Opinion | The Problems Only Start With Plagiarism

Plagiarism is perhaps the mildest academic sin, as well as the easiest to detect. There are innumerable cases of more serious forms of misconduct — such as the falsification and fabrication of data — that have stained the reputations of universities all over the world. If academia really wants to tackle the problem, it’s got to rethink the way it judges and rewards research — and tell good from bad.

In Claudine Gay’s case, the plagiarism — and I think it qualifies as plagiarism — seems a venial sin rather than a mortal one. Yes, her doctoral dissertation and several of her academic papers appear to duplicate the language of other scholars in a way that fails to give sufficient credit. But that in itself isn’t irredeemable; when a couple of punctuation marks or a footnote can be all that separates vice from virtue, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and for honest error. However, plagiarism is a signifier of potentially much more damning sloppiness: Even when, as here, it isn’t an egregious case of trying to claim credit for someone else’s ideas, it can be a sign that the work has more fundamental problems. It’s a signal to advisers and peers to give that work extra scrutiny, scrutiny that is sadly lacking.

This is a huge issue because those same advisers and peers are the ones who determine the value — or lack of it — of research, largely through their role in publishing it. The coin of the realm in academia is typically the peer-reviewed paper; an academic gets credit for the research she performs when she publishes the results in a scholarly journal. For the most part, these journals will do a quick assessment of a paper’s worthiness and then send the manuscript out to a small number of subject-matter experts (often three) to gauge the quality and importance of the work. But peer reviewers have little incentive to do a thorough job. While universities richly reward a professor’s own research output, they care almost nothing about their professors’ role in checking others’ work. Nor are academics typically paid by the journals (which make money from publishing researchers’ work), and given the imperfect anonymity of the process, a thorough, critical review can even damage the researcher’s relationship with other scientists. As a result, countless professors, when asked to perform a peer review for a journal, fob the work off to their hapless grad students, so it’s often not the seasoned academic judging the quality of research but the greenest in the field. And given the proliferation of academic journals — and the increase in the number of academic papers published each year — the academic review process is getting more threadbare by the year.

A truly thorough review of Dr. Gay’s papers by peers should have caught the plagiarism; spot-checking every single citation in a paper takes time, but it’s a great way of catching not just plagiarism but also errors in interpretation. And that’s the easy stuff. Falsification or fabrication of data is even harder to catch, but it can often be detected given enough time and effort: Another college president, Stanford’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned after it was revealed that his lab published reports with manipulated data. (A review of the allegations said there was no evidence that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne knowingly falsified data, but that his work “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process.”) The problems were evident in the papers published in journals — and should have raised flags earlier.

And when those flags are raised, it’s incumbent upon academic institutions — and journals — to pay more attention than they presently do. There are countless credible accusations of misconduct that go uncorrected; I myself have published articles challenging the integrity of hundreds of papers. The majority of them have not been retracted, corrected or even remarked upon. I would wager that most reasonably large universities (my own included) have faculty members who are known to have plagiarized, fabricated, falsified, claimed undue credit, hidden financial conflicts of interest or misbehaved in numerous other ways and who have seemingly gone unpunished.

No review process is perfect; not only will lots of sloppy problems remain untidied before publication, but also some seriously shoddy research will always slip through. And the way academics are incentivized — trapped in a system that rewards them for how much they produce, but not for how much time they spend ensuring quality control in the field — virtually guarantees that the process will be inadequate. A more rigorous look at Dr. Gay’s work, especially early in her career, could have saved her and her field from future embarrassment. Which is a shame: Her critics never really challenge the core ideas that she put forth in her research; instead, they only chipped away at the edges of her work, leaving the fundamentals intact. After weeks of attacks, we haven’t heard much debate about her findings about, say, how increased African American representation in Congress affects voter attitudes; most of the questions were about whether her citations were done properly. If anything, this suggests that her work is not merely credible, but solid. After all, her scholarship has gotten a lot more scrutiny than that of the vast majority of academics on the planet, and no one has inflicted a mortal wound on any of her papers.

Flaws in Dr. Gay’s work, regardless of whether they’re fundamental, emerged when people looked closely at her writing. It would have been much better for her, not to mention Harvard, if those people had been her academic peers rather than her political enemies. But even as academics find themselves increasingly caught in political battles, there’s no movement to incentivize better quality control. Software won’t come to the rescue; plagiarism detectors (and artificial intelligence detectors, for that matter) don’t work very well, and, especially in a specialized field, it takes human eyes and human brains to untangle knotty questions of provenance and attribution. Whether it’s universities explicitly recognizing good peer reviews as a necessary service or journals rewarding academics who do solid review work, or even professors making a conscious effort to learn and teach how to do a deep and systematic review of a colleague’s research paper, academics have to recognize that only they can figure out how to keep their credibility intact.

That credibility rests on the ability to produce research — original research. Any would-be initiate to academe has to write a thesis compelling and novel enough to prove herself capable of original thought in her field. That’s what makes an accusation of plagiarism so serious in academia, and why academics have got to do a much better job of keeping it out of the ivory tower.

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