Is That Professor a Plagiarist?

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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.

Does Quitting Your Job Seem Sexy?

Quitting a job without a new position in hand is an act that sticks with you for a while, even if you’re sensible enough to do it coolly. It doesn’t quietly recede into memory, precisely because it’s both risky and calculated — and because the danger period lasts, certainly longer than a bungee jump or even a week-long wilderness adventure. Thrill-seeking might be part of the allure, but it is not the reality. Most people who see quitting as a ticket to liberation are tilting at windmills, making something mythic out of the mundane. Quitting might very well be the right choice for you, as it was for me. But its aftermath is usually quotidian — Ps and Qs, not Xs and Zs.

It’s been almost 18 months now since I quit my full-time job. At the time I had a sense of where I wanted to go — back to teaching at least part-time, freelancing to pay the bills, doing my own writing where I could make time for that, studying foreign language again if possible. For those of you who have asked for an update, here’s the short version:

On the teaching front, things could not have been more positive. I quickly found two part-time posts that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve become involved with a group that works on standardized testing in adult education. If anything, I have to watch myself to ensure I don’t say yes to every request that comes down the pike, especially given the low pay. But it’s mission-driven work that sustains the soul, and that is priceless.

Freelancing has sustained other parts of my mind. I continue to have the chance to work with great thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in a variety of fields. That said, the nature of being an outsider as you contract with clients isn’t without its frustrations, as I’ve discussed in several posts on this blog. On balance, however, this segment of my life has provided intellectual stimulation of a sort that I continue to need, not to mention the bulk of my income. And, for now, I’m enjoying the freshness of an outsider’s perspective.

Writing has been a mixed bag. Yes, I’ve been issuing posts for this blog every week, and I like the regularity of that self-imposed deadline. But I’ve been so busy with teaching and freelancing that time for non-blog writing has been pretty limited. I am currently enrolled in a poetry workshop, but beyond that and the blog, the yield has been thin.

On the foreign language front, I’ve taken just one Spanish refresher class (last summer). And I practice that language briefly with a couple of my night students on our way out of the school building twice a week. Pretty paltry, I know.

All in all, my new professional life feels pretty workaday. For the most part, I do things on my own terms, and that’s a change. And my own results on my quiz titled “Does Your Work Matter to You?” have greatly improved. That’s progress, of course, but it’s not the awe-inspiring transformation that so many quitters want it to be. I didn’t really harbor those kinds of illusions from the get-go, so I haven’t been disappointed.

“Quit” is a funny English word. It’s pithy, and in the right mouth it sounds potent. But I just think of it as a quirky curiosity that, when you boil it down to its essentials, is unremarkable, even humdrum. As an English teacher, I can’t help but reflect on its identical principal parts: quit, quit, and quit (the base form, simple past, and past participle, respectively). It’s a rare verb in English that exhibits such sameness (“burst” is another). I guess your point of view depends on whether you want to be seduced by the sexy rarity or reflect soberly on the sameness. I obviously tend toward the latter. What about you?

When Editors Are Accomplices

As an editor, what do you do when the author you’re working with has nothing worthwhile to say? Not simply when the writing is poor, but when there’s actually no there, there.

In my editorial roles, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great thinkers and researchers whose contributions genuinely make a difference. I learn a lot as they help the world to learn even more. But a substantial minority of the material I see is, I have to be frank, dead wood, at least after you scrape off the varnish. Varnish that I often apply.

First let me make a distinction between an author’s ability as a writer and the quality of what he or she has to say. Many people whose names appear in bylines don’t write well (often because they’re in fields where writing is not the core activity), yet they offer enormous value through the written word. That’s where editors and ghost writers act as edifiers — an effort that ultimately satisfies everyone involved, including readers. But sometimes underneath the writing, whether poor or impressive, an editor finds a void in substance that simply cannot be filled with words. Much labor is expended covering up the gaping hole, accompanied by much editor-enabled denial. Editor as sycophant is a role I’ve learned to play all too well, and one that I still haven’t figured out how to consistently avoid.

Here’s where I should supply a few juicy examples — where I ought to name names. Thing is, I’m not in a protected-enough professional position to expose myself to the wrath (or the stoniness) of injured egos. Underlying the art of sycophancy is, sadly, a sickness that becomes perilous if unleashed. But I’ve learned that art well enough, I think, to please you with examples that offer some titillation even without the proper names. They fall into three main categories.

