Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Another week, another plagiarism scandal. This one is more complicated than most, but the part that interests me isn't the scandal itself--the plagiarism and the weird institutional response--but the story lurking behind those stories. Briefly: an external reviewer on a tenure case received, from an anonymous source, a long list of allegedly plagiarized passages from a book by the professor under review. He or she then conveyed this information to the in-house tenure review committee.

This is where the scandal begins, but if you want that part of the story, you can Google it. Because I went to grad school with one of the central figures, I'm not going to link, and for the purposes of this blog I'm agnostic about whether the plagiarism was inadvertent or deliberate and what punishment it may have merited. What I'm interested in is this anonymous correspondent, who managed to identify almost three dozen short passages lifted without attribution from numerous different sources. Moreover, since all the passages involve background material rather than substantive arguments, they would have been hard even for specialists to identify. The only people who would seem capable of having immediately recognized the material would be the authors themselves--but anyone who had discovered himself to have been plagiarized would have had no reason to remain anonymous: he could have contacted the author or her publisher. Indeed, that's what the average concerned reader would have done.

Instead, we have someone who wanted to remain anonymous; who had reason to think the book contained plagiarized material; and who was willing to spend whole days or weeks ferreting it out. Tracking down plagiarized material is an outrageous pain in the ass, even when it's a five-page undergraduate paper on Macbeth that borrows exclusively from internet sources. Tracking down plagiarism from printed material, across the breadth of a 200-page book? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Whoever was willing to put in that kind of time--and to do the necessary sleuthing to identify at least one of the author's external reviewers (usually confidential information)--is a personal enemy. Whether it's a deserved or undeserved enemy, I can't say, but it's someone motivated by something more than the usual professional jealousies or resentments. It's someone fueled by rage.

Assuming the tipster is a professional enemy (rather than, say, an enraged ex-lover), it's a cautionary tale without a clear moral: obviously, one should not plagiarize, and obviously one should not make a habit of pissing people off in such a way that they become enemies. But it isn't the case that only assholes acquire enemies. Someone's capacity to attract enemies is sometimes only a function of being successful or high-profile or privileged in some way that garners envy and resentment. An enemy's fury may have very little to do with one's own behavior.

That said, there are ways to decrease the likelihood of making enemies. First, there's the obvious: don't be a jerk. Don't be nasty, don't use other people for your advancement, and avoid behavior that's unprofessional or that leaves other people cleaning up your messes. (And if that happens despite your good intentions, apologize!) But being friendly and gracious and interested in others--especially if you occupy a high perch in the profession--is also a generally smart move. And try to avoid feelings of rivalry or jealousy yourself, because sometimes your own competitiveness interpellates the other person as a rival.

Personally, I tend to assume that I'm not important enough for anyone to truly dislike--I mean, seriously! what do I have that's worth envying or resenting?--but I know that that's not true (there's at least one person foolish enough to say nasty things about me to our mutual friends), and that thinking that way is a species of the problem I discussed in this post, of only being oriented upward toward one's seniors and "betters," rather than thinking about how one treats or appears to those with less standing.

One can't eliminate the possibility of making enemies though no fault of one's own, and in rare instances enmity can actually help the profession: I have a friend (in a different discipline and at a different institution) who was so enraged by a colleague's bad behavior with students and faculty alike that she started poking around in his vita. In relatively short order she learned not only that he had never completed the PhD he claimed, but that he'd never even been enrolled in a PhD program. His asshattery earned him an enemy who successfully purged a fraud from the profession.

I try to squelch my own feelings of envy and rivalry, and I certainly don't hate anyone enough to do what this anonymous tipster did in the way he or she did it. Still, I can at least imagine a scenario in which I might act similarly. For me the offenses would have to be really outrageous, and they'd have to combine the personal with the professional. Let's say a junior professor whom I considered a major phony had also sexually harassed a friend of mine, and she eventually had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of the academy. If he was up for tenure and I knew enough about his work to know I could probably find proof of fraudulence? Yeah, I might do it. But that's a pretty high threshold: his merely being a fraud or merely being a shitty human being wouldn't be enough on its own.

I get outraged easily, but I'm not good at holding on to anger. If someone else has behaved badly--well, usually I'm content to wait for the whirlygig of time to do his thing.

Because this post is not about the specifics of the plagiarism case itself, please do not use the comments to weigh in on the plagiarist's behavior or the response of her university. Any such comments will get deleted.


Historiann said...

Wow--fascinating case. I want to hear about the person your friend got fired b/c she found out he had never been to grad school! (Can I Google that one, too? Can you give us some tips for searching?)

Flavia said...


