Whistle-blowing, Criticism and Harassment

What is the difference between whisteblowing and criticism? As a first approximation, let’s say that whistle-blowing exposes misbehavior, i.e., brings it out into the light, while criticism merely indicates misbehavior, i.e., points at it. In order for whistle-blowing to make sense, the misbehavior has to be concealed, carried out behind closed doors. No one had to blow the whistle on Brutus when he killed Julius Caesar in the Capitol. Mark Antony did, however, feel compelled to criticize the act. (Of course, if he had gotten wind of the conspiracy in advance, he’d have been in a position to blow the whistle on it.) This is an important distinction to make in the case of plagiarism, where the act is usually, once committed, out there in the open for anyone to see. It does not, at least initially, require a whistle-blowing institution to address plagiarism, it just requires an institutionalized place of scholarly criticism. You point at one published text and then you point at another. That’s really all it should take.

But sometimes scholars who are accused of plagiarism cast themselves as the victims of a kind of harassment, a “witch hunt”. It is regrettable that they sometimes do this before addressing the question of whether or not they did in fact commit plagiarism, and it’s certainly regrettable in cases where the charge is entirely justified, but it’s important to recognize that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which they are in fact be victimized. They may have acknowledged the error (or successfully defended themselves against the charge) and yet still face unrelenting criticism and ridicule. Such criticism, again, if carried out in public would not require whistle-blowing (just critical pushback), but if carried out in private, and even in secret (behind the wrongly accused’s back), might well require some means of exposure.

It works the other way, too. Suppose our PhD student decided to go directly to the plagiarist with her concerns, and suppose the plagiarist had now embarked on a campaign of intimidation and harassment. The plagiarist may threaten to ruin the student’s career, or to sue, or something on that order. (This really does happen, and is one reason I don’t recommend the direct approach.) Obviously, what the plagiarist would be hoping to gain from this is the accuser’s silence, so such a campaign would necessarily be carried out behind the scenes. To stop it someone would have to blow the whistle on it. The question I asked last week, building on Benson’s post, was how a whistle-blowing organization could have helped.

Well, let’s suppose she contacted the organization and they decided to take her case. The emails she had received may have been clear evidence of threatening behavior. The problem is: how would the organization proceed without simply making the whole thing public and therefore essentially testing the power the plagiarist claims to have to do the damage he is threatening to do. After all, there will be no question about the source of the “leak” in this case. The organization has to offer some meaningful kind of “protection”–some assurance, at least, that justice will be done and everyone will know the truth.

This is where I would suggest using the disciplinary boundaries of academic fields as a way of enforcing general academic norms, like those against plagiarism. If the PhD student feels harassed, she should be able to go someone outside her own disciplinary community, someone who will bring the facts to light. And now we come to the point: if that’s the right way to deal with harassment, perhaps it’s the right thing to do in the first place. Perhaps, in the case of plagiarism, we should never expect people within a field to make the argument and “raise the stink” as it were. We should, rather, establish a broader academic culture in which, when one finds a case of plagiarism, one quietly leaks it to someone who has no specific interest in the individuals involved. They will then, merely “on principle”, bring it to the attention of the larger community.

It is possible that one should have some sort formalized online “clearing house” for this kind of charge (plagiarism, data-fabrication, etc.) Something like Wiki-Leaks, perhaps, that would allow the discoverer of the misconduct to maintain perfect anonymity. But I haven’t thought it that far through yet.

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