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“The subtle funk of just a little poultry offal”

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Today’s item mixes two of my favorite themes in a horrible way, sort of like a Reese’s Cup but combining brussels sprouts and liver instead of peanut butter and chocolate. In this case, the disturbing flavors that go together are plagiarism (you know what that is) and the publication filter (the idea that there should be very stringent standards for criticizing something, once it happens to be published somewhere).

The copyist

The first ingredient comes from Matthew Whitaker, an Arizona State University Foundation Professor of History who has a deplorable record of copying material from other writers without attribution.

For convenience, I’ll reproduce an example here:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.48.46 AMScreen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.48.59 AM

On the plus side; Whitaker removed the cliche’d phrase, “undisputed rulers of the roost” when copying from the online encyclopedia; on the downside, I don’t know what he was thinking when he rendered “Conservatives” with a capital letter.

And in case you were wondering what the policy on this was at his institution, here’s something from a google search on *matthew whitaker syllabus*:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.41.03 AM

To be fair, though, this syllabus is from 2003. Perhaps policies have changed and academic integrity is no longer a “must.” A “may,” perhaps?

The publisher who doesn’t care

Colleen Flaherty wrote an article about this in Inside Higher Education and got these wonderful quotes.

First, the author:

Whitaker said via email: “While I truly appreciate you reaching out to me, I will not respond to an anonymous blog submission.” He referred further questions to the [University of Nebraska press, which published the book with the copied material].

I suspect Whitaker’s just being polite here. Given that he copied and was caught about it and, apparently, didn’t want to apologize, I doubt that he really appreciates the reporter reaching out to him. I suspect he’d be truly happiest if Inside Higher Education would just leave him alone.

Flaherty followed up:

Donna Shear, director of the press, said she hadn’t edited Whitaker’s book personally and couldn’t speak to the exact nature of his review process. She said the press does not and cannot check everything it publishes for plagiarism and that authors sign a statement saying they have not plagiarized, indemnifying the press from such charges.

So far, so good. Fair enough. And then:

All that aside, she said, “We stand by Matt.”

Hmm . . . what does that mean, “stand by”? Here are some possibilities:

1. She doesn’t think Whitaker plagiarized in the book. Hard to believe, given the excerpts above. But I guess it’s possible that she simply chose to avoid looking at the evidence. That’s one way to avoid cognitive dissonance: just close your eyes!

2. She thinks plagiarism is OK, maybe not for students taking a class, but it’s ok for professors publishing a book with the University of Nebraska Press.

3. She doesn’t like plagiarism but she feels that this book is only a little bit plagiarized. According to the people who looked at this case carefully, “Professor Whitaker draws, sometimes for pages at a time, his analysis, statistics, primary source quotations, and organization from the earlier work [Hine, Hine, and Harrold's, African American Odyssey], usually without any attribution at all. He does not include in his bibliography the most recent editions that he stripmines.” But if you add it up, it’s still gotta be much less than 50 pages, out of a book that’s hundreds of pages long.

So maybe the University of Nebraska Press, has a policy on this. If an entire book is plagiarized, I assume they won’t publish it. But just bits and pieces . . . maybe if it’s less than 10% copied-and-uncredited material, it’s ok? Of course they can’t officially say this, because it would make them look like hacks, and nobody wants to look like a hack.

So what do I think? I don’t think it’s 1, because it’s hard for me to imagine Donna Shear, director of the press, not being curious enough to just look a bit at the evidence. She’d have to have incredible self-control to not even take a peek at this thing that everyone’s talking about.

And I don’t think it’s 2, because academic publishers have to know that you’re not supposed to publish other people’s writing without credit.

So I think it’s 3, that Shear feels that a few paragraphs here, a few pages there, a few pages somewhere else, a few paragraphs somewhere else, . . ., that’s all ok because it represents some small portion of the total. But she’s in a difficult position, because even if she feels this way, she can’t really say it publicly.

So what does she say? Flaherty reports:

Shear continued: “I will say that all of this has been over the years sent to us by someone with a personal Gmail account, whose identity has never been revealed. But not only has [Whitaker’s] book been through rigorous peer review, knowing that he’s had an issue in the past, he took tremendous pains to make sure that there wasn’t anything that could be questioned in this book.”

Ahhh, now it gets interesting. Let’s put all these facts together. The bit about the personal Gmail account seems irrelevant: who cares if someone’s account is ***.edu or gmail or even Aol? But we do have some pieces of information:

(a) Whitaker’s book has been through rigorous peer review.

