Teachable Moments

Last week I asked, “What is the ethical thing to do if a PhD student either (1) accuses you of plagiarism or (2) informs you that someone has plagiarised you or (3) informs you that someone in your field is a plagiarist or (4) informs you that someone in another area is a plagiarist?” Let’s assume that the PhD student is right about the facts, i.e., that there is talk of actual plagiarism, verbatim transcription without citation. (In our example, we’ve been imagining several full paragraphs’ worth.)

There is, in such cases, no sense in which the PhD student might be behaving unethically simply by bringing it to your attention. That is, there is no ethical obligation in scholarship to keep facts like this hidden. On the contrary, there is arguably (let’s argue about it) an obligation to report it. So far, I’ve been asking mainly what the PhD student should do with her discovery. One way to think about this, meanwhile, is think about what her “betters” (i.e., more established researchers) should do with her discovery once she informs them of it.

To my mind, the plagiarist is in a particularly tough spot ethically if a PhD student brings the accusation. After all, this is a “teachable moment”; it’s an occasion to model good behaviour for an aspiring member of the field. If you deny it, or trivialise it, or try to bribe your way out of it, you’re disappointing the PhD student’s expectations about the integrity of the disciplinary. Here, the role of the plagiarist will be to come entirely clean and to involve the PhD student in the process so as to make it both education and edifying.

This would require an enormous amount of character. And that’s of course why I don’t recommend going to the plagiarist. The initial transgression doesn’t exactly indicate great character.

But colleagues and supervisors would also be put in an ethical quandary. They would be equally bound to model good behaviour. So their task would be to show the PhD student how one holds plagiarists to account in the scholarly community. What’s the right procedure by which to get the plagiarist to acknowledge the error and issue a correction? Again, it would be good for the more senior person here to involve the PhD student in the process as much as possible, showing her how it is done.

A special case is where the plagiarist shows you that your work has been plagiarised. What if it’s someone you happen to admire? What if it’s someone who is much better known than you and much more respected? Do you just let it go? Is that what you want to tell the PhD student is the right thing to do in such cases? At a deeper level: is it up to you? Is it your call whether a plagiarist should be held to account as long as its your work that has been plagiarised?

What I’m trying to bring out here is not just that ethical responsibilities are often contingent on power relationships, but also that ethical behaviour is what affords (and often demands) learning. One reason that scholars must behave ethically is that unethical behaviour is difficult to learn from. It closes off discussion rather than opening it up.

Relationships and Principles

Yesterday, I was having a beer after work with a friend and the conversation turned to our unhappy PhD student in an ethical dilemma. He said that one of the great problems with contemporary ethics research and teaching is that it’s too focused on abstract principles, at the expense of concrete relationships. So this morning I did some quick Googling and it looks like the discussion dates back at least as far as a disagreement between Carol Gillian and Lawrence Kohlberg about moral development in boys and girls. I may return to this larger issue in later posts, for now I just wanted to point out that we left our PhD student in a tricky spot on Tuesday, not because there’s any doubt “in principle”, but because her relationships to the plagiarist, his source, her supervisor, and her friend are being transformed by the ethical violation of a respected member of her field. We know that plagiarism is wrong and we know that the truth is valuable. And yet we’re not quite sure what our PhD student should do.

Let me state my opinion about one thing very clearly. I do not think she is obligated to do anything that might harm her career. The power asymmetry in this case makes exposing the transgression less important than building her status in her field. To be sure, her new found knowledge does give her new ethical responsibilities, but they do not require her to sacrifice her own career prospects, since this would just leave the field to more cynical folks. What I am saying, of course, is precisely that she should not ruin her relationships for the sake of a principle. Rather, she should use the principle to maintain her relationships as best as she can.

To see how her discovery of plagiarism has transformed her ethical situation, let’s examine one of the first decisions she made (or I made on her behalf): don’t contact the plagiarist directly. Why would this be unwise? After all, people who go public with their accusations of plagiarism are sometimes told by the plagiarist’s defenders that they should have just taken it directly to the plagiarist, who would certainly have done the right thing. But I’ve never liked that argument. It’s very difficult to imagine the email that says, “I’ve discovered three instances of plagiarism in your work,” that doesn’t come off as a threat of some kind, a soft attempt at extortion. (Indeed, there are examples–in my opinion, these are scandals–of authors who, after discovering that another scholar has plagiarised them, simply accept a payment for the “copyright infringement” and otherwise remain silent.)

In this case, the plagiarist might conclude that the PhD student just wants a leg up in her career and that she’s offering to remain silent if he opens some doors for her. This is of course one of the things she should not do. The power asymmetry does not* entitle her to use her discovery to gain a career advantage. But even if he’s wrong about her intentions, he might significantly worsen the situation by in fact making this kind of offer. Or he might just ignore the mail. Or deny the facts. He might even, as has been known to happen in real life, threaten to sue for defamation. It’s because she can’t know how he will react that I would recommend against, and certainly not demand, that she take the issue directly to the plagiarist.