Profile 1: Traffickers in the Obvious

These are the authors who sell, and sometimes make an entire living at selling, answers to obvious questions that they’ve purportedly “investigated” or “researched.” It’s the biggest category of empty content out there, and it takes a variety of forms. Sometimes authors get mileage out of mining areas of “inquiry” that readers love to revisit no matter how well-trodden the territory: the mysteries of genius and success, gender and generational differences, career advancement, self-improvement, and the list goes on. Other times, the addictive topics are not of the evergreen variety, but rather pegged to current trends (e.g., in technology) or to issues raised by recent news events. Occasionally, something genuinely substantive and useful is offered, but usually underneath it all is the same old bottom line repackaged and relabeled, even if the authors themselves don’t recognize it. The “research,” frequently conducted under name-brand auspices to legitimize the so-called data, is served up in clever and pithy language. If an editor is sharp (and lucky) enough to come up with a slick headline, it spreads like wildfire. Click. Sizzle. Burn.

Profile 2: Massagers of the Evidence

Whether or not a topic has broad appeal, a surprising number of authors are willing — even eager — to mischaracterize their data in order to make a more compelling point. To their credit, some resist attempts by editors to jazz up their work (although one must take care to distinguish between lazy or expedient attempts to oversimplify content and necessary, practical efforts to make something readable and engaging). Fairly often, though, authors want their “findings” to say one thing when the raw results, if analyzed carefully, show something else or don’t even match up with the question that’s supposedly being investigated. Unless the actual data are published, the reader has no access to the underlying evidence, and so the author and editor effectively become complicit in a deception that the public cannot uncover. To be sure, few nonacademic readers have the stomach for combing over lots of data, so publishing them in full would be ridiculous. But editors are the folks with the obligation to do the intensive review so that readers don’t have to. More often than not, if that review reveals major gaps, editors and authors simply tidy (cover) them up. And, disturbingly often, the review doesn’t happen at all.

Profile 3: Toters of Irrelevance

This is the least surprising of the three groups: authors who pump out material for its own sake (often to rack up publication credits) with little regard for either the short- or the long-term value. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of worthwhile content that, despite its lack of immediate application, provides the foundation for important future work. However, both print and online publications, especially journals, are loaded with stuff whose sole purpose is to advance the careers of those in the bylines. Almost by definition, the water this content carries does not quench any real thirst for knowledge, and certainly not for pleasure. Editors know this, and they simply go along for the stroll to and from the muddy river. You’re already familiar with what’s in this boring bucket, so I won’t make it any bigger than it needs to be. It must be counted, though. Check.

So where does this leave me as an editor? Fortunately, with enough work by authors who don’t fit any of these profiles to allow me to feel fulfilled. That’s still a majority of the time, thank goodness. I do get dispirited, though, when I have no choice but to play along in a publishing game whose rules and outcomes I sometimes don’t respect. I’ll continue to spend some of my time at the edge of the void, determined never to lose my footing.

If Writers Taught and Teachers Wrote . . .

My teaching and freelancing careers complement each other almost daily. I’ve gradually come to view that mutual reinforcement as a substantial part of what makes both lines of work satisfying.

Yes, I’ve had full-time jobs in both education and publishing, and I enjoyed the dedication to one mission. Maintaining a single focus has major benefits: the time to perfect a craft, the continuous exposure to talented colleagues who keep you on your game because of their constant proximity, the sense of having a second home. (Not to mention the concrete benefit of employer-subsidized health insurance.) Over time, though, the singularity can breed a narrowness of vision. That’s not to say that opportunities to grow within a single career don’t abound. But being truly invested in two separate professional domains enables you, in each one, to have the benefit of an outside perspective while you continue to work on the inside.

In teaching writing, for example, you can be a kickass full-time instructor. But there’s something about continuing to write professionally — not just as a sideshow, but as a core activity with frequent deadlines and other real-world constraints — that helps you offer students a practical, authentic perspective. Similarly, teaching a craft or skill day in and day out brings it to consciousness in ways that simply using it does not. Plus, by being in the classroom, you routinely witness real audiences responding to content in a dynamic forum that no focus group or survey can match.

These are not original insights, and I could have shared them long before I made the decision to simultaneously teach and be a freelancer. But my dual career has started to make me think even more broadly. Specifically, I wonder whether merging the missions of education and publishing might improve quality and relevance in both areas on a much larger scale.

