Feeding the beast: why plagiarism rips off readers too

By now you’ve likely heard about psychiatrist and columnist Tanveer Ahmed’s recent opinion piece in The Australian in which he effectively blamed radical feminism for domestic violence.

Others have explained better than I could why Ahmed’s piece was so offensive (as Clementine Ford summed it up, “It is not the job of women to absorb men’s suffering”), but one seemingly tangential fact that keeps cropping up is that Ahmed is an admitted plagiarist, having been dropped by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012 after a Media Watch story on his habit of copying other people’s work.

Yesterday, the blogger and commentator Ketan Joshi took time out from exposing the silliness of anti-wind activists to do something no-one had apparently thought to do: check Ahmed’s Australian piece for plagiarism.

Using freely-available online tools, Joshi quickly established that Ahmed’s piece had lifted language directly from a Prospect article by Amanda Marcotte. Joshi also found further instances where Ahmed had recycled his own work. By day’s end, the Australian had dropped Ahmed.

Busting someone for plagiarism after they suggested men’s violence against women is somehow feminism’s fault for taking away power men were never entitled to in the first place might seem a bit like sending Al Capone up the river for tax evasion.

When he was caught in 2012, Ahmed admitted his copying was wrong, but situated what he did in the context of our contemporary “comment monster” that “needs to be fed”. He has a point: in the age of churnalism, and with the internet desperate for ever-more shareable content to throw into its mighty Clickhole, is copying a paragraph here and there really so bad?

Well, yes, actually, it is; but we need to understand why.

Writers are understandably highly sensitive to plagiarism, both of having it done to them and of being accused of it. Just this month I ended up offending a journalist I admire greatly for cocking an eyebrow too publicly over her piece’s resemblance to one of mine. It was a coincidence (great minds and all that) but the mere suspicion is utterly poisonous for everyone involved.

For academics, it’s even worse: plagiarism is among the worst of sins, and potentially one of the most catastrophic. It’s not so long ago that decades-old plagiarism allegations cost a Group of Eight vice-chancellor his job. An academic who presents the ideas of others as their own is violating the very integrity of the process by which knowledge is generated, and demeaning their fellow researchers. Understandably, we take that pretty seriously.

Students too face enormous consequences for plagiarising, which in the age of essay mills and Google is an irresistible temptation for many, Turnitin be damned. For teachers, it’s hard not to take plagiarism personally, as if the student is saying: “This stuff you’ve devoted your life to? It’s not important enough for me to bother even trying to care about.”

But plagiarism also falls on a spectrum, from outright copying (relatively rare, but occasionally spectacular) to sloppy referencing or missing quotation marks. For every student who’s tried to pull one over you, there’s five more who simply haven’t understood what’s expected of them and hence don’t realise that they’ve done anything wrong.

Ahmed doesn’t have that excuse. He’s been caught before, and he knew even back then that what he was doing was wrong. Still, you might reply, he isn’t writing as an academic, but as a paid columnist. He is not presenting his work as the outcome of laborious and expensive research, nor is he submitting his work to the unforgiving gamut of peer review.

Some of Ahmed’s infractions are actually self-plagiarism, or recycling, which doesn’t rip off another writer. Self-plagiarism is alarmingly easy to do accidentally, particularly where multiple drafts exist or one piece splits into two. Just recently I sent off two academic articles (which had begun life as a single piece) without realising I’d repeated a paragraph in each; it was just dumb luck that I caught it before it got to print.

So, why is Ahmed’s plagiarism a sackable offence?

Using the model of intellectual property we could argue that the misdeed here is selling a product that doesn’t belong to him, either because it was written by someone else, or because, in the case of recycling, he had previously sold it to another publisher.

In short, it’s a type of theft. (That might also explain why self-plagiarism doesn’t seem that bad in cases where no money has changed hands: you’re repeating yourself, but not actually stealing).

From the point of view of the victims – both writers and commissioning editors – the theft model makes a lot of sense. But I don’t think theft alone is the whole story, because plagiarism isn’t just about ownership. I’ve heard stories of students angrily insisting that a ghost-written essay “is my own work – I paid for it, so I own it!”

The effrontery of that response actually gives us some idea of why the “intellectual property” model of plagiarism doesn’t quite yield a full understanding of what’s wrong with it. Plagiarism isn’t just a form of theft; it’s also a form of insincerity.

That may sound odd: surely the plagiarist is sincerely agreeing with what they’ve copied? But sincerity is not just a matter of saying something you take to be true. The 20th-century philosopher K.E. Løgstrup spoke of insincerity as violating an “openness of speech” that we reasonably assume from others: we expect that their words are “new”. By “new” he meant that they weren’t calculated or premeditated but were spontaneous, sincere, without guile. “Old” words put up a barrier between speaker and hearer and thereby frustrate true dialogue.

The late Robert C. Solomon, in developing the idea of sex as a form of communication, argued that perverted sex is to sex as insincerity is to language: using language to frustrate communication by obfuscating or concealing what you really think or intend is perverting the very function of language.

(That analogy took Solomon in some odd directions – at one point he says masturbation is basically talking to yourself – but the idea has something to it; faking arousal is arguably a form of insincerity that violates the communicative dimensions of intimacy.)

Plagiarism, in a sense, disrupts the contact between the author and the reader. It insinuates someone else’s “old” words between us. We come to an article wanting contact with the author’s mind, not a collage of other minds they’ve assembled to hide behind.

