Beginning to Think about Cases

Last week, I announced that I would start constructing “interesting cases” for ethical discussion.  Today I’ll begin that work, which will keep me busy for many weeks here at the Ethicist, probably continuing up to the Annual Meeting in Vancouver. It’s actually a thrilling prospect, a kind of literary challenge, and I’m hoping that our discussions, both on and off the blog, will be as much about how the story is told as what the best solution might be.

I will be basing my scenarios on real-life cases, both from my conversations with our ombudsman and from media coverage. I will also be drawing on personal experience. There will be no one-to-one correspondence between the details of the cases I construct and anything that has happened to real people anywhere in real life. They will be composites. In a word, the cases I will construct will be fictional, which has a number of drawbacks, but also the distinct advantage of allowing for the free play of our ideas, without consequences for any particular individuals. Also, it will let me foreground, every now and then, the pedagogical issues I have considered while writing. These, like I say, are very much intended to be part of the conversation.

One last thought before I begin. Ethical issues are often presented as “dilemmas”, which implies a choice between two options. Following Andrew Gelman and David Madigan’s advice, however, I want to approach the problem less in terms of discrete outcomes, and more in terms of the full range of available options. We’ll have to use our imaginations.

* * *

It is often while we are PhD students that we engage in the most careful reading of our fellow scholars, most of whom, of course, are our professional superiors. So what should a PhD student do if, in the course of her reading, she discovers that a scholar working in her field has plagiarised another? There are many ways to construct this case, both in terms of the severity of the plagiarism and the relationship between the PhD student and the plagiarist. In this first attempt, let me propose a major (but not seminal) figure in the field, employed at a top-tier American university, as the plagiarist, and a PhD student at a very peripheral institution in smallish country, far away, as the discoverer.

The only contact between the PhD student and the plagiarist, let’s say, is that they met, and had an amiable conversation, at a conference once. During that conversation, the PhD student expressed some criticisms of the plagiarist’s ideas and had, she felt, an interesting and intelligent discussion of the issues. The plagiarist, of course, suggested that she would change her mind about his ideas if she would just read a particular book of his, and it was in her engagement with that book, weeks later, that she became aware of his plagiarisms. These consisted of copying verbatim several paragraphs, at various places, of another scholar that the PhD student had found very useful in the past and recognised immediately. She of course verified her suspicion against the source.

A quick aside: for convenience I’ve decided to make our PhD student female and our plagiarist male. It is fair to ask whether gender issues or sexuality might be involved. I don’t know if this will be satisfying to everyone, but I want to suggest that we can simply pronounce that there is no attraction between them and that he is neither a philanderer nor a misogynist. There is the power asymmetry I’ve already mentioned, of course: she is a PhD student and he is full professor. But the situation is, let’s say, entirely decent.

Already at this point, when she discovers that a major figure in her field has engaged in plagiarism, we have the question of what should she do? We are stipulating that the plagiarist is in violation of section 4.2.1.1 of the Code (having copied verbatim from another without citing that other). So we can consider section 5.4, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post:

When AOM members have substantial reason to believe that there has been an ethical violation by another AOM member, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual. If an informal resolution appears appropriate or possible, or AOM members seek advice about how to proceed, they may contact the AOM’s Ethics Ombudsperson for guidance.

As I said in that earlier post, there are cases where it is not advisable for the discoverer of the violation to simply bring it to the attention of the violator. This, I would argue, is one of them. That is, it’s not going to be as simple as sending the plagiarist an email explaining the unfortunate discovery and, if nothing comes of that, contacting the ombudsman. (There are lots of reasons for this, which we can get into in the weeks to come. But I hope we can all grant that it’s not going to be that easy.) So what I’m asking is: what’s her next step? What’s the ethical thing to do in the hours immediately after making the discovery? Remember, she now knows that there’s a specific person the in world who is a plagiarist, and this person has at least some influence on the course of her career. (His approval could be useful to her; his disapproval could be an obstacle.) She also knows that a scholar that she highly respects has been plagiarised, and is, at this point, uncertain of whether or not that scholar is aware of it.

I’m going to stop there for now. Please let me know if you think there’s anything too unrealistic about the case already here. Let’s try to fix that now. And do let me know what you think our PhD student should do next.

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