Everyone knows that these two fields are facing major challenges, some of them downright demoralizing. Teachers, even good ones, are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate compliance with ever-changing standards as they teach students whose reading and writing habits shift dramatically with the advent of new technologies. And many in publishing, particularly journalism, are struggling to remain relevant to audiences, even as some continue to produce excellent content. Those audiences, both current and future, are sitting in classrooms every day. Yet most teachers don’t know what goes on in the publishing world, and most people in publishing are not also in schools. Is it time to break down that wall so that producers of content better understand how to engage audiences who, in turn, learn to improve their ability to engage with content?

That’s the practical side of it. But there’s also the prospect of injecting new professional energy into both areas through the complementary relationship between them. The personal rewards of working simultaneously in two distinct but related fields could generate new career opportunities and boost morale in both domains. That energy would have further practical consequences, creating a virtuous circle. And the possibility of invigorating education and publishing in a united effort has a certain “next big thing” allure, provided that conflicts of interest can be minimized.

Of course, this merging of two professional worlds is not something that could happen by fiat. It has to start small, with individuals who are already in both fields recruiting others and then, if that pans out, devising pilot projects and all the related peripherals that really get things rolling. It seems like a daunting endeavor for any one person to contemplate initiating, especially with the issue of health insurance looming for those brave enough to take the plunge. Support from above, both philosophical and financial, would be essential for kick-starting the movement.

But maybe this is all my foolish little pipe dream as I toil away as both teacher and freelancer, trying to find professional partners whose hands are in both domains. Are any of you out there inhabiting these spheres simultaneously? If not, does that prospect seem appealing, whether just personally or as part of a broader effort? Maybe this movement is already afoot and I’m just ignorant of it. Shed a little light on it for me if you can, or at least entertain the idea with me if you dare.

They Write for a Living, but Can They Write?

For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with authors from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines, many at the top of their fields. I do ghost writing, developmental editing, copyediting, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly in those categories. Most authors just want me to “make it better,” but a fair number seek to improve themselves, which gives me the opportunity to use skills from my other career — teaching.

I find that, in general, the people most amenable to learning from an editor are those who don’t consider writing to be at the core of what they do: the renowned doctor, the finance whiz, the clever engineer, the concert pianist. Because writing is not their domain, if they are one of the subset who care enough to improve, they are highly receptive, even wide-eyed. They recognize the value of effective expository writing and want to unlock its mysteries, just as I am intrigued by the mysteries of their disciplines. The mutual interest is not mysterious at all.

The authors who, in contrast, make me scratch my head are those for whom writing is an essential component of success in their field yet who are breathtakingly poor at it. I’m not talking about creative writers, but rather the folks whose professions, by definition, require mastery of exposition and the persuasive argument (or so you’d think): the humanities professor, the policy advocate, the sociologist, the public relations specialist, the lawyer, the journalist, and so on. Verbal expression is their bread and butter, their way of ascending to prominence, their professional lifeblood. Of course, many people in these professions write exceedingly well, even brilliantly. But there seem to be much larger numbers who write with such lack of logic, clarity, and voice that at times it leaves you aghast — and almost always confused. Yet, in most cases, they’re not interested in improving.

Incidentally, by good writing I don’t mean good grammar. Important as that is, interest in its minutiae frankly qualifies me as a freak. (And, of course, we all make grammar mistakes that need to be corrected.) But grammar is by no means my primary interest, nor is it the central issue in the writing deficiency I’m describing. Think instead of basic paragraphing skills, fundamental logic, a sense of audience, consistency of point of view, the ability to detect ambiguity, an ear for language.

To be sure, this widespread deficiency in writing is in part attributable to the culture of turgid prose that academia breeds — a phenomenon discussed eloquently by psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. But academic culture doesn’t explain everything, given that plenty of people in writing-dependent careers outside academia also seem to be afflicted with mediocre skills (I mentioned some above). The bottom line is that we have a large class of professionals, in both academic and non-academic arenas, who have succeeded in fields that depend heavily on writing yet who do not write effectively. What business do you have claiming the title Professor of Communications, for example, if you’re not a good writer?

Let me pause here to say that every writer needs a good editor. We can’t expect the esteemed professor or the great reporter or even the writing teacher to produce golden prose right out of the box. The very best writers need a set of fresh eyes and ears, and the rest of us require much more than that. If your goal is to publish something that’s supposed to legitimize you professionally or that you expect people to use for important purposes, you simply must meet a high standard in the end. Otherwise, please don’t bother. There’s enough noise out there without yours.