Plagiarism is theft, but it is also a failure to, in E.M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect!” The need to feed the beast shouldn’t distract us from that task of connecting.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Waste not, want not – the politics of why philosophy matters

The Nobbies, Philip Island, September 2012

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Update: Read more on this topic from Robert Sinnerbrink, Thom Brooks, Daniel Stacey and Andy Weatherall
And so now we officially know: philosophy is a waste.

How can we be sure? Because Coalition spokesman for scrutiny of government waste Jamie Briggs has promised an Abbott government would get rid of “those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the government was thinking”.

Seriously, don’t bother with philosophy. Don’t bother trying to understand the rules of logic, or what constitutes a good argument, or what makes an action right or wrong. Don’t bother trying to follow humanity’s “great conversation” let alone trying to contribute to it. Waste of time and money.

Briggs cited four projects: one in anthropology, one in public art, and not one, but two in philosophy.

Why pick on philosophy? That’s not hard: we’re an easy target. “Philosopher” has become a byword for “useless and unemployable” (except we’re not), for “abstract and impractical”.

Of course, most disciplines suffer from misconceptions about what they do. Tell someone you’re a scientist and they’ll picture you in a white coat and goggles surrounded by bubbling Erlenmeyer Flasks; tell them you’re an anthropologist and they’ll probably imagine you hacking through jungle with a machete on your way to study some remote tribe.

Tell them you’re a philosopher? They’ll laugh. Or, worse, start quoting Deepak Chopra at you.

Philosophy has a particular vulnerability here because it’s not directly linked to any obvious economic output, it’s hard, and if you aren’t curious about ideas you’ll struggle to see the point of it. If you don’t view knowledge as having intrinsic rather than merely economic value, philosophy will be your go-to example of academic wankery.

And if you have a visceral dislike or suspicion of intellectuals – or want to curry favour with people who do – what could be more satisfying than calling out people who use words like “supererogatory” and “noetic” as useless blowhards?

But it’s not just philosophers who should be worried here. Ordinary taxpayers should be too.

All four of the projects Briggs cited have already run the gamut of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) expert assessors and secured funding in a very difficult, competitive environment. In other words, people who know what they’re talking about looked at them and decided that they were world-class research.

But apparently Jamie Briggs – who seems to have no qualifications relevant to any of the research topics he attacked – knows better than the ARC’s College of Experts. And note that he wasn’t talking about cutting the overall research budget, just redistributing it so that humanities projects he and his colleagues can’t see the point of miss out. In other words, he’s saying that certain kinds of knowledge just aren’t worth producing, or at least not worth paying for.

We’ve been here before, back when Brendan Nelson was education minister and declared he had to look truck drivers and gasfitters in the eye and tell them he was allocating the ARC’s money properly.

The assumption here is that somehow ministers and truck drivers know better than the ARC’s own College of Experts what counts as a meritorious project. If it leaves you scratching your head then clearly it must be vacuous nonsense, right?

I’m hardly an impartial observer here. I had nothing to do with either of the projects Briggs attacked, but both of them focus on topics I also work on: selfhood and identity, and post-Kantian European philosophy of religion. In fact I’m currently writing a book that combines both these topics, so apparently I’m wasting both my time and your money to an absolutely stunning degree.

Except, no, I’m not. And neither were Paul Redding and Diego Bubbio, whose projects Briggs sneers at. Their work touches on questions that human beings cannot avoid asking: the nature of what we are, what exists, and of our place in the universe. They feed into active and productive literatures, and open up new avenues for exploration.

Projects like this matter. They matter because they advance fundamental avenues of inquiry that have been part of the human inheritance since, at least, the Axial Period. They enhance the scope, size and profile of Australian research and thereby help to attract talent. And having spent several years overseas on a series of postdoc grants, I know how crucial they can be as a mechanism for training researchers and for attracting and retaining people who can enhance Australia’s research profile and culture.

Perhaps most of all, funding a certain amount of basic, even speculative research shows that we are a society serious about knowledge itself, not simply about meeting our material needs. That is what the humanities do: they remind us we are human.

So yes, politicians need to stop attacking fundamental parts of human inquiry they don’t understand and don’t care about. But part of the responsibility here also falls to philosophers ourselves. We need to be much better at explaining what we do and why it matters. Scientists are at least talking about scientific literacy; “philosophical literacy” is hardly even discussed, except as a joke.

Over the last year I’ve done a bit of media work, here and elsewhere, and one thing it’s brought home to me is how philosophically naïve much of our public discourse has become. For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have assured me that morality is obviously all just a matter of personal opinion – as if the last two and a half thousand years of moral philosophy never happened. We expect people to have views on right and wrong without equipping them with even the most basic tools to ask the relevant questions or assess the answers they’re offered.

As philosophers, we need to keep explaining why that’s a problem, why philosophy matters. We need to keep making the case, loudly and often, that our discipline is not simply a fun pastime for people who like to argue or quote Levinas in smoke-filled coffee houses. Rather, philosophy is the condition for all our knowing, all our enquiry. It is the only way we can answer those basic human questions we cannot help but ask: what is there, what do we know, how are we to live?

In making that case, we could do a lot worse than cite this quote from Bertrand Russell (which the Australasian Association of Philosophy recently posted on their Facebook page):

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.

A nation that mocks philosophy is a nation content to remain “imprisoned in its prejudices”. Where is the minister who will look us in the eye and tell us that?