Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Plagiarism and Language

Guest-post from Michael Schmidt today:

The ethics of plagiarism have been crossing my computer screen a lot, lately.

On August 9, Stanley Fish wrote on opinion piece in the New York Times stating that plagiarism “is not a big moral deal.” The rules of plagiarism are “an insider’s obsession,” he contends, and plagiarism “is not a philosophical issue.” A lot of Fish’s argument (if it can be called that) seems to rest on the popularity (in some circles) of the notion that there is nothing that is truly original, so there’s no philosophically clean line distinguishing “original” text and copied text. The rules of what kind of copying are allowed, then, is just based on historical practice within disciplines.

I didn’t start by reading the Fish piece, however; I started by reading Lindsay Beyerstein’s critique of it , wherein she counters that plagiarism is a big moral deal, because it is deception and cheating. In this society, people get rewarded for having original ideas (no quotation marks) and to be rewarded for ideas you stole, and deceived others into thinking were yours, is morally wrong. That seemed about right to me.

Then, last week, The Scientist emailed me a blurb about an article on self-plagiarism. The topic of this article seems to give a little more weight to Fish’s contention that the rules of plagiarism are more like the arcane rules of golf; some people find it deeply wrong to steal words from yourself. If you aren’t stealing someone else’s ideas, who is harmed by such plagiarism?

I think that one answer to such a question is that others whom you are competing with are harmed. There are instances in which duplicate papers are published in multiple journals, which is a way of increasing your number of publications, and increasing the chances that your work will be cited. This is deception, because of the prevalent assumption that each article published represents new work. People who practice this sort of deception benefit unfairly in competition for jobs, promotions and grants, because, like it or not, some people in positions of evaluation just like to count up articles and citations.

But what if, as in the initial example in the linked article, you are just reusing a paragraph or two in the introduction? Is there an assumption made that all sentences are newly minted for the occasion? Are you really benefitting unfairly if you’re only saving yourself the 10 minutes needed for rewording the same old background to the same old problem you’ve been attacking the last 10 years? And what, really, would be the value of putting the same literature review in slightly different words?

That brought to mind the idea of “formulation.” Often, in science, we state a conclusion in a sentence of symbols, an equation. Nobody wants people to express equations differently every time; let’s say F = ma or E=mc2 and be done with it. Why do we find these repeated mathematical formulations salutary, but get upset when the same words are used in the same order in natural language sentences?