After all, whether he dismisses her accusation or digs himself an even deeper hole with threats or bribes, our PhD student’s ethical situation would only get more complicated. Her life would get harder. She now has to expose both the crime and the first stages of a cover-up. Let’s not forget that she also has a dissertation to write! I hope the point of all this is becoming clear. The reason that plagiarism is wrong is not just that it violates an important principle but that it severely complicates the relationships that scholars must cultivate with each other. In this case, it has brought what should have been a fruitful conversation between an established and an apprentice member of the field to a halt, and it is difficult for the latter to know how to proceed.

More on Tuesday.


*Update (27-04-2015): The original version of this post left out the “not” in this sentence, which of course got things exactly wrong.

Reporting on Superiors

One of the interesting things about plagiarism is that it is often quite easy to determine whether it has happened. The real difficulty lies in figuring out how and why it happened, and therefore what to do about it. If the plagiarist is intentionally trying to commit fraud, it is both very important to expose it and somewhat risky to do so. Low ethical standards are rarely compartmentalised, so it is rational to worry about the sorts of actions a fraudster might take to avoid punishment, including shifting blame and making threats. If the plagiarist is just a careless scholar, however, we might be less worried about reprisals against ourselves for reporting them but more concerned on their behalf about possible effects on their reputation and career. There is, in any case, an ethics even to the reporting of ethics violations. And that’s where we left the case I introduced last week.

At this point, a PhD student has discovered that a major figure in her field has plagiarised work in another field, a field that the PhD student has followed with great interest, and a scholar that she respects a great deal. Specifically, she has found three complete paragraphs transcribed verbatim and inserted into the plagiarist’s text. She has concluded that the plagiarist has basically stolen a number of very good arguments to support his theory. The arguments are in fact very good (which is why she respects the original author) but she’s not sure they are directly transferable into the plagiarist’s context. Even if he had cited properly, the reasoning seems specious to her. Just pasting them into the new context, in fact, seems to distort the intention of the original author. She’s a bit distressed about the situation because the only reason she read the plagiarist’s work so closely in the first place was because the plagiarist had suggested she would be won over by his arguments there. She had promised to get back to him after reading him. Now what is she to do?

Clearly, the plagiarist had not expected her to discover the true source of his prose. But perhaps the plagiarist was just “sloppy” (as the common excuse runs) and isn’t even aware of the problem himself. It’s a difficult situation.

Like most people, she quickly decides to discuss the issue with someone else, to get another’s eyes on the facts and see if there’s something she’s just misunderstood. But even here, she’s not sure who to talk to. Her supervisor often talks glowingly about the plagiarist’s work, and even his person. So she has decided to take a fellow PhD student into her confidence, someone who is doing work in an unrelated field (unrelated both to the plagiarist and the original author). Notice that she is trying to be careful about who she will “implicate”. After all, whoever she shows what she’s discovered is now, implicitly, in the same ethical situation. Even if our PhD student decides to take things no further, the confidant will have to decide what his obligation is.

I’ll leave it here. And solicit comments from readers, both in the comments and by email. But, before I sign off, do notice that she has considered the possibility of contacting several people at this point:

  1. The plagiarist
  2. The plagiarised
  3. Her supervisor
  4. A fellow PhD student working in another area

Choosing any of these, another ethical question immediately arises: what should they do? Feel free to think about this as well. What is the ethical thing to do if a PhD student either (1) accuses you of plagiarism or (2) informs you that someone has plagiarised you or (3) informs you that someone in your field is a plagiarist or (4) informs you that someone in another area is a plagiarist?

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 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.

Required Reading!

Andrew Gelman and David Madigan at Columbia recently published an excellent reflection on the similarities between ethical decisions and statistical inferences. (This should be required reading for those of us who are developing content for the Ethics Education Committee’s workshops.) In particular, they point out that when problems (what we often call “dilemmas” in ethics) are either too easy or too hard, it is difficult to learn anything useful from them.

To show this, they begin with a really simple case in statistics, namely, election forecasting. If an election is too close, a statistical inference about the discrete outcome (wether the Democrat or the Republican will win) will not tell us anything about the model we’re testing. Likewise, when the election is a landslide, our statistical model is not really getting tested either. At least not by the discrete outcome. (As Gelman and Madigan point out, the model should be tested, not against the outcome of the election, but against the vote differential.)

They then apply this to ethics cases:

In general … the most informative ethics vignettes are those in which the call is not so close as to seem arbitrary, but not so obvious that the decision can be made without thought. The purpose of discussing the intermediate cases is to explore the way in which careful assessment of goals, motivations, costs, and benefits can help us make better decisions, and also help us understand the decisions of others.

