The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) hosted two related plagiarism scandals in recent years. One concerned the serial plagiarism of one of its medieval philosophy researchers. The other concerned the attempted whitewashing of this plagiarism by a CNRS-appointed commission tasked with investigating the plagiarism charges. A recent editorial in the journal Theoria recounts these events and makes some recommendations.
The author of the editorial is Sven Ove Hansson (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm). In the sections concerning the investigative commission, he first notes its self-described task:
“To distinguish between plagiarisms properly so called, on the one hand, and, on the other, what might be considered borrowings of formulations concerning matters considered to be part of the knowledge shared widely by those who are expert in the area.”
This is “strange”, he says, “to say the least”
since it introduces a distinction that is absent in the international literature on research ethics. It is also unclear how long the ‘borrowed’ formulations could be allowed to be without being counted as plagiarism. Even worse, it is not explained how and why the fact that something is ‘knowledge shared widely by those who are expert in the area’ can justify unrecognised verbatim use of someone else’s expression of that knowledge.
Referring to the plagiarizing author as “AA” (for “accused author”), Hansson notes some “remarkable omissions” in the commission’s report:
- It does not report any attempt by the committee itself to find possible cases of plagiarism in AA’s texts.
- It does not contain a list of potentially problematic text passages.
- It does not contain any presentation side-by-side of alleged sources of plagiarism and allegedly plagiarised texts.
- It does not mention that several texts by AA had been retracted by journals for plagiarism.
- It does not mention any of the findings by the editorial boards that led to retraction of articles. In particular, it does not mention the several cases of swap plagiarism.
He notes that “without evidence, the committee claimed that a large part of previous accusations of plagiarism were inaccurate,” quoting its report:
“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.” (Anon, 2021)
To this he replies:
We are not told which these ‘wrongly accused’ passages were. All accusations of plagiarism that had been raised in public against AA’s texts were very precise, specifying a passage in one of AA’s publications and an identical or almost identical passage in a previous publication by someone else. The committee claims that a large part of these textually coinciding passages were not cases of plagiarism, but it does not tell us which of the allegations of plagiarism were wrong and why they were wrong. This means that the report contains accusations that are so unspecified that it is impossible for the accused (namely those who reported the verbatim coincidence of texts) to defend themselves against them.
Hansson then quotes what he calls a “remarkable accusation” made in the commission’s report:
“[AA] 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 […] writings simply by copying what others have written (see ‘Philosopher Revealed as serial Plagiarist’ [multiple updates], Daily Nous).” (Anon, 2021)
In response, he says:
The alleged statement that all of AA’s writings were copied cannot be found in Daily Nous (Weinberg, 2020, 2021). It is difficult to understand why an (anonymous) commission tasked to investigate AA’s research conduct found it necessary to attack some of AA’s critics with a blatant lie.
He then shares the commission’s new and “unconventional” conception of plagiarism and its application to the case of AA:
“[T]he Commission decided, after extensive discussion, that it should make a clear distinction between academic fraud in the strict sense, which involves a deliberate intention to deceive, and undisclosed verbal borrowings (tacit citations), resulting from blameworthy procedural negligence, but not constituting plagiarism.
“The results of our qualitative analysis show that there is neither academic fraud nor plagiarism properly so called in [AA’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.” (Anon, 2021)
It would be interesting to know by what type of ‘qualitative analysis’ the commission was able to find out what AA’s intentions were when copying long texts, or when swapping names in quotations. We are told what AA’s intentions were not, but we are not told what they were.
Towards the end of the editorial, Hansson notes that “the mistakes made by CNRS and its commission in this case provide us with an excellent list of what not to do when dealing with suspected academic fraud.” Here’s that list:
- Do not assign the task of assessing suspected academic fraud to an anonymous committee.
- Do not instruct a committee tasked with evaluating suspected plagiarism to deviate from standard academic definitions of plagiarism.
- In such a committee, follow established definitions and criteria. Do not invent definitions of your own that will seem to be tailored to denounce or (as in this case) exonerate an accused person.
- Do not make any false accusations against anyone, neither persons accused of academic fraud nor persons accusing them. (The Daily Nous example described above is a remarkably clear case.)
- Do not dismiss without investigation the findings by others who have investigated the case or parts of it.
- Do not leave out essential information from your report (as in this case the journal retractions and the swap plagiarism).
The whole article is here (though it may be paywalled).
Note: In commenting, if you find it necessary to refer to the researcher who engaged in the plagiarism, please follow Hansson and refer to her as “AA”. Thank you.