Monday, November 26, 2012

The Epistemology of Plagiarism

"...there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology." (Bertrand Russell)

"Plagiarism," says Keith Ellis, "is an accusation with significant moral content." There is some truth to that, of course. But I'm not sure that he's right to say that "every public discussion about every claimed instance of plagiarism includes moralizing language and exhortations of punishment" (my emphasis). In most cases the moralizing really only begins in earnest after the plagiarist denies the charge. But it is certainly also true that there is a lot of "defensiveness and evasion from the accused, even when you otherwise might expect them to be willing to acknowledge [the mistake]". It just strikes me as unnecessary and pre-emptive and not very constructive. I think Keith and I agree on that.

This is why I've been arguing for a separation of the moral and intellectual (or ethical and epistemic) issues related to plagiarism. After all, when the plagiarism in fact is intentional, there is certainly a moral issue. But plagiarism is not just about giving credit where credit is due. It is not just about the original author's right to his or her "intellectual property". It is about the intellectual environment—the reading environment—in which scholarly works goes on. The plagiarist has, intentionally or unintentionally, obscured the source of what we know and therefore installed a barrier to future research.

This is the sense in which plagiarism is an epistemic matter. Indeed, it is first and foremost about the conservation of knowledge, not the distribution of rewards and punishments. Those of us who feel a sense of satisfaction when we discover and expose plagiarism are not enjoying a ride on a moral high horse. We believe we have made an important scholarly discovery. We believe that the work we did to discover it (the care with which we have read the relevant texts) should be rewarded (i.e., acknowledged) before the plagiarist is punished. And we fully recognize that the plagiarist's punishment must follow from an investigation that takes intention into account. But this is a secondary matter. The most important thing is that the error that the plagiarist has introduced into the literature be corrected.

When I talk about "rewarding" those who discover plagiarism I mean this mainly in the intrinsic sense of correcting the mistake. An untruth is replaced with a truth and this is always intellectually satisfying. I will hopefully one day feel this satisfaction when sensemaking scholars stop telling that story about the soldiers in the Alps as "Karl Weick's story" about "an incident that happened". But there ought also to be the usual "extrinsic reward". I do hope to one day be known as the person who corrected a long-standing mistake (or two) in the literature. But this requires that work like mine be published and cited, not for its shock value as a "scandal", not for its "significant moral content", but for its value as a corrective to what we believe.


Anonymous said...

I think we agree on most of this, excepting perhaps our views on how this plays out in public discourse.

I agree completely that the primary emphasis should be on intellectual integrity in the scholarly, institutional/community sense. In that context, intent is secondary and identifying, correcting, and containing plagiarism is of the utmost importance.

But, as your post indicates, we disagree about what I think is the self-evident primary emphasis of discussions in general public discourse. It is moralistic and punitive. It involves notions of property and theft, ethics, and your utilitarian scholarly concerns are, at most, afterthoughts.

I agree that distinguishing these things is useful and necessary and that, to the degree to which it is done, both our concerns would be better addressed. But I think that in order for this to be done, it requires that because intent and ethics dominates the public discussion, it is insufficient to simply assert that they oughtn't. The message should be twofold: that insofar as intent and ethics are involved, intent is more difficult to ascertain than people intuit (on the mere basis of identical text that seem unlikely to occur outside deliberation) and that assuming deliberate intent, and therefore explicitly moving the argument into a provocative ethics territory, interferes with what should be the primary consideration: protecting intellectual integrity.

If people didn't assume that deliberate intent was self-evident, and then bring out the pitchforks (as, again, I think they almost always do), then when plagiarism is identified the claim would be less likely to be contested and more likely to be acknowledged and simply corrected. That's not to say that I don't think that there's no need to attempt to identity deliberate plagiarism and punish it, but that this should be the second step, not the first, and it shouldn't be presumed to be the primary goal.

Thomas said...

We think very alike about this. I suppose we differ only on what we think the intention of the original expose is: correction or punishment. It's seems to me that at least as often as not (and probably more often), the person who discovers plagiarism presents it not as a "gotcha" and "let's get the bad guy" but as a concerned peer. This was true in both the Lehrer and Fischer cases, for example; they were both first confronted with the charge of wrongdoing "behind the scenes" and therefore had an opportunity to acknowledge the mistake publicly first, before someone else did so. It's only because their initial reactions were dismissive that a standard of "public decency",if you will, had to be invoked. In those cases, then, I think the push for punishment really was a second step, taken only after the first step failed.