(b) Whitaker has been caught copying without attribution in the past.

(c) Whitaker took pains to make sure that there wasn’t anything that could be questioned in this book.

And, of course,

(d) Whitaker in his book actually included copies of many long passages from other sources without attribution.

So let’s think like a statistician and put the information together. Statement (a) provides probabilistic evidence: if a book has plagiarized material, it’s likely to be caught, thus if it has not been caught, this is evidence that (i) the book has is no plagiarism, (ii) the book has very little plagiarism, (iii) the rigorous peer reviewers had bad luck and just didn’t happen to notice the many plagiarized passages, or (iv) the statement (a) is mistaken and the peer review was not rigorous. Or of course some combination of these. Based on the evidence shown above and others at that site, we can rule out (i) and (ii), so either the rigorous peer reviewers had bad luck or the peer review was not rigorous.

Yet another possibility is that the rigorous peer reviewers did notice the plagiarism and told the University of Nebraska Press, but that the publisher chose to set this information aside. But my guess is that the reviewers never noticed it. I’ve reviewed lots of academic books, and I do it pretty quickly. I flip though and see if it seems to make sense. I don’t check passages for plagiarism. Why not? Because that’s not my job. It’s the job of the author to properly credit others’ work, and it’s the job of the publisher to act in good faith with the readers, not just the writer (or, perhaps I should say, compiler) of the book.

Now on to statement (b), which seems to be taken by Shear to be evidence against plagiarism, perhaps based on the reasoning that the peer reviewers would have been extra thorough when evaluating the work of a known copyist. And this may be so: it may be that the reviewers looked carefully. But, conditional on the copying actually being there (as is clear from the evidence), this implies that the reviewers did not look carefully enough (or, again, maybe they did and the press decided to just publish the manuscript as is).

Statement (c) is that Whitaker took pains to make sure that there wasn’t anything that could be questioned in this book. Again, it seems that he did not take enough pains here!

All of this reminds me of the various discussions we’ve had over the past few years, regarding published claims that are wrong (sometimes fraudulent, but usually just simple mistakes arising from statistical misunderstandings such as the “law of small numbers” which was so memorably named by Kahneman and Tversky). If a paper is published in a legitimate journal, that’s evidence that it is a strong paper. But that inference is unconditional on the content of the paper. If you look at the paper and it has clear errors, that’s another story. In Bayesian terms, the information provided by acceptance to a journal can be much weaker than the information provided by examining the paper carefully.

And that’s what’s going on here. The information provided by Shear is actually a bit mixed, because she’s reporting that the book is peer-reviewed but also that the author had problems with unacknowledged copying in the past. But, in any case, this information is much weaker than the direct data provided by the passages in the book that are so similar to previously published work of others.

What bothers me

I’m more bothered by Shear’s behavior than Whitaker’s. I mean, sure, this is Whitaker’s fault, he’s to blame for, first submitting a book with lots of copied and uncredited material and then not apologizing after he got caught—but, really, what can you expect given what came before? But Shear’s behavior is more mystifying. I’d think she’d be annoyed at Whitaker for sending her press a book with copied and uncredited material. Or, if she knew about it all along, why didn’t she just get Whitaker to add some citations to Infoplease and all the rest? It just mystifies me. If someone were to sell me a car and then the engine starts making funny sounds, I’d be mad at the person who sold me the car, right, not at the person who points out the sounds, right? I mean, sure, none of us like to admit we’ve been conned, but would that be enough motivation to personally defend the person who did it to you? I’m baffled.

I’m less surprised by this guy:

Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and founding director of its Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, which awarded Whitaker the book prize, wrote a blurb for Peace Be Still.

Via email, Joseph said that he was not aware of any of the allegations concerning the new book until contacted by Inside Higher Ed.

“I spoke with [Whitaker] about the issue and he assured me that Arizona State University has thoroughly investigated all plagiarism allegations and determined they were unfounded,” Joseph said. “That said, what concerns me most is that the allegations made against Professor Whitaker are being made by anonymous persons using anonymous sources.”

Sure, this is a bit silly, given that the evidence is there on the web for all to see, but I can understand. Joseph is being loyal to his friend, not quite ever saying that Whitaker didn’t plagiarize (if you read the words carefully) but being as protective as he can without saying anything he knows to be false. If his motivation is to protect his friend, I can respect that. Loyalty counts for something.