We can take the question of scholarly misconduct, for example. There are really easy cases in which one scholar steals the work of another and publishes it as their own (or the case of student misconduct where a student buys a paper from another and submits it for a grade.) There isn’t really anything to discuss there; it’s wrong and everyone knows it. At the other end of the spectrum there are cases that are too difficult to evaluate: where a dispute over giving proper credit for a limited contribution to a paper arises, and all the facts are a matter of what was said to whom at what time without records being kept. In such cases, a practical settlement may be brokered, but it won’t clarify any principles. The disputing parties are (hopefully) just looking for a way to put it behind them and move forward.

The interesting cases are those where there are judgments to be made and tradeoffs to be considered. In the weeks to come, I’m going to be make an effort to write up some “vignettes”, with the aim of starting a discussion about whether they offer a useful basis for a discussion of ethics. I will be interested both in what is the right way to conduct oneself as a scholar in one’s primary work, and what is the right way to proceed when one encounters a possible ethical violation. As I’ve said before, that second set of problems is as rich an area for ethical reflection as the first.

I should be ready on Tuesday with my first vignette.

Commodification: Do we scholars represent ourselves or our scholarly field?

Last week I received a very unusual spam, soliciting me to consider being a ‘ghost writer’ for an unnamed academic publication, that would sell the article to an unnamed academic. Clearly, this violates not only AOM ethical conventions, as spelled out in our code of ethics, but that of most academic institutions as well. Yet, even a limited understanding of the spam model indicates that there is a marketplace for such behavior, and indeed, qualified and competent people are participating in this huge fraud. Where there is a market, there are consumers.

In addition to the previously mentioned solicitation, I received a number of emails from journal editors claiming to have read one of my published articles. For example, the most recent one claimed

Dear Dr. Benson Honig, I have had an opportunity to read your paper [“xyz”] in [“journal ABC”] and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field. You are cordially invited to submit manuscripts for the coming issues of 2015. Please see the journal’s profile at[web address] and submit your manuscripts online.

We are recruiting reviewers for the journal, too….We would appreciate it if you could share this information with your colleagues and associates.

Often, the named journal is headquartered someplace in Nevada, or China, or India, but is never associated with an academic institution nor with an academic name or academic board I can recognize. They often require substantial “administrative fees” to process a submitted journal article.

I can’t help but ask myself “what is going on”? Somehow, I seriously doubt that the author in the robotic looking email actually read any of my articles, or really cares about my academic credential or ability. Yet, clearly, just as there is a market for ghost writers, there is a market for journals of dubious quality, and we, as a profession, seem to be supporting these questionable activities.

Clearly, the world of publication is facing an onslaught of commodification. I frequently hear from colleagues at established universities of new expectations – typically operationalized as a certain number of articles per year, in journals of a certain impact factor. Some institutions provide incentives – I’ve heard numbers as high as one year’s salary for a top journal article – while other institutions simply provide ‘help’, ranging from internal committees to entire departments of language scholars that meticulously pour over every word to increase the ‘readability and citablity’ of our work. I’m not saying that either incentives or assistance are ethically dubious – but they certainly bias the ‘playing field’ to advantage some scholarship over others. Does it matter?

Not all universities ‘buy in’ to the scholarly hero ethic. Recently, I visited a Scandinavian university, and the subject of incentives came up. The particular dept. chair considered the idea of individual incentives as absurd, as it would wreck havoc with the carefully developed esprit de corps and community oriented perspective she had been working so hard to develop. While this may not be a normative view, it certainly got me thinking….

Clearly there is a range of opinion regarding whether we should see our position as members of a scholarly community, or as individual Olympiads, and it is not my intention to weigh in on this particular debate (see Mike Peng and Gregory Dess’s “In the Spirit of Scholarship” for an excellent discussion). This debate aside, we need to acknowledge some of the associated ethical challenges that may be a consequence of the commodification of some of our institutional expectations. Any potential Olympiad is aware of the extensive battery of testing undertaken to ensure fair and honest competition. Perhaps we should also be asking ourselves, “to what extent are our institutional systems, incentives, and processes serving the public – who, after all – fund much of the research activities we undertake”?

In the AOM code of ethics, our preamble, states “The Academy of Management is devoted to increasing scientific and professional knowledge of management practices. It promotes the use of such knowledge to improve the work lives of individuals, the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations, and the well-being of society as a whole.”

The above is a worthy set of goals, and certainly highlights the most important contributions we can make through our research. What kinds of systems can we develop that lead us to accomplish these goals? Are we presently ‘on the right track’? Does the commodification of our research activities lead to accomplishing these goals, in the most ethical way, or to sidetracking them, perhaps by encouraging ethical shortcuts?