This one isn’t actually new, but it’s new to me. It involves University of Michigan business school professor Karl Weick. Here’s the relevant paragraph of Weick’s Wikipedia entry (as of 13 Apr 2012):
In several published articles, Weick related a story that originally appeared in a poem by Miroslav Holub that was published in the Times Literary Supplement. Weick plagiarized Holub in that he republished the poem (with some minor differences, including removing line breaks and making small changes in a few words) without quotation or attribution. Some of Weick’s articles included the material with no reference to Holub; others referred to Holub but without indicating that Weick had essentially done a direct copy of Holub’s writing. The plagiarism was detailed in an article by Thomas Basbøll and Henrik Graham. In a response, Weick disputed the claim of plagiarism, writing, “By the time I began to see the Alps story as an example of cognition in the path of the action, I had lost the original article containing Holub’s poem and I was not even sure where I had read the story . . . I reconstructed the story as best I could.” Weick did not give a plausible explanation of how this reconstruction led to the appearance of a story with wording nearly identical to Holub’s. Basbøll and Graham write, “The American Historical Association acknowledges the existence of this common defence in specific cases of plagiarism, tersely remarking that it “is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work.”
I’ve added in the links above.
Basbøll and Graham published their article in 2006 uncovering the plagiarism. This year Basbøll published a more thorough exploration in the Journal of Organizational Change Management. Basbøll’s new article has three parts:
1. A discussion of “sensemaking scholarship” and Socratic critiques; I found this all impenetrable on my first read, but it made more sense after I’d read the rest of the article and went back to this section.
2. A narrative of how Basbøll and Graham came across the plagiarism, and the response of Weick and colleagues in the academic field of organizational studies.
3. A discussion of the sociology of the academic field, and of scholarship more generally, in the context of criticism from outside.
Having laid out the basic story (and linked to the evidence), I want to explore in several directions.
Karl Weick and the Chris Rock defense
There’s an interesting Schroedinger’s cat aspect to this whole story, as to many stories where someone is accused of breaking a rule. As long as Weick does not respond, one can imagine all sorts of possible defenses: maybe he copied the story and lost the note, maybe he read the story from another source, or maybe he was purposely giving misleading citations as a way of indirectly making his point about not needing the right map. But once Weick intervenes by responding, he automatically rules out various alternative explanations, thus eliminating directions where he could be defended. Which leads to the non-defense defenses by some of Weick’s academic colleagues, basically a statement that Weick is a good guy so we shouldn’t pick on him.
Everybody knows that Martin Luther King plagiarized and that’s ok, it’s a small part of his larger life story. So why should Weick be so embarrassed? I agree that it’s unseemly for him not to be open about it.
Of course, all the above is written conditional only on the information I’ve read. Perhaps due to my own inclinations, I just have a tendency to be a hard-liner on charges of plagiarism.
Karl Weick and Stephen Jay Gould
I have never heard of any of the people involved before now, but based on the comments on the orgtheory blog, I wonder if Weick has some similarities to the late Stephen J. Gould. Both seem to be controversial figures (Gould in evolution, Weick with his championing of storytelling), both are “culture heroes” to some extent, and so people don’t want to hear about it when they misbehave. Presumably they are misbehaving for the greater good!
Frank Fischer is a different story as his case is pretty boring (he’s a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond), so there I see it as a boring case of people defending their friends and defending their institution.
Circling the wagons
One extremely frustrating aspect of these cases is the denial or avoidance of the topic by colleagues of the offenders. For example, after I contacted an American Statistical Association committee about the Wegman case, I was told, “The Founders Award was presented to Dr. Wegman based on service to the ASA and to the profession, not on the work he did which is now being questioned in the blogosphere.” This annoyed me. First, it’s not “work he did,” it’s work he didn’t do. Second, this is not merely “being questioned.” Several cases of plagiarism by Wegman have been convincingly demonstrated. This goes beyond “allegations.”
When Frank Fischer’s plagiarisms were revealed, several of his colleagues wrote a letter incorrectly stating, “The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own, and Mr. Fischer did nothing of the sort: He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on.” Actually, no.
And, as the links above indicate, several scholars are out there defending Weick.
What frustrates me is: Why can’t these defenders just admit it? Why not say that Wegman, or Fischer, or Weick, did something wrong but that the scholarly offenses are minor compared to the importance of their work (a tough case to make in Wegman’s case, I think, but maybe Fisher and Weick have better records here)? Why deny or dance around the plagiarism?
My guess, following Basbøll, is that these colleagues want to like the plagiarists’ work (I’m assuming that sometimes, but not always, personal friendship is involved), and it’s a lot easier to defend the work in isolation than to make the claim that the work is so good that we’re in a Martin Luther King situation where the plagiarism can just be dismissed.
A funny sidelight in all of this is the reception of the story on the orgtheory blog. When Basbøll’s first article came out, in 1996, blogger Teppo Felin dismissed the story in favor of “Karl Weick’s very sensible response,” while Omar Lizardo implicitly acknowledged the plagiarism but characterizes it as “obscure” and goes on to mock Basbøll and Graham. A few years later, the topic resurfaced on orgtheory; this time the poster (Fabio Rojas) made no judgment, the thread includes much justification of postmodernism, and there’s no direct engagement with the earlier post on orgtheory, nor do Felin and Lizardo return to the thread. My guess is that after four years, the reality of the plagiarism had sunk in, and a defense of Weick on that point would just seem silly.
And, since I’m talking blogs, here’s Basbøll’s.
The relevance of findings of plagiarism (or research fraud more generally)
As Basbøll argues, learning that part of a corpus of work is plagiarized can degrade one’s trust in the rest of the work. This is not just a moral or psychological argument of the sort that one might legitimately use against Stephen Jay Gould, Diederik Stapel, or Marc Hauser—if the guy cheated with data in one place, you can’t trust his other statements either. Basbøll is saying more than that; his point (argued in detial) is that once you accept that Weick represented a story in a poem as if it were a historical event, it casts doubt on his rules of evidence. Elsewhere, Basbøll points out that “The first four pages of [Weick’s] Sensemaking in organizations reproduce substantial parts of the sociologist Ron Westrum’s ‘Social Intelligence about Hidden Events’.” Weick’s reputation as an original thinker is threatened if it turns out that he was appropriating others’ ideas. Weick is then playing more of the role of textbook writer or popularizer (but not following proper citation rules) rather than scholar.
Similarly, if Wegman is such a non-expert in network analysis as to plagiarize a description of the field (and introduce typos while he’s doing it), it casts doubt on any empirical studies he performs using network analysis. Ultimately, such analyses must be evaluated on their own terms—but without the helpful backup associated with the idea that they were performed by an eminent statistician.
I think it’s no coincidence that the revelation of plagiarism can discredit a publication. That’s just the converse of the statement that one motivation for plagiarizing is to convey an inappropriate air of expertise.
Plagiarism is risky (especially for people such as Wegman who already had strong careers and appear to have started their major plagiarisms in the internet era) and it violates professional and public norms (as can be seen, for example, from the persistent denials even when the cases are obvious). I’ve argued before that a big motivation for plagiarism is laziness. But presumably the offenders feel that they’re getting some professional advancement in return.
In the Weick case, the copier was getting credit for a cool story, as well as credit for a certain writing style. In addition, by telling the story as if it could have been true, he was imputing a possible empirical basis for a speculative theory or, at the very least, for a catchy slogan about maps.
It has been argued that the truth or falsity of the original story has no bearing on the reception of Weick’s theory, but I’m with Basbøll on doubting that sort of history-doesn’t-matter claim. I believe, for example, that Weick’s argument would not have been so well received if, for example, it had been backed up by an anecdote from an Eric Ambler novel rather than as a (presumably actual) “incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland.”
What about Frank Fischer? From his plagiarisms, he was getting credit for knowledge of a literature with which he wasn’t so comfortable; I assume that acknowledging this would have degraded Fisher’s credibility as a thinker with a broad understanding of his field.
One more thing
I had the impression that plagiarists tend to be repeat offenders. (Here’s an extreme case.) Once people found single cases of plagiarism from Frank Fischer and Ed Wegman, others pulled the string and found many many cases. I don’t know the full story on Doris Kearns Goodwin but I assume she lifted more than a paragraph or two from her unacknowledged sources. But for Weick we only have this one passage. Is this really all? Is he a one-time copier, in the mold of Ian Ayres and Laurence Tribe? Or should we treat the nonappearance of other Weick plagiarisms as evidence that his copyings are of a different sort?
