unacknowledged borrowings, even if they are accidental, involuntary or incidental, are unacceptable according to the academic standards recognized in the area.
- The accusations of plagiarism concern the publications which were written in a limited period, during which MR was trying to make a place for herself in the Anglophone academic world. It is exactly in this specific context that there occurred the failings that mark the articles in English. It is fitting to observe here that, before they could be published, all these articles were subject to peer review and that, in most cases, the reviewers came to very positive judgements both about the contents of the articles and the originality of MR’s contribution to the subject: judgements which convinced the editors of the academic journals in question who, although they are specialists in the area, did not notice the slightest indication of failings in these works.
- The Commission notes that, in the great majority of cases, the unacknowledged borrowings discovered in the various articles occur in the parts which introduce the general area being studied, which put the questions treated into context and in syntheses about authors who are introduced by way of comparison. These borrowings do not have anything to do with either the general interpretation or the main arguments developed by MR in her works. Each of the articles examined thus presents an individual contribution of her own by MR, with her own original ideas, based on which she presents distinctive views, which she offers to specialist readers in order to engage in academic discussion among equals.
- The Commission did not discover any academic fraud or any sign of plagiarism in the three French publications. The accusations regarding these publications turned out to be to a large extent unfounded. There is, indeed, the borrowing of a phrase from an article by Irène Rosier-Catach, but the passage in question merely states a commonplace. That said, the Commission notes that MR’s negligence over giving references is also found to some degree in these articles.
- The Commission observes that the idea of plagiarism goes far beyond tacit citation: it signifies above all the theft of another author’s whole argument or the structure of their work or their fundamental ideas. Nothing of this sort can be attributed to MR.
- Finally, the Commission wishes to give an explicit reply to the question of whether ‘supposing that the borrowings had been correctly cited … the articles under accusation contain enough original ideas of MR’s own to justify their publication.’ It can indeed confirm that if MR had cited all her borrowings correctly, this would not have lessened the number of original ideas that she proposes in the articles under accusation. The publication of these articles would therefore be entirely justifiable if MR put her borrowings into inverted commas and attributed them correctly to their authors.
In line with the claim that the publicization of the accusations of plagiarism against Roques constitutes “an injustice” (see #3, above), the commission writes:
the vast damage done to MR’s academic standing by the accusations of plagiarism seems already to outweigh in severity any sanction proportionate to the deficiencies and mistakes considered during our enquiry.
The commission also notes that it is not up to them “what course of action the CNRS should take in response to this affair.”
You can read the commission’s entire report here.
* * * * *
I think I should respond to this passage, from #3, above:
It is undeniable that MR has been the victim of an injustice, because her accusers have fashioned and diffused, wrongly, if not with ill intent, the shameful image of a ‘serial plagiarist’, who composed all her writings simply by copying what others have written (see ‘Philosopher Revealed as serial Plagiarist’ [multiple updates], Daily Nous).
While I appreciate the commission not ascribing to me any ill-intent, I will note that this passage appears to contain two mistakes.
First, the commission takes the term “serial plagiarist” to be an error. To the contrary, in ordinary academic practice, “plagiarism” includes the very kind of behavior that led to the retraction of multiple articles by Roques; and indeed, several of the editors of the volumes responsible for the retractions expressly identified plagiarism as the reason for them. My failure to use the commission’s own peculiarly narrow conception of plagiarism, for which it provides no support, does not mean that I’ve wrongly described what has happened.
Second, no one (to my knowledge) at any point said that Roques “composed all her writings simply by copying what others have written.” That is not only a false account of the accusations against her, it is disrespectful to the editors and others who took the time and energy to painstakingly research, detail, and annotate the specific copied passages, communicate and deliberate about what to do in regard to them, and institute and announce the retractions. This is not a trivial amount of work, and it was quite clearly in evidence in the original Daily Nous post about this and its updates.
Though the commission is mistaken in its own account of whether and why there has been an injustice, it is still possible that there was an injustice. After all, it’s certainly possible that having true things said about one may constitute an injustice, particularly given the reach and seeming permanence of things said on the internet. If someone wants to make the case that that is what has happened here, I’ll listen.
UPDATE 1 (6/26/21): Some minor edits were made to this post, including a change to the headline to make it clearer that it was a commission tasked by CNRS (and not CNRS itself) that conducted the investigation and wrote the report.
UPDATE 2 (6/28/21): “The CNRS report is a fig leaf that doesn’t quite cover up” — a quote from Michael Dougherty (Ohio Dominion) in an article on the story by Retraction Watch.
UPDATE 3 (6/28/21): CNRS did not announce the names of the “three experts in the field” that comprised the commission that investigated and reported on the Roques matter, but a reader pointed out that the metadata of the PDF of the report lists John Marenbon of the University of Cambridge as an author:
While it is unclear that the commission should have been anonymous to the public in the first place [see Update 7, below], it is rather noteworthy that the state research agency of France apparently failed in such an elementary way to protect that anonymity.
UPDATE 4 (6/28/21): An early-career French philosopher who wishes to remain nameless emailed me a lengthy comment, which I post below with their permission. This person asked me, for reasons expressed in their email, to relax the requirement that commenters on this post use their real names. I’ll accede to that request. Commenters on this post may use pseudonyms; don’t use “anonymous” or “anon” (etc.) in your handle. Whatever pseudonym you pick, use it consistently should you comment more than once on this post. Pseudonymous comments must be submitted with real, verifiable email addresses (the email addresses will not be made public).
