Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Plagiarism and Scientific Progress

When Martin Kilduff was editor of the Academy of Management Review he wrote a helpful little comment called "Publishing Theory" (2006, Vol. 31, No. 2, 252–255). It presents his dos and don'ts for writing a good theoretical paper, which is to say a paper that might be published in AMR. Under the heading "Don't Copy" he writes as follows:

Most people in the field understand that it is wrong to plagiarize the work of others. But it is perhaps less well understood that you should not plagiarize yourself: do not send to AMR a paper expounding precisely the same ideas you’ve published elsewhere. Similarly, it is not well understood that AMR does not publish summaries of research for the uninformed. We do not publish popular science articles introducing esoteric ideas published elsewhere. Each paper must contain an original theoretical contribution. One indication of papers that lack original content is the tendency to include extensive quotations from famous thinkers. (253)

Interdisciplinarity exacerbates the problem. Is it an "original theoretical contribution" to introduce a familiar idea from sociology, psychology, history, or philosophy to management studies?

It certainly can be. The key to an original contribution is understanding its unoriginal basis. You have to understand what part of your contribution is original and what part is not.

Unfortunately, writers sometimes simply plagiarize the ideas they run into in other fields on the (half-considered) assumption that their extra-disciplinary reading itself constitutes "originality". Such plagiarism can occur even where the source is cited, and even where no plagiarism of the actual words of the source occurs. The writer and would-be theorist simply forgets to indicate the extent of that source's contribution. (See this post for an example.)

Kilduff's phrase "summaries of research for the uninformed" is apt. If you imagine that your reader does not know of, and will never read, your source, it is tempting to make yourself the local representative of its content. But you should always ask yourself whether your reader will cite you or your source for any particular part of your summary. The reader, remember, is (by assumption) "uninformed" about the source. If it would be natural for the reader to cite you for something your source taught you, you are doing something wrong.

In the end, you need to inform the reader about those esoteric ideas that you want to import into management studies and organization theory. You need to fully acknowledge their unoriginality as such by giving the reader a good sense of their origin. That can take a lot of work. It is the work that goes with the desire to be interdisciplinary. Only after you have presented the extra-disciplinary idea on its own terms to the reader can you begin to apply it.

I think this sort of problem is more widespread than we like to admit. The cross-disciplinary plagiarism of ideas gives us a false sense of progress in our field. If we did not plagiarize the progress made in other fields, and instead adequately represented it, we would get a more accurate sense of our own originality. It would take much more work. We would have to really understand work in those other fields and we would have to explain it properly to our readers. Progress would be slower, to be sure; but it would actually be made.

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