Now, as I presumptuously clear my throat to explain what’s behind the glaring underperformance of an “overclass” of writers, I have to admit the obvious — that this is not my domain but that of a sociologist (one who can write, I hope). But as a middling, unaccountable blogger, I’ll take a stab at it. The sociologists, if they ever see this, can call me a fake.

Ahem . . . A temptingly easy explanation for widespread writing deficiency among high achievers in the world of words is grade inflation run amuck: A and B students who should be C students, moving from school to career and bringing unchallenged mediocrity along with them. That simple explanation, to my ear, sounds like the stuff of a reactionary’s bitch session — elitist, whiny, a dead end. Undoubtedly, the underlying causes are instead multiple. But there’s one cause that I view as at least part of the mix, and much more persuasive as an explanation than pandemic grade inflation.

You see, rigor — no matter what the domain, including writing — is hard. And social pressure is pretty much the only thing that will force most people to do the work. Without academic and other institutions — and their leaders — building a culture in which that pressure becomes part of the air that everyone breathes, most people will improve their writing enough to get by, but not much more. “Besides,” they’ll argue, “the content is what matters.” Well, Professor of Communications, the words are your content.

So how do the bulk of our esteemed professors and other respected wordsters get by with mediocrity? And what’s to prevent my neighbor who hauls dry ice for a living, and can’t write well either, from doing what’s required to become a professor? Is it just a matter of degree: bad writer vs. really bad writer? Of course not.

In most cases, the person who went on to become the professor couldn’t have imagined himself hauling dry ice for a living, so he learned how to operate in the world that allows you, eventually, to become a professor. That world demands certain types of rigor, but it usually doesn’t demand great writing. It does, however, require communicating in a way that signals to other academics that you’re a legitimate member of their tribe. That type of social system takes root much more easily than a merit-based culture of good writers, but it’s just as effective at indicating who’s in and who’s out.

As for my neighbor who hauls dry ice, he’s out — but he’s a party to his own exclusion. He may not really want to haul dry ice, but enough people in his social arena are willing to accept him in that role that he’ll take it. Who wants to be a stuffy old professor anyway?

Whatever the reasons for the writing mediocrity we’ve come to accept from people who write for a living, the obvious question is “What’s the solution?” Again, the answers are multiple. One element, as I already suggested, is academic and other leaders’ willingness to demand good writing in the professional spheres where it matters. But it also takes resources. Most academic journals, for example, push articles through the publication process with a couple of peer reviews for content and a meager copyedit, with little or no developmental editing for structure, logic, voice, and the other essentials. And many news outlets (print, online, and broadcast) now produce content so quickly that it’s often more impressionistic than edifying.

Again, each of these topics is worth much longer treatment. And many other people have wrung their hands about the diminishing appetite of consumers to pay for high-quality content. It’s frankly hard to imagine a reversal in that trend anytime soon. So, naive as it may be, I look to the power of social pressure for a substantial part of the solution — but, in this case, pressure that’s aimed at achieving rigor rather than avoiding it.

How do you apply that kind of pressure? Well, when you read something, allow yourself to be elevated or irritated enough by the quality of the writing to say something specific about it. People usually submit a letter or an online comment to an editor only when they’ve been either buoyed or offended by ideas or facts. That’s fine, of course, but have you ever written in to praise or complain about the writing — not in general terms, but in detail about why something did or did not work? Granted, those are not the types of letters and comments that get published, but most of the time if you submit them via the right avenue and express yourself coolly and intelligently, your remarks will make it to the responsible party.

It may not seem sexy to tell a writer, for example, that he presented the parts of his article in the wrong order — and to explain why — or to analyze the details of a particular passage that was unclear or left a misimpression. But if he’s worth anything, the writer will listen to that type of feedback. And if enough of that feedback comes in, the sheer volume (it doesn’t actually take that much) gives it influence. Editors at academic journals also tend to read intelligent comments about how their content was presented. It’s one of the few remaining levers that readers have. The publication’s staff often need a reminder that you really care about the writing and that you’re savvy enough to distinguish between what’s good and bad — and to be able to explain the difference.

People tend to perform when they know they’re being watched. I often get the sense that folks who build their careers on mediocre writing assume that no one is really watching, or at least not watching in the way that will prompt them to improve as communicators, not just as purveyors of content. Watch them like a hawk, I say.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’re undoubtedly watching me carefully, and you probably have something to say about this topic, whose surface I’ve barely scratched. I hope you’ll let your voice be heard in a comment right here.