A common reason for plagiarism is laziness: you want credit for doing something but you don’t really feel like doing it–maybe you’d rather go fishing, or bowling, or blogging, or whatever, so you just steal it, or you hire someone to steal it for you.
Interestingly enough, we see that in many defenses of plagiarism allegations. A common response is: I was sloppy in dealing with my notes, or I let my research assistant (who, incidentally, wasn’t credited in the final version) copy things for me and the research assistant got sloppy. The common theme: The person wanted the credit without doing the work.
As I wrote last year, I like to think that directness and openness is a virtue in scientific writing. For example, clearly citing the works we draw from, even when such citing of secondary sources might make us appear less erudite. But I can see how some scholars might feel a pressure to cover their traces.
Which brings us to Ed Wegman, whose defense of plagiarism in that Computational Statistics and Data Analysis paper is as follows (from this report by John Mashey):
(a) In 2005, he and his colleagues needed “some boilerplate background on social networks” for a high-profile report for the U.S. Congress. But instead of getting an expert on social networks for this background, or even simply copying some paragraphs (suitably cited) from a textbook on the topic, he tasked a Ph.D. student, Denise Reeves, to prepare the boilerplate. Reeves was no expert: her knowledge of social networks came from having taken a short course on the topic. Reeves writes the boilerplate “within a few days” and Wegman writes “of course, I took that to be her original work.”
(b) Wegman gave this boilerplate to a second student, Walid Sharabati, who included it in his Ph.D. dissertation “with only minor amendments.” (I think he’s saying Sharabati copied it.)
(c) Sharabati was a coauthor of the Computational Statistics and Data Analysis article. He took the material he’d copied from Reeves’s report and stuck it in to the CSDA article.
Now let’s apply our theme of the day, laziness:
(a) Wegman felt that the issue of collaborative networks was important to this congressional report. But rather than try to really figure things out, he asked a student for a bolierplate. Lazy.
(b) Wegman was an author of a congressional report with this boilerplate, he also was supposed to read Sharabati’s Ph.D. dissertation. He didn’t read it carefully enough to realize that an entire portion had been copied. Lazy.
(c) Wegman and Said were authors on the congressional report and also authors on the CSDA paper. They didn’t read the report and the paper carefully enough to realize that an entire portion had been copied. Lazy.
Doing it right is easy
Doing the right thing is easy, easy, easy, easy. All you have to write is something like, “Scholar X wrote a clear summary of topic Y. We paraphrase Scholar X’s summary as follows…”
The only bad thing about this is . . . maybe people who read this will realize you’re not much of an expert, and maybe they’ll ask Scholar X to write that expert report instead. But that’s the honest thing to do. That, or become an expert yourself.
Let me say it again: There’s not much mystery to plagiarism. If you take the work of person X and claim it as yours, you get credit for that work. A common defense of plagiarists is that the work being copied without attribution is not so important. But, if so, how much would it hurt to write, “Scholar X wrote a clear summary of topic Y. We paraphrase Scholar X’s summary as follows…”? The answer is: it could hurt a lot, because it could quickly become obvious that you didn’t do the work, and then the question arises, why should you be considered the expert? Why indeed?
One more time: Wegman has implied that copying “boilerplate” isn’t really plagiarism or, if it is, it’s no big deal, not affecting his scientific conclusions. But that’s not really correct. The work in question is not a theorem that’s true or false, it’s a bunch of statements (an “opinion piece,” in the words of CMU prof Kathleen Carley), and in that case the expertise of the authors is an important contribution.
The motivation for copying without attribution is clear: it allows Said, Wegman et al. to claim expertise without doing the work required to actually be experts.
There are two ways to claim expertise:
1. Be an actual expert and do the work, or
2. Plagiarize. Or hire non-experts who, being in the exact same position as you, will have no choice but to plagiarize if they want to be viewed as experts.
Strategy 1 takes a lot more work than strategy 2. On the other hand, if you do strategy 2 and you get caught, you’re going to look bad. Especially if you’re a repeat offender.
P.S. In case you’re curious, here’s a bit from the paper in question:
Centrality is one of the oldest concepts in network analysis. Most social networks contain people or organizations that are central. Because of their position, they have better access to information, and better opportunity to spread information. This is known as the ego-centered-approach to centrality. The network is centralized from socio-centered perspective.
Huh? I couldn’t really follow this so I decided to use Google to translate it from English to French to Dutch to Spanish to Slovenian to Finnish to Japanese back to English. Here’s what I ended up with:
Concentration is one of the oldest concepts in network analysis. Most social networks are organized individuals and play a central role. Because of its location makes it easier to access information and better opportunities for the dissemination of information. This is called the ego approach is important. Are managed centrally from the perspective of social networks.
This is a little better than the original but not much.
As to the actual content of the paper, I agree with those who have described it as self-refuting, in that it concludes with concerns that “peer review will be compromised,” yet the article was actually accepted without peer review by an editor who was friends with one of the authors. As noted earlier, I do not feel that a direct acceptance by the editor is necessarily bad practice, but in this case the editor clearly made a mistake by not sending to expert referees. I doubt the reviewers would’ve caught the plagiarism but I expect they would’ve caught the underlying lack of expertise that motivated the copying.
It’s not that the plagiarized work made the paper wrong; it’s that plagiarism is an indication that the authors don’t really know what they’re doing.
P.P.S. Mashey points me to this blog by Steve McIntyre who says that Said and Wegman were right in their social network analysis.
I have a few thoughts on this:
1. No one denies that the Said, Wegman, et al. article in CSDA had plagiarized material, but it’s not clear that Wegman himself knew about or approved the plagiarism. It may be that the plagiarism arose from a miscommunication with one student (Reeves, who copied material into the “boilerplate” report Wegman asked her to do, while Wegman thought she’d communicated original material), along with another student (Sharabati) who flat-out included plagiarized material into his Ph.D. dissertation and then into the CSDA paper. Given that Wegman has a history of plagiarism (see the story of the color vision article), it doesn’t look good that there was plagiarized material in another article on which he was a coauthor, and it also doesn’t look good to me that, when Wegman was told about the plagiarism, he acted defensively rather than with outrage. But we can’t be sure what this means.
2. As noted by many, the Said, Wegman, et al. article received very minimal peer review (ironically given its discussion of peer networks in reviewing).
3. As noted in my blog above, one function of the plagiarism is to give the authors an unwarranted air of expertise.
4. Plagiarism aside, the work of Said, Wegman, et al. on social networks can be evaluated on its merits. For the purpose of evaluation, let’s think of it not as a peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal but rather as a blog post. As a blog post, the Said et al. manuscript is pretty impressive: they offer opinions and also some data analysis!
However, I don’t see the work in that paper as persuasive of anything. The major conclusions are that there are different styles of research collaboration; the methodological flaws are that the entire data analysis is based on four snippets of the collaboration network. There’s no evidence or even argument that you can generalize from these four graphs to the general population, nor is there any evidence or justification of their normative recommendations. The trouble is that the authors didn’t seem to know what they are doing; one piece of evidence of this is that they plagiarized part of the their paper. It’s not that the plagiarism automatically discredits the social network analysis; rather, the plagiarism is consistent with the general hypothesis that Said, Wegman, et al. didn’t know what they were doing. It’s fine for them to present graphs of four collaboration networks, but I don’t see these graphs as really adding any support to the authors’ normative claims.