Is That Professor a Plagiarist?

image from rutgers.edu

Plagiarism is alive and well among America’s tenured faculty. Non-tenured too, for that matter. I’ve worked as an editor for academic authors in a variety of disciplines for 15 years, and from my perspective, the situation is getting worse. Not because the profs are all turning crooked, but because many of them are allowing laziness to trump rigor and because some, strangely, don’t seem to be schooled in what plagiarism is.

As a writing teacher, I have an ear for detecting “borrowed” words. Clues include a suspicious shift in voice, syntax that doesn’t fit the writer’s usual forms, and outright non sequiturs of the copy-and-paste variety. Indeed, it’s the copying and pasting in the age of the internet that helps to explain why plagiarism is cropping up more than ever. I still can’t help but be surprised, though, at how prevalent it is among people who are supposed to be the bastions of academic integrity and protocol: university professors.

To be fair, my encounters with plagiarism of the most nefarious sort have been rare. Only once have I worked with an academic who knowingly tried to pass someone else’s entire argument off as his own. And that situation was handled by folks above my pay grade at the time. What’s become rampant of late are, rather, smaller-scale shrug-the-shoulders sloppiness and just flat out ignorance about what counts as using someone else’s ideas, language, or both without proper acknowledgment. Here’s what I’ve seen, and how I’ve handled it.

Careless Omissions

These come in two varieties, both of which some people prefer to call “misuse of sources” rather than plagiarism. I don’t.

One involves chunks of text hastily regurgitated with the intention of adding attribution later. The problem is when later never comes. In some cases, the original is nearly identical in language, but some key data point has also been misreported so that the lack of acknowledgment is made worse by an inaccuracy (see my previous post “Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?”). Authors who make these kinds of errors sometimes apologize; others admit to the respected editor, “I knew you’d clean up after me.” In the latter scenario, I remind the author that if I can’t find the offense, I also can’t rectify it — so remember to give me enough of a tip so that I’m looking for a needle in a hairball, not a haystack.

The other kind of omission amounts to incomplete source attribution. I’m talking about quotations correctly ascribed to the person who uttered the words but without acknowledgment of where they appeared. For instance, I have encountered statements such as “As my colleague Jane Expert said, . . .” without any source mentioned, only to find that Ms. Expert made this comment in, say, a New York Times interview. I remind the author that crediting the speaker is not enough, as it leaves unclear how the quotation was obtained. I’ve even heard other editors say things like, “Oh, I assumed it came from an interview that the author had done with Ms. Expert.” Assume that, and you may be publishing a correction later.

Clueless Commissions

Much more disturbing than finding an academic to be careless about reporting his source material is facing the reality that he doesn’t understand the basics about attribution. One author who had lifted material from a somewhat older text actually said to me, “But that’s in the public domain now.” Um, Professor, just because a text is public doesn’t allow you to claim it as your own. (I’m paraphrasing myself, of course. The actual quotation was much more diplomatic.)

Far more common are instances in which the author thinks that if he changes a phrase or two, plagiarism has been avoided. “Is that what you teach your students?” I wonder to myself. Again, my actual approach is more practical. I simply propose an alternative that either includes appropriate attribution or avoids the need for the passage altogether. That works almost every time.

The Editor as Teacher

Diplomacy is, indeed, at the heart of all the efforts to help an author avoid embarrassment (or even a lawsuit) for having plagiarized, whether due to sloppiness or ignorance. What you say obviously depends on your relationship with the author. If you have an ongoing and strong professional bond, a mini-lesson on best practices in academic writing can actually be a welcome offering; if you don’t have that kind of trusting tie, suggesting intelligent alternative language usually does the trick. Occasionally, you’ll work with someone who bristles at the very thought that she plagiarized (even if you didn’t say that outright). Again, a deferential “Here’s what you could write instead to make your excellent point” often dilutes the defensiveness.

And, of course, there are cultural differences in what constitutes plagiarism. Don’t be afraid to take an information-sharing stance as you politely explain how an American audience might perceive a particular use of another author’s material as inappropriate. With academics from abroad who may be unfamiliar with U.S. standards, focus on the perceptions of prospective readers rather than the rectitude of your position. After all, the definition of plagiarism is, like that of any intellectual practice, culturally bound.

The Editor as Policeman?

As it becomes easier for authors to commit acts of plagiarism, it’s also getting easier to identify — and to prevent — instances of it. Even without a nifty plagiarism-spotting application, a keen ear and simple online searching will turn up much more than you might expect. Will you find it all? Certainly not. Should you even attempt to look down every alley to find evidence of crime? No way. Editors are not police officers, for good reason. You certainly don’t have the time to walk that beat, given how many other important duties are on your roster. Besides, editing with a crime-fighting mind-set comes through in your communication with the author.

As with any editing task, your radar must be on at all times, but you mustn’t spend all your time listening to it hum. That kind of self-consciousness gets in the way, as good editors well know. Mindfulness is an asset; compulsiveness is a liability. Vigilance about plagiarism is one line item on the balance sheet. Give it its increasingly important due, but don’t let it overwhelm the bottom line.

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When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

Distracted by Talk About Multitasking

A recent debate on HBR.org, where I used to write a blog, has me scratching my head. Peter Bregman highlights the downsides of multitasking, citing both his own personal experiment in minimizing distractions and a smattering of research on why we shouldn’t do too many things at once. His fellow blogger David Silverman retorts with a point-by-point defense of multitasking, concluding “we need [it] as much as we need air.” As usual in recent discussions of this sort, much of the focus is on the pros and cons of electronic devices.

Both men are right, of course. There’s little to quibble with in either post. But I must confess I don’t really understand the collective point of this debate. It’s like arguing for sleep and for wakefulness. Yes, we need both. Thanks for that tip.

