Plagiarism, selectively condemned

In my academic career, plagiarism has been the big no-no. As a student, the sanctions are severe: professors will almost certainly fail—without any further consideration of its merits—any paper they catch which replicates the ideas or the words of another author without attribution, they may fail the student for the class, and they may report the student for academic discipline, which can lead to expulsion. Even where I thought of things on my own, if I could possibly attribute them to others, I did, because, as I pretty quickly figured out, no one would ever mark me down for “standing on the shoulders of others,” as long as I cited them.

A couple of cracks appeared in that picture. Closest to me, one of my fellow students in my Master’s program, a young woman from Thailand had been admitted to the program and was floundering badly because she apparently had no clue either about research methods or about plagiarism. It turns out that in Asian cultures, which embrace a more cooperative ethos, individual authorship is much less important, that the values I learned reflected the individualist values that are a product of the Protestant Reformation, but the professor who drummed her out of the program was a hardliner on “academic honesty,” and my advice to her was that in her future academic career, she should never admit to having attended this school—it would do her only harm.

Of greater national prominence is the case of Ward Churchill. I’ll let Stanley Fish, of the New York Times, summarize this case:

A jury in Denver ruled that the termination of activist-teacher Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado had been wrongful (a term of art) even though a committee of his faculty peers had found him guilty of a variety of sins.

The verdict did not surprise me because I had read the committee’s report and found it less an indictment of Churchill than an example of a perfectly ordinary squabble about research methods and the handling of evidence. The accusations that fill its pages are the kind scholars regularly hurl at their polemical opponents. It’s part of the game. But in most cases, after you’ve trashed the guy’s work in a book or a review, you don’t get to fire him. Which is good, because if the standards for dismissal adopted by the Churchill committee were generally in force, hardly any of us professors would have jobs. . . .

[T]here wouldn’t have been any special investigative committee poring over Churchill’s 12 single-author books, many edited collections and 100-plus articles had he not published an Internet essay on Sept. 12, 2001, saying that the attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon were instances of “the chickens coming home to roost” and that those who worked and died in the towers were willing agents of the United States’ “global empire” and its malign policies and could therefore be thought of as “little Eichmanns.”

These incendiary remarks were not widely broadcast until four years later, when Bill O’Reilly and other conservative commentators brought them to the public’s attention. The reaction was immediate. Bill Owens, governor of Colorado, called university president Elizabeth Hoffman and ordered her to fire Churchill. She replied, “You know I can’t do that.” (Not long after, she was forced to resign.)[1]

Churchill, when not criticizing imperial policy, offers an equally incendiary assessment of the United States westward expansion that wiped out a large (we don’t really know how large) portion of the indigenous population in what is now considered the United States, displaced that population from its traditional territory, and largely decimated its cultures (there were at least thousands, if not tens of thousands of distinct societies whose members might now be able to perform some of their rituals, whose artisans might be able to create some crafts to sell in a capitalist society, but who most certainly do not now exist as hunter-gatherer societies). Churchill’s is not an assessment which apologizes in any way for the the brutality of the white man. Which also makes Churchill a target.

This creates a difficulty for me, as a scholar, because Churchill’s work is now under a cloud. If I cite his work, I will have to exercise additional care in justifying my use of his work. I will have to treat it much like I would a Wikipedia article, chasing down references, confirming that they say what he attributes to them, and being much more diligent than I ordinarily would in considering his critics. I probably won’t bother. Though in my studies so far, I have occasionally touched upon the experiences of indigenous Americans, I may very well pursue other areas.

So now, a couple years later, I happen to be looking something up. The following examples (I include and quote, but renumber, their citations) exist in three out of four interpersonal communication textbooks on my bookshelf:

Some researchers believe there are several “basic” or “primary” emotions.[2] However, there isn’t much agreement among scholars about what those emotions are, or about what makes them “basic.”[3] Moreover, emotions that are primary in one culture may not be primary in others, and some emotions have no direct equivalent in other cultures.[4] [5]

Some researchers believe there are several “basic” or primary” emotions (Plutchik, 1984; Shaver et al., 1987). However, there isn’t much agreement among scholars about what those emotions are, or what makes them “basic” (Ekman, 1999; Ortony & Turner, 1990). Moreover, emotions that are primary in one culture may not be primary in others, and some emotions may have no equivalent in other cultures (Ferrari & Koyama, 2002).[6]

Some researchers assert that humans experience two kinds of emotions: ones that are based in biology and thus instinctual and universal and others that we learn in social interaction (Kemper, 1987). Yet scholars don’t agree on which emotions are basic (Izard, 1991; Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O’Connor, 1987; Shaver, Wu, & Schwartz, 1992). Also, many scholars don’t think it’s useful to distinguish between basic and learned emotions (Ekman & Davidson, 1994).[7]

The first two examples are from textbooks in which two out of three co-authors are identical. The third is from Julia Wood, who will need no introduction to communication scholars. Wood’s text is sufficiently distinct that few would challenge her authorship. But the first two appear to constitute self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism is potentially as serious as plagiarism of someone else’s work. As the Chicago Manual of Style explains,

In signing a contract with a publisher an author warrants (guarantees) that the work is original, that the author owns it, that no part of it has been previously published, and that no other agreement to publish it or part of it is outstanding. . . .

The author should remember that permission is sometimes needed to reuse or even to revise his or her own work. If the author has already allowed a chapter or other significant part to appear in print elsewhere—as a journal article, for example—then written permission to reprint it, or to update or revise it, will need to be secured from the copyright owner of the other publication, unless the author secured the right of reuse in the contract with that earlier publisher.[8]

At California State University, East Bay, where I took Interpersonal Communication, and where I almost taught the class a couple of times, the class is a freshman-level class, and these books were available to professors for use as textbooks in those classes, as beginning scholars’ initial experiences with academic honesty. It is unclear that the necessary permissions for word-for-word reuse of this material in the first two examples above has been granted. And yet, we will drive politically unacceptable professors and inexperienced students out of university for this offense.

Or as Fish put it, “standard stuff.”[9]

  1. [1]Stanley Fish, “Ward Churchill Redux,” New York Times, April 5, 2009,
  2. [2]R. Plutchik (1980). Emotion: A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis. New York: Harper & Row; P. R. Shave, S. Wu, & J. C. Schwartz (1992). “Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Emotion and its Representation: A Prototype Approach.” In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Emotion (pp. 175-212). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  3. [3]P. Ekman (1999). “Basic Emotions.” In T. Dalgleish & T. Power (Eds.), The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 45-60). Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons; A. Ortony & T. J. Turner (1990). “What’s Basic about Basic Emotions?” Psychological Review, 97, 315-331.
  4. [4]M. Ferrari & E. Koyama (2002). “Meta-Emotions about Anger and Amae: A Cross-Cultural Comparison.” Consciousness and Emotion, 3, 197-211.
  5. [5]Ronald B. Adler, Russel F. Proctor II, Jeanne Elmhorst, Interpersonal Communication (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008), 124.
  6. [6]Ronald B. Adler, Lawrence B. Rosenfeld, Russell F. Proctor II, The Process of Interpersonal Communication, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University, 2007), 208.
  7. [7]Julia T. Wood, Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004), 185.
  8. [8]Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003), 132-133.
  9. [9]Fish, “Ward Churchill Redux.”

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