The uni administrators were wusses about it--didn't make it public and didn't want to "defame" him--so there's no public record (initially, they didn't even want to fire him; his department chair loved him). In theory, he could try to get another academic job at another place that might also not check his credentials, but I think he's out for good. (Email me if you want more deets.)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

One time, a had a student plagiarize out of a book that I had just read, so it was very fresh in my mind. I busted him on it, but I didn't really have to do a lot of leg with it. With students, it's easier -- you can just say, "Is there something you need to tell me about this paper?" And then, they cry and it's all downhill from there. In this instance, it may be a case of enemy's delight, as you say, or just lots of knowledge of the source material. Or maybe it's a combo. Enemy's delight is a somewhat more juicy story, though. :)

notofgeneralinterest said...

I thought at first you were talking about a recent and well-publicized case where the person went into administration. But yes--what has the animus to do something like this? And an even more urgent question: who has the time? --Undine

Sisyphus said...

So this might be sorta off topic but I wanted to point out that I have actually encountered several professors --- as in 3 or 4 --- who *did* make a big deal out of hunting down professional plagiarism and while it would be a bit of a stretch for me to see them contacting and emailing a peer reviewer about it, I could see it happening. And it did not seem to be about having "enemies" so much as the plagiarism being the "enemy" itself. Interestingly, none of these people are alive now, so I wonder if it has something to do with age and cognitive functioning? With their graduate training and how things were done back in the early 60s? With not producing new scholarship but still wanting to contribute to the profession somehow? Crotchetiness in terms of becoming more of a "gatekeeper" for the profession? A case of idee fixe? A hobbyhorse? Or maybe they read too much _Moby Dick_ and wanted to be Captain Ahab?

Anyways, I know they [s]persecuted[/s] peer reviewed peoples' journal submissions with zeal and were kindof pains in the ass if you took a grad class with them, but they were so helpful with tracking down undergrad plagiarism, even for not their own students, that they really were a treasure for the department. In fact, I used to always tell one of the stories I saw (it involved getting a person's BA stripped from them a year after graduation) in Every Single One of my TA sections, and when the guy died I didn't even change the story. (When they'd ask "who is this guy? I never want to take a class from him!" I would always laugh and say, "you think I'm gonna give you a name? I haven't even mentioned the gender of this prof!")

Ok, so I am mucketing up your thread with my old-timey reminiscences. Sorry!

Flavia said...


I think we're talking about the same case.


That's really interesting--I was just saying that no one actually looks for plagiarism except teachers (since it's part of our job), but perhaps you've proved me wrong! Still, though I can sorta imagine being lit up with the fire of indignation if I came across an instance of plagiarism in some journal article or book, and maybe even zealously combing it for more, I wouldn't address it anonymously. I'd write the journal editor, or the press, under my own name.

Belle said...

As to taking the time; I know of a man who could remember the place on the page of a book he'd read 30 years before, even those out of his field. For him, it would have been very easy to not only identify the passages as lifts, but the pages within any number of books. He'd never have done it, but I can see some professor somewhere having grad students do the labor of the documentation and then writing the committee. But yeah, definitely an enemy.

Fretful Porpentine said...

You know, I think the facts could plausibly be explained by a theory not involving personal animosity: grad student writing a dissertation on a similar topic, reads the book shortly after reading the source material, plagiarism bells set a-ringing, but unwilling to risk their own chances on the job market by signing their name to an accusation of an established scholar. (Granted, they would have to have some serious contacts to identify the external reviewer; I doubt that I would have had the slightest idea how to do that as a grad student. But I can imagine doing everything else if I had discovered such a case.)

Eileen said...

With Google Books, I don't think it would really take that much time to check, if you had the inclination to. I had an otherwise very good student lift multiple passages from multiple books, and googling one uncharacteristic turn of phrase brought up the snippet preview for a google books version of a very old text we had in the university library. A couple minutes of suspicious googling later brought up more of the same. Smarter than c+p from wikipedia, and I can see the anonymous reader in this case checking other passages pretty quickly once they had a mind to, for whatever reason.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This may sound cynical, but my money would be on an ex who is also an academic, in the same or related field. I don't think someone who didn't have that kind of personal connection would feel a compulsion to be anonymous? I guess I don't see why an academic wouldn't be willing to report plagiarism under their own name if it was purely based on indignation about the plagiarism. And if they were together when the author wrote the book, I think it would be very easy for a SO to identify borrowed passages.

But I may be influenced by having encountered a similar kind of thing, years ago now, which was an ex-husband, an academic, getting back at his academic ex-wife.

Flavia said...


I thought of that. But it depends what's in GoogleBooks, and a great many things aren't. (Depending on the nature and extent of the plagiarism, though, enough might be.) More importantly, though, which specific passages, out of 80,000-100,000 words, does one decide to plug into the search engine? Unless you have an electronic copy of the full text, it's still labor-intensive.

