June 15, 2007

Citation Plagiarism?

We have discussed a number of cases of plagiarism here on Language Log, but there is a putative type of plagiarism that we have not yet considered. Plagiarism normally involves either the unacknowledged borrowing of someone else's idea or the unacknowledged borrowing of someone else's words. A third kind of plagiarism is, however, occasionally mentioned, namely the citation of a reference without acknowledging that it came from another source. If author Jones reads a paper by Smith and thereby learns of a paper by Doe and cites Doe without mentioning that he owes the reference to Smith, he has committed this kind of plagiarism, if plagiarism it be.

This type of plagiarism has received some attention recently because of its role in a very public dispute between De Paul University historian Norman Finkelstein and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein, a radical critic of Israel and of Jewish support for Israel, accused Dershowitz, known as a civil libertarian and defense counsel for a number of celebrities as well as for his advocacy of Israel, of not being the true author of his book The Case for Israel and of having used citations from other sources (in particular, from Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial), without acknowledgment. Finkelstein's complaint triggered an investigation by Harvard in which former President Derek Bok concluded that no plagiarism had taken place. The dispute between Finkelstein and Dershowitz has attracted considerable attention, with threats of legal action, comments by public intellectuals, including Finkelstein supporter Noam Chomsky, and an unusual public debate about Finkelstein's tenure case, with critics arguing that his work does not meet the standards of professional historians and is no more than political advocacy and supporters arguing that he is a legitimate historian persecuted for his unpopular stance. Just a few days ago Finkelstein was denied tenure.

The only treatment of citation plagiarism that I am aware of is the brief discussion on pp. 14-16 of Judge Richard Posner's Little Book of Plagiarism. He says that it is a common practice because the consequences are "too trivial to arouse much ire" and because it is very difficult to detect, but leaves open the question of whether it is a venial form of plagiarism or not really plagiarism at all.

References serve a number of purposes:

  • They provide authority for the statement cited.
  • They allow the reader to check the accuracy of the citation.
  • They allow the reader to obtain further information about the cited point.
  • They point the reader to a potential source of additional references.
  • They demonstrate that the author is aware of the source.
  • They give credit to the originator of the idea or words.

The author who obtains a reference via an intermediate source and does not alert the reader to this fact does not thereby fail in respect of any of the above. In all of these respects, the reader obtains precisely the same benefit from the reference. Furthermore, the source of the words or ideas receives the credit for them.

What we cannot tell from such a citation is whether other authors have cited the same work and how the author came across it. So what? Whether other authors have cited the same work is irrelevant (unless the work is a meta-level survey, in which case the citation would be part of the data, not a simple citation at all). There is no reason that the author should provide such information. Similarly, how the author came across a citation is not something in which the reader normally has any interest since it is not relevant to evaluating the author's argument and evidence nor to understanding what the author has to say. It is true that we can't tell whether the author went to great lengths to learn of the existence of the cited work or received the citation on a silver platter, but we don't need to know that, and the conventions of scholarship clearly do not require that the author provide this information. It is in general impossible to tell whether a given citation was obtained from a reference in another paper, by thumbing through journals on library shelves, from a bibliography, from a web search, by word of mouth from a colleague, or by a research assistant using any of these techniques. An author may acknowledge assistance from a research assistant, librarian, or compiler of a bibliography, but this is rarely done for individual citations and, if the assistance was not of an unusual kind or magnitude, he may not acknowledge it at all.

I have assumed so far that the author actually reads all of the references that he cites. What of the case in which he merely recites a reference found in another work? (Some of the charges brought by Finkelstein against Dershowitz were of this type.) Occasionally the fact of the citation is the point and there is no need to look it up, e.g. when the author merely seeks to show that another author was aware of the cited work. In other cases, the original may be unobtainable, or more difficult to obtain than is worthwhile, if, for example, it is relevant only to the history of an idea and the current work is not historical in focus. In this case, the normative practice is to indicate that the citation was found in another work. But what if the author fails to indicate this?

Here again, all of the functions of citation are fulfilled, though in some cases imperfectly. There is no deception as to the origin of the material in the paper. To the extent that the reader regards the author as a reliable interpreter of other work in the field, the reader cannot be as confident of the correctness of what is said if the author does not have first hand knowledge of it and may, for example, be more inclined to check the source himself, but depriving the reader of this information, though a small sin, is not plagiarism. Similarly, a citation of a work that the author has not actually read may mislead the reader into overestimating the author's capabilities, e.g. to understand work in a certain area or to read a certain language, but since this deception is not about the origin of the ideas or words of the text, it is not plagiarism. Furthermore, there is no clear standard in this area, and hence no justification for the reader to rely on such inferences. If, for example, the author commissions a translation of a work in a language that he does not understand, although some authors will mention this and acknowledge the translator, as far as I can tell this is not a routine practice and there is no established ethical requirement to do so.

In my view, then, citation plagiarism is not plagiarism at all. Research assistants, laboratory technicians, systems administrators, programmers, students, librarians, bibliographers, colleagues, other authors, friends, lovers, relatives, pets, plants, ambient deities and suppliers of favorite ingestible substances may well deserve more credit than they receive, but that is a different matter.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 15, 2007 01:38 AM