I came across a couple of stories today that made me wonder how much we can learn from a scholar’s professional misconduct.
The first was a review by Kimberle Crenshaw of a book by Joan Biskupic about Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor. Crenshaw makes the interesting point that Sotomayor, like many political appointees of the past, was chosen in part because of her ethnic background, but that unlike various other past choices (for example, Antonin Scalia, the first Italian American on the court), “Sotomayor’s ethnicity is still viewed [by many] with skepticism.”
I was reminded of Laurence “ten-strike” Tribe’s statement that Sotomayor is “not nearly as smart as she seems to think she is,” a delightfully paradoxical sentence that one could imagine being said by Humpty Dumpty or some other Lewis Carroll character. More to the point, Tribe got caught plagiarizing a few years ago.
So here’s the question. Based on the letter where the above quote appears, Tribe seems to consider himself to be pretty smart (smarter than Sotomayor, that’s for sure). But, from my perspective, what kind of smart person plagiarizes? Not a very smart person, right?
But maybe I’m completely missing the point. If some of the world’s best athletes are doping, maybe some of the world’s best scholars are plagiarizing? It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this one. Also, in fairness to Tribe, he’s over 70 years old. Maybe he used to be smart when he was younger.
The second story came to me via an email from John Transue who pointed me to a post by Ali Abunimah, “Illinois chancellor who fired Salaita accused of serial self-plagiarism.” I had to follow some links to see what was going on here: apparently there was a professor who got fired after pressure on the university from a donor.
I hadn’t heard of Stephen Salaita (the prof who got fired) or Phyllis Wise (the University of Illinois administrator who apparently was in charge of the process), but apparently there’s some controversy about her publication record from her earlier career as a medical researcher.
It looks like a simple case of Arrow’s theorem, that any result can only be published at most five times. Wise seemed to have published the particular controversial paper only three different times, so she has two freebies to go.
As I discussed a couple years ago (click here and scroll down to “It’s 1995″), in some places Arrow’s theorem is such a strong expectation that you’re penalized if you don’t publish several versions of the same paper.
But, to get back to the main thread here: to what extent does Wise’s unscholarly behavior—and it is definitely unscholarly and uncool to copy your old papers without making clear the source, even if it’s not as bad as many other academic violations, it’s something you shouldn’t do, and it demonstrates an ethical lapse or a level of sloppiness so extreme as to cast questions on one’s scholarship—to what extend should this lead us to mistrust her other decisions, in this case in the role of university administrator?
In some sense this doesn’t matter at all: Wise could’ve been the most upstanding, rule-following scientist of all time and the supporters of Salaita would still be strongly disagreeing with her decision and the process used to make it (just as we can all give a hearty laugh at Laurence Tribe’s obnoxiousness, even if he’d never in his life put his name on someone else’s writing).
Or maybe it is relevant, in that Wise’s disregard for the rules in science might be matched by her disregard for the rules in administration. And Tribe’s diminished capacities as a scholar, as revealed by his plagiarism, might lead one to doubt his judgment of the intellectual capacities of his colleagues.
P.S. A vocal segment of our readership gets annoyed when I write about plagiarism. I continue to insist that my thoughts in this area have scholarly value (see here and here, for example, and that latter article even appeared in a peer-reviewed journal!), but I am influenced by the judgments of others, and so I do feel a little bad about these posts, so I’ve done youall a favor by posting this one late at night on a weekend when nobody will be reading. So there’s that.