Zombie Plagiarism in Philosophy

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.

[modified still from TV series, ‘Day of the Dead’. Source: SBS]

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.

Discussion welcome.

* 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.

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Leuven Alumnus
Leuven Alumnus
1 month ago

I recall Prof. Steel, one of the scholars Stone plagiarized, saying at the time the plagiarism came out that Stone’s article was indeed better than his own, because it fixed a few typos.

1 month ago

It is worth noting that things are NOT better in other fields, contrary to what is implied above. I conducted an empirical study of papers retracted from the journal Science with Line Edslev Andersen.
“We found that almost all of the papers continued to be cited after they were retracted in part or in full … the … retracted papers got between 1 and 936 post-retraction citations”.
see the complete paper here:
Indeed, this is not a new observation. Those who work on scientific misconduct are aware of this, and have been for years (decades?)

1 month ago

While the citation of plagiarized works even after they have been exposed is obviously a problem, I’m not inclined to agree that this is because the plagiarized work is more likely to contain errors than the original work since it was produced by a mere copyist. If this work has errors, that is a separate issue from it being plagiarized. If the errors did not come out in the peer review process or in the responses made to the work by other scholars, then that is a problem of scholarship that would have happened even if the work wasn’t plagiarized. It seems pointlessly speculative to say ‘anyone who would deign to plagiarize is bound to do a shoddy job of it as well!’ Maybe, but maybe not.

1 month ago

A perhaps more pressing concern surrounding plagiarism and citation (mal-)practices is related to omission, the sometimes casual approach philosophers take toward empirical literature in interdisciplinary work (for instance, within social/political cognition and epistemology). For example, a recent publication hastily dismisses Social Identity Theory (SIT) for overemphasizing the role of self-esteem maintenance in group (identity) motivated biases, a poignant critique, but one well-documented in social psychology literature. Remarkably, the paper references only the original (now nearly five decades old) presentation of SIT, bypassing numerous articles addressing this very objection and the subsequent theoretical adjustments endorsed by research in this field. This oversight isn’t isolated but echoes across various philosophical works.

1 month ago

Differences between a non-verbatim plagiarizing work and its unattributed source can lead to a publication for which the plagiarized author does not want to be associated. The cherry-picking plagiarist has ruined the cake which cannot be returned intact.

This is especially true when the plagiarist locks arms with a few dozen high-profile co-authors who may not have read the publication which bears their names. When the plagiarized author seeks redress, he or she will be rebuffed. Journals publish policies against plagiarism, where the action to be taken depends on the degree of plagiarism. Yet the threshold of plagiarism for taking action is not disclosed. Plagiarism is thus tolerated. “No journal policies have been violated” is boilerplate. Editors will then perfunctorily thank the complainant and suggest that he/she/they seek redress with the dozens of institutions of the alleged co-authors. Bonne chance. Viel Glück. Suerte.

A persistent complainant will enter the idiosyncratic world of the co-authors’ institutions, where the mechanism of adjudication is seldom transparent. And then, CRICKETS. Meanwhile, the perverted plagiarized work gets embedded in the literature. In the field of international environmental policy, the perversion can even be levered into Decisions of UN conventions.

What to do in this meantime, which may last years? The answer is counter-intuitive.The plagiarized author should cite in tandem the plagiarizing and plagiarized works. The plagiarized author should explain just how little and just how much the two cited works differ. A discerning reader will perceive the cherry-picking and be aghast.

Joseph Henry Vogel, PhD
Department of Economics
University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras