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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More Plagiarism in the News

I have a little bit of a fixation with plagiarism, it seems.  I've written about it twice:  here and here, about plagiarism generally (with specific mention of Jonah Lehrer, who was in the news at the time) and about Fareed Zakaria, who I hypothesized was willing to admit to possible plagiarism rather than admit that he has other people doing his writing for him.

And now the Washington Post has a big summary of spate of recent academic plagiarisms here, courtesy of the blog Retraction Watch, which reports on not just plagiarism, but falsified data.

Not that anybody asked me, but it seems to me that plagiarism and falsifying data are two separate things, morally and practically speaking.  Plagiarism typically means you are too lazy and too unoriginal to do your own work.  That's why it's such a common problem in high school and college -- the kids have other things to do.  But I think anyone with a modicum of self-respect outgrows it eventually. In the academic and writing world, my sense is still that underlying most cases of plagiarism is the fact that the "author" has been allowing someone else -- possibly a college student or a high school student -- to do his or her writing for him or her.  In other words, plagiarism can still be blamed mostly on the kids.  But as mentioned in connection with Zakaria, most of these academics/journalists would rather "admit" that they might have accidentally borrowed someone else's work than admit that they don't even do their own writing in the first place.

As for falsifying data, that's a different and more dangerous animal.  And what's scary is that the people who do it are the smarties -- they are the phD's and MDs who got great grades and are living their dreams -- doing important research.  The temptation to simply invent data is quite great -- you need to be doing exciting work to get recognition and grant money, and sometimes, the data you get in the real world is just not all that exciting.  This reminded me of  Diederik_Stapel, who I read about in Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science," a great book all about rampant falsification of data.

It would be very interesting to do brain scans (or some other kind of test) of people who have falsified data, just to find out if they are different from those who don't.  My guess is that for some people, falsifying data is simply unthinkable, but for others, it's quite thinkable.  It would be very interesting to know if there is some way to tell in advance who those others are.  And then we get into the very interesting moral question -- aren't the ones for whom it is "thinkable," but who don't do it, morally superior to those for whom it is simply unthinkable?  

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