Sunday, August 24, 2014

Late, late, late Saturday night news

I teach a week of professional ethics to freshmen as part of an honors college course.  It's interesting to
hear them debate how to deal with research ethics and plagiarism.  I use news stories as a starting point for topics.  There's no shortage of misbehaving scientists. Case in point: UNLV English professor Mustapha Marrouchi has a long history of plagiarism, as chronicled in the, uh, Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here's my problem: I want to scare students straight about this.  They shouldn't plagiarize just because they'll get an F on an essay.  Plagiarizing can ruin a career.  But, it turns out, Marrouchi has a very respectable career and his plagiarizing ways seem to be well-known (according to CHE).  This is the WORST example I can give the students.  "Don't plagiarize because, after gaining respect of your peers and notoriety as an expert in your field, at the end of your career you'll be asked to quietly retire after people find out you've cheated for many years."  Not exactly the message I want to send.

The Cabinet of Plagiarism has an even more depressing take on this affair.


  1. And then there are the students who get *so* scared that they pepper every sentence with parentheses containing apparently random combinations of names, dates, and (occasionally) page numbers (many seem to think that the publication date and the page # are interchangeable). This is, of course, better than plagiarizing (assuming they manage to somehow communicate at least some accurate information about the sources of words and ideas in the process; most do, though not as clearly as one would hope), but it doesn't exactly make for good writing. The ones who are so anxious about plagiarizing that they can't concentrate on anything else don't produce particularly good writing, either.

    As with many other aspects of teaching, I wish students came with teacher's manuals, or bar codes, or something, so I could figure out which ones need to be scared, which ones need to be calmed, and which ones (a reasonable number, fortunately, in my classes) are already in a state of taking things seriously but not too seriously, and thus ready to learn. Of course, when you're dealing with several dozen (or many dozens) at once, it's nearly impossible to scare some and calm others simultaneously. Ideally, I suppose, we'd use the bar codes to sort them into different rooms, and proceed accordingly. But then we'd still have to figure out what to do with the ones who think it's okay to plagiarize in English/History/Western Civ., but never to steal someone else's code without attribution (or vice versa). If we could sell them all on the idea of learning for learning's sake, we could probably get somewhere, but the economy isn't helping us much with that one.

    Aargh. I am not ready to plunge back in.

  2. I found the Cabinet of Plagiarism's piece very interesting. Their point: if so much plagiarism goes undetected, who reads Social Sciences papers? Who referees them?

    I tried to imagine if there is a math equivalent. Maybe it's similar: if you publish in a journal that nobody reads, I imagine you could get away with republishing somebody else's old result. But would anyone get anything (professionally) out of publishing in such a journal? Sure, I imagine there are places where admins just count papers.

    Much more common is publishing an "exercise" (anyone in the field with the patience to write it down could have done it) in a weak journal. You even see exercises in pretty good journals. Again, the field doesn't advance, but somebody gets an item in a publication list, and then at least a "meets expectations" rating from the dean.

    This is what happens when the academic profession favors "research" at the expense of "discovery". Nobody can afford to take risks, to change research areas, to develop new collaborations from scratch, to do anything that would take a long maturation period for possibly little gain. Mathematics is not about "doing research", it's about discovering something essentially new; but you wouldn't know it from the way academic life is structured. Apparently it's similar in the Social Sciences. Hence papers that nobody read; plagiarized or "exercises", it doesn't matter. Just people padding publication lists to keep their jobs.