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 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:
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*:
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.
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.”