Disguised Academic Plagiarism, by Michael V. Dougherty

David A. Sanders enjoys a vivid account of the many crafty ways academics steal the words of others

May 3, 2021
Two men in wigs with waxwork of Albert Einstein
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This well-wrought book devotes chapters to six separate categories of plagiarism. Although non-specialist readers may be less interested in “translation plagiarism”, “compression plagiarism” and “magisterial plagiarism”, the last of these specific to the Catholic Church, much of the material is highly relevant for academics.

Most of the chapters are organised into three parts: an introduction and definition of the type; in-depth examples; and a postscript in which the author’s interventions with editors are described. Helpful graphics show the chain of transmission of recycled text. I only wish that there were an electronic template that other whistleblowers could employ to explain instances of plagiarism to editors.

In chapter 6, Michael Dougherty subdivides “exposition plagiarism”, which “involves the conflation of authoritative voices”, into the classes of “entirely unattributed”, “deficient attribution” and “incorrect attribution”. He supplies clear evidence that his examples of the latter practices are not merely inadvertent errors but rather strategic manoeuvres. He refers in particular to what is sometimes known as “pawn-sacrifice plagiarism” (Benjamin Lahusen’s Bauernopfer-Referenz), whereby the writer includes a reference to the plagiarised work but gives no indication that the text is directly copied or the extent of the theft. The reader is thus given the false impression that the plagiarist is adhering to academic standards of citation.

The examples of template plagiarism (“the use of a source text as a template to fabricate the illusion of new research”) discovered by Dougherty all involve a serial offender and would be risible if they didn’t potentially have public-policy implications. The transgressor not only transposed analyses from one country or continent to another, but also manufactured interviews that appeared to recapitulate verbatim analytic texts. What is most disturbing is that she was able to recycle these warped texts over the course of many years, apparently publishing substantially the same plagiarising article twice in the same journal. An initial “correction” to another article (subsequently retracted) was half its length. It is shameful that editors permit such “errata”.

There has recently been an explosion of template plagiarism, the product of scientific paper mills. “Researchers” purchase articles jumbled together by companies to which they attach their own names. The base texts are often themselves plagiarised or have undergone two rounds of translation – from English into a second language and then back into English – to escape discovery by plagiarism-detection software.

We can draw a number of lessons from Dougherty’s work. Plagiarisers tend to be repeat offenders and often engage in other unacceptable practices such as data fabrication. Journals encourage text recycling by neither vetting submissions sufficiently nor taking swift action when failings are brought to their attention. Editors are complicit in plagiarism when they either ignore it or allow corrections that do not acknowledge that plagiarism has occurred. Offenders keep repeating the same set of unprofessional rationalisations (“It’s only per cent identical”; “I did cite the original text somewhere”; “It isn’t protected by copyright”; “I internalised that paragraph word for word”). Yet this book also demonstrates that persistence by whistleblowers can succeed in rectifying, at least in part, a corrupted literature.

Two final considerations. First, although Dougherty provides excellent diagnoses, his remedies are described only cursorily and don’t advance the discussion. Second, it is brave of him (and commendable in Springer) that he takes his repeated publisher to task for its inadequacy in addressing plagiarism in one of his central examples.

David A. Sanders is an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University in Indiana.

Disguised Academic Plagiarism: A Typology and Case Studies for Researchers and Editors
By Michael V. Dougherty
Springer, 176pp, £34.00
ISBN 9783030467104
Published 12 July 2020

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