Again, let me emphasize: just cos he copied material without citation, it doesn’t make Whitaker a bad guy. Maybe he’s just overcommitted and didn’t want to let people down after he promised a book. Who knows? I’m not trying to make an overall moral judgment; we all have our flaws. The point is really simpler than that, it’s about publishing a book and giving an award to a book that is copied from other sources. That’s not cool. If they want to give Whitaker an award for his contributions in other ways (indeed, he’s received many such awards), go for it. But if the plaig is really no big deal, then own up to it. Say you know about it and you still don’t care. It does seem unfair to the authors of any of the other books up for the award, though. Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten (or so I’ve read), but at least it wasn’t copied.

What next?

As I wrote before, to spin this in a more positive way, I assume that Whitaker, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a well-read, knowledgeable, and thoughtful person who can contribute a lot in the public discussion as well as in the classroom. Maybe as a person who does not do original research, he is even more qualified as a commentator because he has no intellectual ties to any particular ideas or sources?

The key would be for Whitaker to demonstrate that he has something else to offer besides the copied writing, so as to put him in the category of scholars such as Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, and Ian Ayres who sometimes copy without attribution but are also considered to be functioning members of society, rather than in the category of Stephen Glass, Quentin Rowan, and Jonah Lehrer who seemed to have nothing to offer but fabrication and plagiarism.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I found the above image here, the result of a google search on *brussels sprouts and liver*. Jess Kapadia writes, “These flavors in these brussels sprouts are spectacularly balanced: crisp, sweet and tangy from the sugar and red wine vinegar, with the subtle funk of just a little poultry offal.”

38 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    I’m trying to imagine a scenario: Say my best grad school buddy or fellow professor colleague got caught plagiarizing. And then a journalist contacted me. What should / would I say? What would Andrew say.

    Assume our priors about the plagiarizer, in all aspects, are otherwise quite positive.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    I think it’s
    4. Shear just wants this problem to go away.

    Making a bunch of vague, “it’s somebody else’s responsibility” statements (e.g. the infamous “rigorous peer review” and “hadn’t edited Whitaker’s book personally”) is a good strategy to make most problems go away (or at least away from you).

    • Andrew says:

      Z:

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but . . . if she just wants the problem to go away, why “stand by Matt” at all? Why not just de-list the book?

      • zbicyclist says:

        De-listing gives Shear a whole set of new problems, I think.

        If you de-list, you acknowledge that there’s been a mistake of some magnitude by somebody. There’s the unsold copies. There’s the bad publicity. There’s the smudge on your reputation if you have designs for a greater position in publishing. There’s the curiosity of the Press’s board of directors, who may be more likely to see de-listing as a mistake by the Press’s management (i.e. Shear) than they are to see publishing a book which has “rigorous peer review” as a mistake by the Press’s management.

        And do books get de-listed for plagiarism, even for cases like Doris Kearns Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose?

      • Corey says:

        Making the problem go away includes not doing anything about it — certainly not anything that would result in angry phone calls. “Stand[ing] by Matt” is a principled-sounding way of making that happen.

  3. Andreas Baumann says:

    There’s really no reason to compare chicken liver to plagiarism!

  4. Jan Moren says:

    I second Andreas above; that recipe looks delicious!

  5. Jan Moren says:

    On a more serious note, I wonder if Rahul hasn’t nailed it. Whatever she may think about the situation, and whatever she may think about him, she is not going to say anything negative to a reporter passing by. Nothing good can come of it, and plenty bad.

    • Andrew says:

      Jan:

      But one bad thing did come out of her response, in that she looks bad to me and many other readers of Inside Higher Education. If she really wanted to play it safe, she could’ve gone with a No Comment or a Don’t Quote Me or a noncommittal, We’ll Be Looking Into This.

    • Frederick Guy says:

      Dan links to an interesting example. It involves a paper in which several short passages in the introduction are lifted verbatim from other papers: no quotation marks, but at the end of each lifted passage the source is cited. As one of the commenters on the thread says, I’d be happy to be plagiarized in that way – at least they’ll get my point right if they copy word for word, and I get the cite. Yet most of the other commenters follow Jeffrey Beall, the site’s host, in condemning both the “plagiarism”, and the journal editor’s indifference to it, essentially on the grounds that we wouldn’t let our students do it.
      Re: the Whitaker case, Andrew appeals at different points to two very different standards. One is the university plagiarism policy (I assume this is what’s reflected in the boilerplate from Whitaker’s syllabus) – his students can’t do it, do why can he? This is the same standard appealed to by those complaining in the case Dan links to. The other standard is giving due credit to others when using their work.
      You might think there is no difference between these two, but the practical meaning of university plagiarism policies has been changed by our ability to use the Web to check all of every document for even small copied passages: this has made it hard to ignore minor copying, and it all gets lumped under the single debased heading of “plagiarism”. The electronically-mediated search for copying, and the gold standard of having every sentence written from scratch word-by-word, have become so pervasive that even a student’s re-use of her/his own words from a previous course (with the same tools, we check for that, too, at the same time) gets the oxymoronic label of “self-plagiarism” .
      Maybe the Whitaker case does involve real plagiarism: I’d take the complaint more seriously if it were framed consistently in terms of credit where credit is due, without reference to the way plagiarism is explained to students.

  6. Rahul says:

    Trying to restate Andrew’s car analogy:

    If someone were to keep ranting against my Toyota screaming that they infringed on a Nissan patent when they designed this model, would I be raving mad at Toyota or rather say “Yes, Toyota’s legal team is looking into that. But it’s still a great car.”

    PS. I’ve no idea about the actual utility of Whitaker’s book.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Your argument seems similar to position #2 in my above post: the idea that there’s nothing wrong with plagiarizing in a book. In some settings this might be a reasonable point (although of course it’s still rude to not acknowledge one’s sources, and the lack of acknowledgement of sources also reduces the quality of the book by making it more difficult for serious students who might want to learn more), but it’s noteworthy that none of Whitaker’s defenders seemed to make this point.

      • Dan Wright says:

        I wonder the thoughts of those short-listed for the award his book won. Maybe like Kemp’s thoughts after coming in second in MVP voting in 2011 to Braun.

      • Rahul says:

        Let me pose a different hypothetical: Say you found Toyota had indeed infringed on competitor patents would you then boycott their cars? Would it even significantly influence your buying decisions while car-shopping?

        Or Apple vs Samsung or Blackberry vs whoever etc.

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          Ripping off Nissan could be a good call, although I expect Nissan’s lawyers would have something to say about it. But in this case the book in question does not seem to be of high quality. Ripping off an online almanac is not a good sign.

          • Rahul says:

            Well our moral outrage about plagiarism seems all too convenient. We are outraged about academic stealing but yet will routinely ignore IP theft & other forms of fairly analogous unattributed idea stealing.

            So we shouldn’t be too surprised if others don’t react to plagiarism as fanatically as you do.

            • Andrew says:

              Rahul:

              I don’t think it’s fanatical to want people to (a) acknowledge their sources and (b) not lie about it when they are caught. But I suppose that fanaticism is in the eye of the beholder.

            • Dan Wright says:

              Rahul, it might be that people still may buy the book/car, which may be why the publisher reacted in this way. The question seems to be whether the book awarding committee (and others recognizing scholarship in his field/uni) or Car and Driver magazine for that example, would want to honor him (or the car engineers). I don’t think Andrew was talking about book sales being a measure of scholarship.

              • Rahul says:

                Donna Shear as director of the press must care about book sales? Not relevant here maybe since I don’t think this guy was a bestseller.

                What I am saying is that the utility of a book to readership is a dimension quite orthogonal to plagiarism. A book might be (a) plagiarized yet immensely useful or (b) not plagiarized yet useless or (c) plagiarized & useless. Whitaker could indeed be Type (c) I’m not sure.

                In case (a), which I think is the most interesting type, publishers & readers may not really care as much about originality as Andrew does.

              • Andrew says:

                Rahul:

                I think you’re misunderstanding me. My objection to plagiarism is not a lack of originality, it’s that the source is not acknowledge. If someone wants to put together a book out of found material, that’s just fine with me. A book does not have to be original. But it’s muddying the waters to not cite the sources. And, indeed, if the author and publisher really think it’s ok to publish material from other textbooks, online encyclopedias, and the like, why go to so much trouble to hide and deny it?

                My fuller thoughts on the ways in which plagiarism degrades academic and scholarly discourse are here and here (my two articles with Thomas Basbøll).

              • Rahul says:

                @Andrew

                I used the word “originality” wrongly. I ought to have said “attribution”?

            • K? O'Rourke says:

              Rahul:

              When you are buying a car you are buying its current condition mostly and only a bit the company’s skill at innovating a future repair product for it.