The real problem remains, though: who is looking for plagiarism in the first place--and why? And why report it anonymously?

Flavia said...


I would totally believe that scenario. (Or a similar one involving an ex-friend or member of a works-in-progress group, etc.) But I think there are, potentially, in many people's lives, lots of reasons for personal animus--inra-field or intra-departmental politics, enduring grudges from grad school, previous jobs, fellowships, and so forth. And some people hold intense grudges for not perfectly rational reasons (they believe that so-and-so got "their" job or "their" fellowship, or is undeserving of various perks and honors and preferential treatment).

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, was thinking along the same lines as Eileen -- Google Books might make the job a bit easier (but you'd probably still have to take an educated guess at which phrases to search on, which might not have been too hard in this case once one realized which kinds of passages had been plagiarized -- and NKOTH -- motive aside, this sounds like some sort of inside job.

But even those two scenarios still presume someone with the willingness to devote considerable time, effort, and thought (at least one hopes the last) to the whole business. If I were the plagiarist, I'd be pretty disturbed by that thought. The continued leaking of information/documents is also concerning, whether or not the same person is behind it (that would, presumably, be another sort of inside job).

It's the sort of scenario that would be very entertaining, and possibly quite useful thematically, in a novel (maybe the motive would be some sort of job market-based jealousy, or maybe that would be the easy/obvious answer, and the real one would be much more complex). In real life, however, it's just sad (for all parties involved) and scary (especially for the target of that much animus/energy).

Anonymous said...

Maybe the source is only anonymous because the external reviewer chose to keep them anonymous. External reviewer says to a friend "hey, I'm reviewing XYZ person" and the "anonymous tipster" had the grudge or the concrete information to rat out the alleged plagiarist.

Sure, it requires the coincidence of the reviewer mentioning their review work to someone who would have sufficient reason/knowledge to make the accusation, HOWEVER you no longer have to explain how the tipster 'tracked down' the external reviewer.

Or maybe this makes no sense at all given the details of the situation.


Flavia said...


I thought of that possibility as well; it's a totally plausible scenario. And that possibility aside, it's certainly possible that the anonymous tipster is not really anonymous to many of the central parties. (i.e., they may either know for a fact, or have a very good idea, who's behind it.)


Agreed about how much more thrilling this is in fiction than in real life. Though we've probably all wasted at least a little energy being excessively fixated on someone at some point in our lives (whether due to anger, love, rejection, rivalry, whatever--God, I can think of at least a half-dozen people with no trouble whatsoever!), it's still disturbing to realize that we might inspire those feelings in someone else. And worse to think that those feelings might be more than fleeting, and that the person might act on them.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that someone found a plagarized passage in the book and just ran the rest of it through a package like Turnitin?

Flavia said...

Anon 8.10:

See my response to Eileen, above. Who has an electronic copy of the whole book?

I understand why people are fascinated by the practical issues of how one discovers plagiarism of this sort--since we all do it in our daily lives! But I'd like to get away from this peripheral discussion.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I think you are underestimating the likelihood that someone could have just unintentionally noticed this while reading the book.

To me the most interesting point is that deans at elite institutions like the one in question are frequently failed scholars who "fail upwards".

Flavia said...


No, I don't think I am--given the nature, length, and placement of the plagiarized passages. If I read a book in my field of religion & lit, that was making a literary argument, I would not have any reason to notice or suspect that some two-sentence summary giving background on a particular event in church history or a contemporary theological debate was plagiarized, and I'd be unlikely to catch it if it was that short, taken from a work outside my field, and paraphrased.

We're not talking about major claims or anything drawing upon work in the primary field; the examples I've seen are all plausibly in the category of "general knowledge." (No one needs to give a citation for a quick thumbnail sketch of a historical event or a definition of a term or that sort of thing...assuming they're using their own words.)

A casual discovery is certainly not impossible. But it's not the most likely explanation, and it doesn't account for other features of the situation.

And, yes, for sure: the institutional response is where the obvious drama is. But I'm interested in the story behind the obvious stories.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I try to never underestimate the purposeless vindictiveness of academics.

Flavia said...


Ah, well on that we may (alas) agree.

Historiann said...

I don't get the impression that the failed plagiarist is failing upward with an admin post; the news coverage I saw suggests that that's where the uni is parking her until hir contract runs out.

So, no tenure, and no job after next year. Is that a fair penalty? I don't know. But ze's not on easy street any more, that's for sure.

Servetus said...

Re making enemies -- sometimes people just decide they are your enemies. It's not always your fault or attributable to something you did wrong.

Flavia said...


Of course not. And I make that point at least three times in this post.

