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.