Thursday, April 11, 2024

Plagiarism is Only an Academic Crime

Attributing ideas to others is required in Academia, but not elsewhere.

A recent article online describes the trials and tribulations of a Harvard professor that is being accused of falsifying data, and now, plagiarism. I am not sure what the former is about, as the "science" involved seems to be one of these soft sciences, such as surveys and the like, which are hard to quantify in any event.

But the plagiarism accusation is interesting and perhaps is an example of "piling on" against a woman professor.  If you haven't been paying attention lately, Harvard has been the ground-zero for attacks by the far-right.  Alumni are withholding donations and professors and administrators being sacked for being too "woke."  And in some instances, maybe these removals or resignations are justified, maybe not. All I can see is the school being put under a microscope by the far-right for any evidence of infection by the "woke" virus.

And I think this latest Academic bru-ha-ha is an example of this.  A professor is accused of "plagiarism" for paraphrasing things that, in themselves, are not really ideas.  As one expert quoted in the article, the whole point of citation of references is to allow other academics to see what the original quote meant and in what context - otherwise, people could use a quote in a context completely the opposite as intended by the author.  Sort of what so-called modern "Christians" do with Bible verses.

The thing about plagiarism is that so long as you attribute an idea or quote, you are not plagiarizing. But whether an a quote or paraphrase rises to the level of an idea attributable to another author is a good question. For example, the article uses this example of a paraphrasing that they claim is plagiarized:
Even though the capital of Italy is Rome, Milan is the center of fashion and design.

One of the city’s noblest areas is the “fashion quadrilateral” comprising four streets: Via Monte Napoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Corso Venezia.
Supposedly, the professor "copied" this "idea" in her book without attribution. Now, if this was a PhD dissertation, then plagiarism is a real issue.  But the description of these four streets comprising the fashion district wasn't published for peer review, but rather in a book sold in bookstores.  Granted, the professor could have merely added a footnote along the lines of [1] article (2014) and avoided any claims of plagiarism.  But on the other hand, is a mere description of the fashion district an "idea" that is being promulgated by another author?  Maybe she should have changed the order in which she listed the streets!

The problem with this sort of nonsense is that you can use online tools to scan any article, book, or paper and look for identical or similar text online. You can "find" plagiarism where there really is none.  Taking a passage from another source and paraphrasing it, particularly when it is not expressing anything really original, or in this case, merely descriptive, isn't really an academic crime - and certainly not a real one.

For example, suppose I said, "Washington, DC is the Capitol of the United States, but the fashion capitol is really New York City, particularly the Garment district in Mid-town Manhattan..."?  No doubt, if  you searched online, you would find a similar sentence expressed elsewhere in the billions of articles published over the ages.  I am not expressing an original idea, thought, or thesis, merely describing a location.  Is that a crime?

Maybe in the ivory tower of Academia, but not under the law.  Yes, Copyright protects the expressions of an idea, but not an idea itself.  So you can paraphrase something someone else said, and it is likely not to be infringement.  Similarly, while attribution may insulate you from accusations of plagiarism, it is no defense to Copyright infringement.

That being said, short phrases or slogans are not really deemed Copyrightable. It is hard to claim Copyright to a slogan on a T-shirt, but you might be able to claim it as a Trademark - if you use it in commerce.  So if you sell T-shirts that say "Just Do It!" you likely will get a letter from my friends at Nike, as they claim that as a Trademark for their goods.  But Copyright?  Less so - unless you want to go down the road of the "artistic" merit of the font selection and layout as being an artistic expression.

Under Copyright law, there is a thing known as "fair use" and one of the exceptions in particular, is for educational purposes.  You cannot lay claim to an idea, or claim that no one can quote you without violating your Copyright, if they are critiquing your quote for educational purposes. If that were the case, well, no one could every contradict you. Of course, the "fair use" doctrine is a defense to an infringement claim - someone can still sue you and bury you in legal fees, if they are particularly vindictive.

Speaking of which, the whole nub of this thing is a $25M lawsuit filed by the professor against Harvard and a blog called "Data Colada" which claims to debunk falsified and exaggerated data in the psychology field, particularly when dealing with statistical data.  You know how I feel about surveys and statistics.  Apparently, one of the professor's assistants contacted that blog with evidence that some data may have been altered.  They, in turn, contacted Harvard, and four of the papers were withdrawn from publication and the professor placed on administrative leave.

Is Data Colada a group of truth-seekers or a "Republican police" engaged in a "Witch hunt" as alleged by some other psychologists.  Beats me, although this sort of smacks of Project Veritas kind of vibes.  It just seems odd to me that so many at Harvard are under attack these days.  Maybe these are justified attacks, maybe not.  But in most cases, it seems, they are against left-leaning professors and administrators.  And no doubt the Harvard Business School has a lot of conservative donors.

Demonizing and eventually exterminating the intelligentsia was a tactic of both Hitler and Stalin.  It worries me that we seem to be demonizing education in general, as of late.  Granted, there is a lot of leftist claptrap being promoted on campus these days.  And a lot of "social science" is anything but science.  Those on the right complain that young people are being indoctrinated into leftist thinking.  But of course, what they want is a chance to indoctrinate people into rightest thinking. Yea, they have Fox News, but that only works on the over-60 set.  They want to snag the youth of America.

So one wonders, is this an isolated incident, or part of some scheme to discredit left-leaning academics - and by extension, create a chilling effect in Academia so that other professors will temper their language and instruction, lest they be next on the tenure chopping block.

I don't know.  But it seems these claims of "plagiarism" are a bit of piling-on in this case.