I emailed Basbøll this question and he replied that Weick had indeed plagiarized elsewhere. Basbøll’s 2010 article, “Softly constrained imagination: Plagiarism and misprision in the theory of organizational sensemaking,” has several examples, none quite as smoking-gun as the Holub poem but in aggregate giving the clear impression that Weick has been in the habit of taking others’ sentences, stories, and ideas and not fully crediting them. Also not examining these stories critically: the map-in-the-Alps story is not the only questionable tale that Weick presents as factual.
No way the copying was accidental!
To get back to the copying-and-reformatting-without-attribution bit, one thing that I strongly doubt is the story that Weick is not a plagiarist at all, that the Holub poem got into Weick’s article by accident without him realizing that it was nearly a word-for-word transcription of some forgotten source.
Why do I doubt this?
First, I don’t see how the nearly word-for-word copy would’ve got into Weick’s notes without a note of the source. It’s not easy to copy word for word (I’m talking about the era before computer cut-and-paste), and it’s even more difficult to make such a copy while changing a couple of words here and there. Copying is tedious work, and of course you note the source.
The second reason I doubt the accidental-copying story is Weick’s reaction. If this had happened to me, I’d feel really bad about it! I’d be like, Sorry, dude, I’d make a big deal to acknowledge the source, if I were to put the story in a later article, I’d bend over backward to (a) get the quote exactly right, fixing the changed words, and (b) super-emphasize that Holub was the author.
But Weick didn’t do that. Instead, he acted in the way a shoplifter might react when given the opportunity to return a case of Tide to the supermarket. He quietly slipped in, put it back on the shelf, then slunk back out again. Years later, when caught on it, he’s like, Hey, whaddya talkin bout—the soap is sitting in the store, I never touched it!
The other thing I wanted to note is how unusual plagiarism is. Sure, it happens all the time, but most of us don’t do it, we aren’t even tempted to do it. Let’s take a few controversial scholars: John Lott, Steven Levitt, Paul Krugman, Steve Landsberg. (OK, they’re all economists, but that doesn’t really matter, I guess economists are just pretty controversial these days.) In various combinations, these guys piss off a lot of people. But none of them are plagiarists. I imagine that these economists, like most scholars, have no desire to copy others’ words. It’s the opposite! Each of us feels that we have so much to say. We’re too busy saying our own words. To plagiarize would be to throw away some of our bandwidth. Or look at Stephen Jay Gould and Marc Hauser: they didn’t plagiarize either (or not to my knowledge). They cheated, but they had things they wanted to say.
That’s why, when I hear about someone like Frank Fischer or Ed Wegman, someone who copies and copies and copies, here’s what I think:
To plagiarize is to admit you have nothing to say.
No wonder people don’t want to admit it.
(In case you’re curious, here’s something I found on the first page of my google search, an interview with Weick (who seems to have a management-consulting style, but maybe that’s just because he’s being interviewed by John Geirland, who’s a management consultant). In this short interview, Weick tells several stories, all of which he presents as true. It is quite possible that none of these particular stories has been lifted without attribution from a translated poem.)
P.S. In case you’re wondering, here’s Holub’s poem, published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (and with formatting slightly garbled, as I’m copying the text into html):
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who knew a lot about maps according to which life is on its way somewhere or other, told us this story from the war due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched his own people to death.
But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are.
The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.
And here’s one of Weick’s versions:
Definitions not withstanding, I can best show what I think strategy is by describing an incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland. The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.
This is a full quotation of the fifth paragraph of Weick’s ‘Substitutes for Strategy’ as it appears in his 2001 collection, Making Sense of the Organization, which reprints Weick 1987 (exhibit E). It will be easily seen that it is a verbatim reproduction of Holub’s poem (exhibit A), a few minor differences notwithstanding. The enjambments (lineation effects) are removed, the first stanza is left out, ‘wasteland’ is replaced by ‘wilderness’, “The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched” is replaced with “The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched” and, finally, Weick adds the words “He discovered to his astonishment.” There are half a dozen differences in a text of 144 words. Yet Holub’s poem is not referenced anywhere in the paper or in the book’s acknowledgements. This is a standard case of academic plagiarism, i.e., using another’s words as one’s own.
I’ll end this with a line from Weick’s official website:
Dr. Weick’s research interests include collective sensemaking under pressure, medical errors, handoffs in extreme events, high-reliability performance, improvisation and continuous change.
That sounds about right.