Anonymous said...

Was there an electronic version of the book floating around? If so, for someone with even passing familiarity with a scripting language -- simple to learn -- iterating over paragraphs of the book, passing each to a Google search, and determining the portion of the top result's text that's an exact match would be really trivial. Not just easy, but trivial.

S.J. Pearce said...

I really *want* to think that Fretful's explanation is the closest to the truth because if yours is, Flavia (which, in fact, I suspect it is), it also raises the really frightening specter of what an enemy could do or try to do to someone who hadn't committed an academic transgression just out of sheer vindictiveness. And the resolution would, one hopes, be totally different, but a set of false charges would have the potential to wreak havoc upon/tie up a tenure case and just generally tarnish reputations. (But that might just be my Junior Faculty Paranoia(tm) talking...)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This thing about enemies... I think you're right. You can avoid acquiring some enemies by not being an asshole, but that doesn't mean you won't run into people who are assholes who become your enemies because of jealousy, or pique, or boredom, or they don't like your hair, or whatever. I figure I've got at least two of those at my own institution. But I've got more friends and supporters than enemies, so all is well, as long as I continue to act ethically.

As for faculty plagiarism: In my department, we've recently had to start mandating that all M.A. exams & theses go through plagiarism-detection software. That was a sad day. How long until academic journals start having to do the same?

Flavia said...


Yes, that's my real interest here, too. Assuming my reading is correct, we still have no way of knowing whether this enemy is deserved or undeserved--it could be someone with a just & righteous complaint, who hasn't been heard in other forums...or it could be a total nutjob who just happened to light on some damaging info. And there are all kinds of possibilities along the spectrum between those extremes.

My spouse's takeaway is that we should always assume we have one or two enemies out there somewhere, and conduct our professional lives accordingly (i.e., be scrupulously ethical, and never assume a transgression is minor enough not to attract attention, or that anything can be hushed up).

As you suggest, one could have the misfortune to acquire an enemy at the high enmity/low rationality end of the spectrum, who doesn't confine him or herself to actual transgressions--but I wouldn't worry too much about that! One could also be the victim of a serial killer.

Historiann said...

Cosimo's advice is wise & practical.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Well, I might better say that you should assume you have a Hypothetical Enemy, and you should avoid behaving in ways that would allow your Hypothetical Enemy to bring you down.

You shouldn't make yourself crazy trying to identify real enemies; the enemy is hypothetical. And part of the hypothesis is that you won't see them coming until it's too late, and that they'll burn you with something you thought was secret. So don't collect secrets that could burn you.

As for real enemies, the people who choose for whatever reasons to be antagonistic toward you, my own preferred strategy is something I call the Firewall of Friendships.

Most real professional enemies attack you socially; the attack comes through other people. They talk smack about you, they spread rumors, they denigrate your work. They damage your reputation, and make people less willing to extend you opportunities. But since real enemies mostly get other people to do the dirty work, they're limited by how willing to do you dirt those people are.

(The Hypothetical Enemy doesn't need anybody else. Those enemies just mail people unmarked envelopes full of dirt about you. You cope with that by not having dirt for them to mail.)

The more professional friends you have, and the better your professional relationships, the harder it is for real enemies to get at you. Sometimes people can get their friends to beat you up a little for friendship's sake. But it's pretty hard for people to get *your* friends to beat you up.

So if you have real evidence that someone has it out for you, you should befriend as many people *in your enemy's circle* as you can. Those mutual friends are people that the enemy can't count on to spread gossip about you or whatever, and that limits the enemy's ability to get at you. Hence, Firewall of Friendships.

Historiann said...

Nice. I always think more friends = better than fewer friends, but I had never thought about it in "Firewall of Friendship" terms.

Megan said...

But in this case, if it really was unintentional, then conduct doesn't really matter. That is (assuming her explanation is correct), it wasn't a tiny breach of ethics that she didn't worry about but rather a mistake that was ferreted out and detonated.

I like the idea of a "firewall of friends," but would that have helped?

Anonymous said...

Just a thought on this post, which I came upon while reading some plagiarized student papers. Many high-power academics have research assistants, graduate or undergraduate. My son was an RA when he was an undergrad and his job was to pre-read relevant books and articles for his professor. A former student married into the family of a prolific publisher; she--along with many others--was on the payroll and helped him produce many, many books. The academic was later charged with plagiarism similar to the case outlined here.

The scenario my husband and I came up with as we drove to work: The professor's assistant read the finished book and noted the plagiarism. That student notified someone in the department. THAT person notified the outside reviewer.

One can see why the assistant would need to be protected. And one could see why a departmental colleague (who would be aware of the identity of the outside reviewer) would want to be protected as well.

Back to grading!