Negotiating a balance between concentration and distraction is one of the fundamentals of being human. We learn early in life how to self-monitor so that we can do all the things we must while managing to do the most important ones well. That’s the practical side of the equation. There’s also the question of pleasure: Spend too much time on one thing and you get bored; spend too little time on many things and you don’t feel a sense of fulfillment.

Children learn this basic principle as they play. Parents learn it as they raise children. Laborers learn it as they work. Everyone refines his or her approach with age. Most don’t bother to articulate the phenomenon, given that it’s just part of the fabric of existence. But articulating it isn’t hard, if one cares to bother.

A student of mine, who’s a mother, recently put it well: “Sometimes I need to focus on my daughter and sit with her while we do something simple. And sometimes I have to do 10 things at once to make sure my child gets what she needs. It’s like what you do in class with us as the teacher. It’s just what you have to do.” The wisdom of this observation is plain.

Electronic gadgets, complex and powerful as they may be, are merely another ingredient in the daily soup of concentration and distraction. They’re fascinating and sometimes frustrating, but I usually find research and reports about the “mental price” such devices extract from us to be utterly useless. Like most mind candy, the information tastes sweet for a few minutes but eventually leaves me hungry.

For instance, what am I supposed to do with the stray research finding that multitasking reduces a person’s productivity by 40%? Whether or not the methods of the study were rigorous enough to actually support the broad applicability of that data point, the information gets me nowhere. Ultimately, I have to navigate the waters of concentration and distraction in a particular context with a particular set of evolving challenges — month to month, day to day, minute to minute. The statistic is itself a distraction I relegate to the trash heap while I get back to teaching my student and my student gets back to caring for her daughter, both of us mono- and multitasking all the while.

And as for that word: “multitasking.” It may be a term that sprang up with the advent of computers, but it is not a new concept (Silverman, take note). Humans have long known what it was like to have many balls in the air at once, way before anyone had even invented a ball of the sort that one juggles. And people have had to reflect on this reality and refine their approach to it, instinctively, for just as long.

The more time I spend teaching students things that are not obvious (how to write an effective paragraph, how to solve an algebraic equation), the less time I’m willing to make for distracting discussions about what anyone with consciousness and an ounce of self-awareness can see for himself. That said, a friend of mine (completely unrelated to the present topic) recently issued me this wise reminder: “What’s obvious to you may be a revelation to some.”

She’s right, of course. We all have our blind spots. But no matter how I slice the issue of multitasking at this moment of idle musing on it, I still come to the same (perhaps obvious) conclusion: If you’re seeking revelations from bloggers about when, how, and why to concentrate on one thing at a time, your deficits in the simple, human art of self-reflection are very deep indeed — deeper than any discussion of multitasking in the age of gadgets can possibly fill.

Chew on that later. Right now someone who really needs you is calling. Click away from this silly blog post and get back to her.

Where Freelancers Fear to Tread

Avoidable inefficiency gnaws at me. I hate to see time and money wasted, even if it’s not mine — and even if I’m the one getting the check. To some who work for themselves, that seems like fool’s logic. Call me a fool. A fool who freelances.

I’ve met some freelancers who happily thrive on inefficiency, milking every last drop of pay from the udders of their hirers’ cows and adopting an “it’s their problem, not mine” attitude. Most, however, prefer to take the high road and do the best they can in the time they’re paid to work. Instead of exploiting inefficiency to earn a few extra bucks, they simply tolerate it and smile, streamlining things at the margins where they can but usually saying little about it. It’s all perfectly sensible, above-board, and low-risk.

Maybe I’m reckless, but I prefer to tell the people who hire me — point blank, though in as constructive and polite a way as I can — where their systems are not serving them well. Clearly, only some of those systems are in my purview, and I try to be careful to limit my comments to areas where I can actually see the big picture, making all the necessary caveats. But saying nothing is, to me, a travesty.

To be sure, before you make any critiques as a freelancer, you need to be honest with yourself and distinguish between what inconveniences you personally and what actually compromises overall efficiency for the hirer. If only the former is at issue, just drop it. However, when it comes to the latter, insiders often listen to well-reasoned suggestions with open minds, particularly if your feedback reflects that you’ve accounted for many of the contingencies that they have to confront. And if change would happen to also make your life easier, admit that openly, specifying how the situation is a win-win for both them and you. A powerfully persuasive argument is that their money would be better spent if a greater percentage of your time were dedicated to the core job than to clearing unnecessary hurdles. And, while you’re at it, mention in very specific terms what is genuinely working well.

Even if you have an “on the merits” approach to feedback that includes positive comments, insiders can bristle at point-blank suggestions that challenge their ways. You may be perceived as whiny, or a know-it-all, or just plain irritating. Insiders often assume that the picture of the whole that you’re seeing isn’t quite big enough to account for all the variables. And that certainly can be true. But having been an insider who worked with freelancers for much longer than I’ve been an outsider working as a freelancer, I can tell you that the insider’s tunnel vision is usually much more profound than the outsider’s ignorance. That tunnel is an old friend of mine — warm and cozy, but narrow and dim.

Of course, you can’t compromise your living in the name of shining light into the darkness. Being straightforward as an outsider has potential costs, even as high as losing future work or never getting a job in the first place. You obviously shouldn’t tromp and stomp like a jack-booted thug, but treading too lightly does nothing to stimulate the soil. I’ve decided to let my shoes, even my feet, get a little dirty rather than walk on pristine eggshells. And I must say, a heel to the earth strengthens the spine.

(For specifics about how freelancers can give and receive feedback, see my posts “Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant” and How to Give Feedback to Contractors.”)