Some philosophy articles might be exposed as containing plagiarized material, might have editorial notes appended to them indicating as much, or might even be retracted, yet no matter how thoroughly or how many times their plagiarism is noted, they will continue to be cited in the literature and affect the course of scholarship.
Seemingly unkillable, such articles constitute what we can call the problem of zombie plagiarism.In July 2010, Michael V. Dougherty, Pernille Harsting, and Russell L. Friedman published a dossier detailing extensive plagiarism in the work of Martin W.F. Stone, who worked in medieval and Renaissance philosophy. They gave it the straightforward title, “40 Cases of Plagiarism“, noting “it is important to emphasize that the list is not exhaustive.” One aim of publishing it was to make it easier for researchers to identify and cite the roughly 170 plagiarized sources and their authors, rather than the plagiarizing works.
Thirteen years later, Professor Dougherty revisits those 40 cases to focus on “the troubling phenomenon of positive citations to these plagiarizing works in recent publications on medieval and early modern philosophy.”
In “After ’40 Cases’: The Downstream Citation of Plagiarizing Articles in Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy Research,” published recently in Vivarium, he writes:
With few exceptions, the plagiarizing journal articles and book chapters examined in “40 Cases”—even the retracted ones—have continued to receive positive citations in the research literature over the last decade, with no sign of abatement. These positive citations, sometimes accompanied by extracts that further commend plagiarizing work to readers, are typically used to corroborate some interpretive point. The infelicitous phenomenon of continued downstream citations to retracted research literature has been documented in other disciplines, mostly in the natural and biomedical sciences. Now the humanities possesses a wide-scale undeniable example of such a downstream corruption involving medieval and early modern philosophy research.
Citation standards and practices in philosophy, Dougherty says, compare unfavorably with those in law and medicine, each of which has ways of deterring the use of overturned precedents or retracted research.
[P]ractitioners in philosophy today fall short of the best practices of citation that are modeled in the legal and medical fields. Rather, the unqualified positive citation of retracted and plagiarizing articles appears to be regarded by many neither as a negligent omission (when done due to carelessness) nor as a wrong (as when done with full knowledge).
The article contains many examples of philosophers knowingly citing Stone’s work, despite being aware it is plagiarized or retracted—and in some instances omitting any mention of its status as such. Dougherty reports that on a conservative count, during the period of 2013 through 2022, there were over 208 positive citations to the 40 plagiarizing pieces by Stone—though he notes that that number “should be taken as the baseline of confirmed positive citations, rather than the precise total of existing positive citations.”*
How much of a problem is this? Some have argued that plagiarism affects “the reliability of the body of published research literature” by distorting “science’s infrastructure for knowledge making and its capacity for truth-making.” One might also be concerned, from the point of view of intellectual history, with having a clear sense of how ideas made their way into the literature.
Dougherty identifies a more basic problem: often, those zombies aren’t quite right. He says,
[P]lagiarism harms the reliability of the body of published research literature in a given field [because] plagiarists tend to make a host of unintentional mistakes in the act of copying, and these mistakes are thereby preserved in the plagiarizing books and articles.
Many of the examples provided in the “40 Cases”, he says,
were given not only to illustrate the fact of plagiarism for everyone of the 40 cases, but also to show that the plagiarizing versions can be unreliable copies of the originals. That is, these examples were meant in part to illustrate that the plagiarizing versions were not just copies, but defective copies…
Just as scribes tend to make certain kinds of errors in copying manuscripts, so do plagiarists. Both are copyists, and the likelihood of error increases when the copyists do not possess a strong grasp of what they are copying…
In short, the poor scribal habits of plagiarists as copyists tend to damage to the reliability of the body of published research.
What can be done to kill the zombies? Dougherty makes a few suggestions:
- editors and publishers should “issue the retractions for the remaining unretracted plagiarizing articles and book chapters”
- philosophy should adopt “basic citation practices that are standard in other fields,” such as law and medicine, in which authors are responsible for checking whether sources they’re citing have been retracted, and journals should encourage such practices by requiring authors to attest that they’ve done so. (The database of retracted articles at Retraction Watch is a helpful resource here.)
- peer reviewers should be “instructed to flag manuscripts that contain positive citations to retracted articles”
- journal editors should “report retractions to the major research databases [e.g., PhilPapers, Philosopher’s Index] used in philosophy so that entries can be updated to reflect the retracted status”.
The whole article is here.
* Owing to a typo, the original version of this post misstated the number of positive citations of the plagiarizing works. It has now been corrected.
UPDATE (11/8/23): Philosophie Magazine picks up the story, with some interesting explorations of the concept of the “zombie” metaphor used in this post.