News blog: How big a sin is Zygmunt Bauman's alleged self-plagiarism?

The eminent sociologist is entitled to draw on his long lifetime of thought, but should probably be clearer about the extent to which he is doing so, says Paul Jump

August 20, 2015
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When writing up my article on the latest plagiarism allegations against sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I had to be careful to avoid plagiarising my previous piece on the topic.

It is a common problem in journalism. When you write multiple articles on a long-running story, it is almost inevitable that some of the same phrases start cropping up, especially when setting out the background. There are, after all, only a certain number of sensible ways to convey a specific piece of information.

Scientists have the same problem when writing successive papers that all rely on similar methods. The temptation to cut and paste their previous renderings of the processes involved is very strong, especially when the authors are not native speakers, and rephrasing would involve an onerous and sometimes disastrous use of the thesaurus. (I am reminded of Jack Grove’s 2014 article highlighting such “Rogetisms” as the conversion of “left behind” into “sinister buttocks”).

But while recycling the odd previously written self-written sentence or even paragraph may be forgivable, republishing in a new venue an entire paper you have previously published elsewhere (perhaps with just the title changed) is clearly unacceptable. Quite apart from the legal issues over copyright and the clutter and confusion it inflicts on the literature, this practice – which is surprisingly common – also gives unfair credit to the self-plagiarisers by making it look like they have made more scholarly breakthroughs than they really have. In the case of medical papers, it can also make it look like there is more evidence for the efficacy of a particular treatment than there really is.

What Zygmunt Bauman is accused of doing falls between these extremes. There is a sense in which it is hardly a surprise that he apparently recycled significant chunks of his previous works in his later ones, given that he has published a book every six months for the past 25 years. That output is all the more remarkable given that he will be 90 in November, and he might argue (although we can only speculate, as he chose to remain silent) that having spent a lifetime in thought, it makes perfect sense for him to bring together all the fruits of that effort in his later years. And why Rogetise it all when he has already phrased it perfectly well before?

But the objection is not to his doing this. The objection is to the fact that he apparently does so without explicitly acknowledging the fact. And while no publication ethics crusader would put self-plagiarism at the top of their list of sins, it is also hard to argue with the view that it is something of a deception on his readers and ought to be avoided.

Queasiness about Bauman’s approach is only heightened by the fact that he also allegedly committed straightforward plagiarism in one of his most recent books, and that one of his unacknowledged sources was Wikipedia. Part of his response to that allegation ran as follows:

“While admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60 odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues which [Walsh] obviously confuses. As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him for that reason.”

No doubt he is right that there is nothing mutually exclusive about failure to cite sources and great scholarship. Nor is Bauman alone in failing to cite Wikipedia: fellow academic luminaries Lewis Wolpert and Jane Goodall have also confessed to the same sin in recent years. And, whatever the website’s notorious unreliability, journalists too feel its lure — where do you think I found Bauman’s (alleged) birthday?

Then again, journalists typically have only a few hours to research and write an article, whereas academics – especially retired ones – in principle have as long as it takes. They may still be in a hurry to say all they can while they can, but surely that is all the more reason to make sure their words are accurate, well chosen and unique.

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Reader's comments (2)

Very interesting article. I don't quite understand the point of self-plagiarism, from the author's own point of view - what is the advantage in repeating points that have been made?
They are not just 'points'. They are steps in arguments. The the same step may matter to the success of several different arguments, in several different papers. So why not defend that same step in just the same way each time, using one's own words that one still endorses? 'Why Rogetise it all,' as the article above says, 'when [one] has already phrased it perfectly well before?' Apart from being a waste of valuable writing time, Rogetising carries the risk that one will accidentally change the nuances of what one is saying, thereby creating fertile ground for nitpickers.