              When you are buying an academic output (reading it as scholarship) are you not buying it’s future explanatory power?

              Andrew:

              Expecting b) given not a) is naive but should be valued and not b) given not a) _should_ not be tolerated.

              • Rahul says:

                I disagree. Don’t you want to reward a car company for not stealing? If companies were allowed to steal isn’t that crippling future innovation? If a company lied about ideas how do you know it isn’t lying about other stuff?

                More simply, if you think unattributed stealing is morally wrong why does it matter if it is stealing some journal paragraphs or a spark plug design?

                I find it an inconsistent position to get worked up about plagiarism yet give IP stealing a pass.

  7. Rahul says:

    To me Matthew Whitaker’s case is the less interesting version because, plagiarism or not, his seems mundane work anyways. Doubt anyone’s too excited about it.

    The real question for me is, how I would react to someone’s book which has proven rather useful and insightful in all aspects but which in hindsight turns out to have plagiarized bits. Think of whatever textbook, say, you had found really damn useful (perhaps it’s the only good text on that topic; no alternatives ) and now imagine a chapter of that textbook turns out to be plagiarized.

    What’s your reaction? To me that’s the interesting question.

  8. jrc says:

    This discussion talking “individual-level causal claims from state-level correlations” giving me many inside good thoughts and thanks host and everywhere for fixing on webs.

    Sorry – practicing my spam commenting (I really like the spam that shows up here for some reason). But for real – what happened to a discussion about the use and misuse of state-year fixed-effects models? I would guess the folks here might actually disagree productively about that. Whereas I’m pretty sure we’re all against the plagiarizing posers, and you’ve already tossed plenty of bait to Steve Sailer this week.

  9. John Mashey says:

    This example inspired me to finish off a writeup on display styles and algorithms and display styles for exhibiting palgairism in ways that:
    (a) make it leap off the screen, even to a casual reader.
    (b) also help finding the likely paraphrases and trivial edits, and also errors introduced by rewording.

    I took the example above added a 1-page explanation, and then 2 pages of display. See the A Shaded Side-By-Side Display Style For Plagiarism (PDF) or if anybody wants to try this, feel free to start with the Word document.

    It is sad but true that it is hard to do this with usual blogging software, but quite often the major work is finding the antecedent sources in the first place, and it’s not that much more work to display it as persuasively as possible.
    Whether this is optimal or not I cannot say, just the best I’ve been able to do so far. It could be a good topic for cognitive scientists.

  10. Chris G says:

    > 1. … I guess it’s possible that she simply chose to avoid looking at the evidence. That’s one way to avoid cognitive dissonance: just close your eyes!

    $20 on Option 1.

    > So what do I think? I don’t think it’s 1, because it’s hard for me to imagine Donna Shear, director of the press, not being curious enough to just look a bit at the evidence. She’d have to have incredible self-control to not even take a peek at this thing that everyone’s talking about.

    Ha! Make that $50 on Option 1!

    You give people in positions of authority far too much credit. If everybody just turns a blind eye then they all get to make some money, get some professional props, etc. It’s all good. On the other hand, blow the whistle and everyone’s in the shit. Nobody loves a buzzkill.

    (For additional insights on the downside of whistleblowing, see Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”.)

  11. Ann says:

    So interesting to read the comments. One thing to consider is the humanities context. Humanities are under the gun, and for a plagiarizing professor to consume resources while discrediting the whole endeavor is pernicious, and humanities scholars might react in a way that seems overwrought to others. Plagiarism is also simply theft of others work, an offense against fellow craftstmen. Lastly, In addition to the offense to scholarship (and I agree that textbooks rarely contribute much), there’s the offense to students, the only possible buyers of such a book. They could get the information for free from websites, or for a pittance from used copies of the textbook from which Whitaker plagiarized. Instead they’re told to purchase this book — and I assure you that if they quote from it, the quotation is likely to be picked up by plagiarism software as instead drawn from the web. It’s all just….distasteful. Maybe like liver and brussela sprouts!

  12. Roger D says:

    If we compare “We stand by Matt” with one possible alternative, “We support Professor Whitaker”, it seems clear that the tone is more personal and partisan. Within an oppressor-oppressed view of the world, the protagonists are Good and Evil, and in that battle you must take sides. Your heart must be in the right place, whatever your head may say.

  13. Lemongrab says:

    In the past Professor Whitaker has accused the people who have raised plagiarism issues of racism so this may play a part in her decision.

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