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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Andrew Gelman: A (not quite) grand unified theory of plagiarism, as applied to the Wegman case

A (not quite) grand unified theory of plagiarism, as applied to the Wegman case

A common reason for plagiarism is laziness: you want credit for doing something but you don't really feel like doing it--maybe you'd rather go fishing, or bowling, or blogging, or whatever, so you just steal it, or you hire someone to steal it for you.
Interestingly enough, we see that in many defenses of plagiarism allegations. A common response is: I was sloppy in dealing with my notes, or I let my research assistant (who, incidentally, wasn't credited in the final version) copy things for me and the research assistant got sloppy. The common theme: The person wanted the credit without doing the work.
As I wrote last year, I like to think that directness and openness is a virtue in scientific writing. For example, clearly citing the works we draw from, even when such citing of secondary sources might make us appear less erudite. But I can see how some scholars might feel a pressure to cover their traces.
Which brings us to Ed Wegman, whose defense of plagiarism in that Computational Statistics and Data Analysis paper is as follows (from this report by John Mashey):
(a) In 2005, he and his colleagues needed "some boilerplate background on social networks" for a high-profile report for the U.S. Congress. But instead of getting an expert on social networks for this background, or even simply copying some paragraphs (suitably cited) from a textbook on the topic, he tasked a Ph.D. student, Denise Reeves, to prepare the bolierplate. Reeves was no expert: her knowledge of social networks came from having taken a short course on the topic. Reeves writes the bolierplate "within a few days" and Wegman writes "of course, I took that to be her original work."
(b) Wegman gave this boilerplate to a second student, Walid Sharabati, who included it in his Ph.D. dissertation "with only minor amendments." (I think he's saying Sharabati copied it.)
(c) Sharabati was a coauthor of the Computational Statistics and Data Analysis article. He took the material he'd copied from Reeves's report and stuck it in to the CSDA article.
Now let's apply our theme of the day, laziness:
(a) Wegman felt that the issue of collaborative networks was important to this congressional report. But rather than try to really figure things out, he asked a student for a bolierplate. Lazy.
(b) Wegman was an author of a congressional report with this boilerplate, he also was supposed to read Sharabati's Ph.D. dissertation. He didn't read it carefully enough to realize that an entire portion had been copied. Lazy.
(c) Wegman and Said were authors on the congressional report and also authors on the CSDA paper. They didn't read the report and the paper carefully enough to realize that an entire portion had been copied. Lazy.
And then there's the whole repeat-offender thing.
Doing it right is easy
Doing the right thing is easy, easy, easy, easy. All you have to write is something like, "Scholar X wrote a clear summary of topic Y. We paraphrase Scholar X's summary as follows..."
The only bad thing about this is . . . maybe people who read this will realize you're not much of an expert, and maybe they'll ask Scholar X to write that expert report instead. But that's the honest thing to do. That, or become an expert yourself.
Let me say it again: There's not much mystery to plagiarism. To take the work of person X and claim it as yourself, you get credit for that work. A common defense of plagiarists is that the work being copied without attribution is not so important. But, if so, how much would it hurt to write, "Scholar X wrote a clear summary of topic Y. We paraphrase Scholar X's summary as follows..."? The answer is: it could hurt a lot, because it could quickly become obvious that you didn't do the work, and then the question arises, why should you be considered the expert? Why indeed?
One more time: Wegman has implied that copying "boilerplate" isn't really plagiarism or, it if is, it's no big deal, not affecting his scientific conclusions. But that's not really correct. The work in question is not a theorem that's true or false, it's a bunch of statements (an "opinion piece," in the words of CMU prof Kathleen Carley), and in that case the expertise of the authors is an important contributions.
The motivation for copying without attribution is clear: it allows Said, Wegman et al. to claim expertise without doing the work required to actuallybe experts.
There are two ways to claim expertise:
1. Be an actual expert and do the work, or
2. Plagiarize. Or hire non-experts who, being in the exact same position as you, will have no choice but to plagiarize if they want to be viewed as experts.
Strategy 1 takes a lot more work than strategy 2. On the other hand, if you do strategy 2 and you get caught, you're going to look bad. Especially if you're a repeat offender.
P.S. In case you're curious, here's a bit from the paper in question:
Centrality is one of the oldest concepts in network analysis. Most social networks contain people or organizations that are central. Because of their position, they have better access to information, and better opportunity to spread information. This is known as the ego-centered-approach to centrality. The network is centralized from socio-centered perspective.
Huh? I couldn't really follow this so I decided to use Google to translate it from English to French to Dutch to Spanish to Slovenian to Finnish to Japanese back to English. Here's what I ended up with:
Concentration is one of the oldest concepts in network analysis. Most social networks are organized individuals and play a central role. Because of its location makes it easier to access information and better opportunities for the dissemination of information. This is called the ego approach is important. Are managed centrally from the perspective of social networks.
This is a little better than the original but not much.
As to the actual content of the paper, I agree with those who have described it as self-refuting, in that it concludes with concerns that "peer review will be compromised," yet the article was actually accepted without peer review by an editor who was friends with one of the authors. As noted earlier, I do not feel that a direct acceptance by the editor is necessarily bad practice, but in this case the editor clearly made a mistake by not sending to expert referees. I doubt the reviewers would've caught the plagiarism but I expect they would've caught the underlying lack of expertise that motivated the copying.
It's not that the plagiarized work made the paper wrong; it's that plagiarism is an indication that the authors don't really know what they're doing.
[Dear Readers, Oh I think that Wegman & Co. knew exactly what they were doing -- smearing the reputation of honest scientists.]

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