First, I want to thank you for covering this story. As you might have noticed, the French philosophical community has been almost entirely silent on this—at least when it comes to social media. There are probably many causes for this silence, but one of them is to be found in the fact that the French philosophical community is quite small and very clannish. This clannish character leads to a system in which people are very likely to retaliate against anyone who criticizes a member of their clan. There is nothing to gain, and much to lose, in calling out even clear cases of academic fraud. People are simply afraid to speak up, so they shut up. I know for a fact that this is my case, and the case of other French researchers—particularly researchers without a permanent position. Because we hope to find eventually a permanent position in France, we keep quiet even when outrageous cases like this one happen in plain sight (11 retracted articles!!!). I know of the case of someone who shared links to the Daily Nous post on this story. They have been explicitly criticized for this by senior researchers. There are genuine attempts at making this story disappear. It might be out of good intentions—for example, an intention to avoid hurting the plagiarist herself, whose reputation has suffered and who, I suppose, must have been through some genuinely difficult times because of this story. However, at the end of the day, the result is some sort of mafia-like suppression of the truth.
So, I am grateful for your covering of this story. If it was not for foreigners (who have nothing to lose, as they are not as dependent on the goodwill of the French academic establishment), this story would have been completely silenced. No one would have heard of it outside of a small circle, and people would have been silenced when trying to speak about it…
Second, I want to point out that your comment policy on your post at Daily Nous can be quite frustrating for people in my position. I would like to express my opinion—not to insult M. Roques, whom I do not know personally and with whom I can even empathize—but I feel like I cannot, because if the wrong person in France saw my name there, this could very well destroy my chances of ever finding a permanent academic job in France. Enforcing a “real name only” comment policy in this sort of case, with a clannish system of retribution-punishment-omerta in the background, is tantamount to preventing most people from speaking their minds. (A strong moderation policy, on the other hand, to avoid any sort of insults, would be perfectly justified, although I understand that it might be too time-consuming).
UPDATE 6 (7/9/21): The Commission writes (in #8, above), that they “did not discover any academic fraud or any sign of plagiarism in the three French publications” they examined. I’ve now seen text analyses of these three articles and they indeed contain plagiarism, including passages that were plagiarized from English-language sources and then translated into French for uncredited insertion in the articles. Note, too, that MR pubished more in French than just the three pieces examined by the Commission.
UPDATE 7 (7/13/21): In light of CNRS’s inadvertent release of the names of one of the members of the commission (see Update 3, above), the other members of the commission requested their names be made public. The commission was composed of Ruedi Imbach (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Sorbonne University), John Marenbon (Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in the University of Cambridge and Visiting Professor at the Università della Svizzera Italiana), and Tiziana Suarez-Nani (Professor of medieval philosophy, Department of philosophy, University of Friborg / Switzerland).
UPDATE 8 (7/20/21): The board of the Société Internationale pour l’Étude de la Philosophie Médiévale, an academic organization dedicated to promoting the study of medieval thought, has, “due to recent discussions in and about our field,” issued a statement about plagiarism. It asserts that plagiarism should be understood as “appropriating wordings, images, or ideas from someone else, intentionally or unintentionally, without explicit acknowledgement of the extent and nature of the appropriation and without precise bibliographic reference to its source.” You can read the whole statement here.
UPDATE 9 (7/23/21): Another retraction. “An Introduction to Mental Language in Late Medieval Philosophy,” a chapter by Magali Roques and Jenny Pelletier in The Language of Thought in Late Medieval Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Claude Panaccio, a volume they edited for Springer’s Historical-Analytical Studies on Nature, Mind and Action book series, has been retracted. The retraction note says the reason for the retraction is “significant textual overlap with a number of sources,” and notes that “Magali Roques accepts responsibility for introducing this overlap into the text.” The sources include works by: Joël Biard, Susan Brower-Toland, Richard Cross, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Russell L. Friedman, Russell L. Friedman and Jenny Pelletier, Axel Gelfert, Joshua P. Hochschild, Peter King, Gyula Klima, Simo Knuuttila and Juha Sihvola, Calvin G. Normore, Gabriel Nuchelmans, Claude Panaccio, Stephen Read, Sonja Schierbaum, Juhana Toivanen and Mikko Yrjönsuuri, and Ria van der Lecq.
UPDATE 10 (9/12/21): The editors of the philosophy journal Bochumer Philosophisches Jahrbuch für Antike und Mittelalter, Manuel Baumbach and Olaf Pluta (both of Ruhr-Universität Bochum), wrote an editorial in which they reveal that an article they published by Roques contained multiple instances of plagiarism. The article is “Metaphor and mental language in late-medieval nominalism.”
Strangely, the journal has not retracted the article. Instead, it published a list of the plagiarized passages along with citations that ought to have accompanied them. The list was supplied by Roques, the person who committed the plagiarism, and approved by the editors, who apparently missed the plagiarism the first time around; and so, even at six pages long, readers may have their doubts about the completeness and accuracy of the list.
The editorial, dated December 28, 2020 (though only recently posted online) states that it and the corrections “will be available together with the electronic version of the article.” As of this update, neither of the two pages listing the title and abstract of the article (here and here) mention or link to the editorial or the corrections. The publisher of the journal is John Benjamins Publishing Company.
The sources plagiarized in this particular article by Roques include Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Irène Rosier-Catach, Mary Sirridge, Georgette Sinkler, E. Jennifer Ashworth, Richard D. Johnson Sheehan, David L. Thompson, Ria van der Lecq, Sonja Schierbaum, Jack Zupko, W. Grey, Marilyn McCord Adams, J.M.M.H. Thijssen, Frédéric Goubier & Nausicaa Pouscoulous, Peter Adamson, Eva F. Kittay, and Sean Driscoll.
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