Citation Plagiarism

Bill Poser argues that “citation plagiarism is not plagiarism at all” but I disagree. True, if we are just talking about one citation it doesn’t really matter much if the author just skimmed through something on a colleague’s shelf or truly slaved over a difficult tome. But that is not what is at stake in the Finkelstein-Dershowitz dispute. Here is a summary of Finkelstein’s position on Dershowitz:

Finkelstein’s principal response is that Dershowitz’s quotations and citations of primary sources (where Dershowitz does not cite Peters) contain obvious errors that Dershowitz could not have made if he had checked the primary sources himself, and that Dershowitz’s errors are identical to Peters’ errors concerning the same primary sources. (Beyond Chutzpah, pp. 230-231) Finkelstein infers that Dershowitz copied the quotations and citations from Peters rather than checking the primary sources himself.

This is one of the most common forms of plagiarism I encounter as a teacher. Plagiarism is passing off other’s scholarship as if it were your own, and nothing is easier than to extensively cite sources you have never read but found cited in another person’s work. Thus, it is not the mere fact of citation that is at stake, as Poser mistakenly infers, but rather the wholesale appropriation of another scholar’s academic labor, warts and all.

However, even if we discuss the kind of practice Poser does find acceptable, where someone simply lists a source they know is important even though they have not read it carefully themselves – I still must beg to differ. For one thing, it is the source of much intellectual laziness. People cite the works of major thinkers without bothering to read more than someone else’s summary of their ideas, and the ideas themselves get diluted to the point where they no longer serve any analytic value. (Mere hand-waving, if you will.) The problem is that it isn’t enough to cite Bourdieu if you mention “habitus” or to cite Appadurai if you mention “ethnoscapes” etc., these ideas are overdetermined (cf. Althusser) and require each scholar who uses them to explain again what exactly they mean by the term. Instead, we get one-line critiques or pat summaries with an obligatory citation. Of course, if this were a crime the anthropology job market would be much better than it is.

I think this problem is particularly acute when people are working with second-language materials. Among Taiwanese students (and foreign scholars of Taiwan) it is not uncommon to list a lot of sources which you have not personally read. This serves to convey a much stronger grasp of the target language than the student may really have. In such cases there is still a wide range of practices, ranging from the full-scale copying of someone-else’s quotations to simply mentioning important sources, and I agree with Poser that these shouldn’t all be treated the same. Still, just as I think bloggers should give credit where credit is due when linking to an article they found on someone else’s blog (e.g. “hat tip to X”, “via X”, etc.) scholars should also endeavor to identify where they found citations if they are not works they themselves personally read (e.g. “Y cited in X”).

UPDATE: Some good discussion over at Easily Distracted.

15 thoughts on “Citation Plagiarism

  1. I have seen other forms of, while not plagarism, certainly laziness. Students, even professors, needing citations, draw only from the abstracts, rather than the body of the paper. The appearance of erudition in graduate papers/professional papers requires multiple citations for singular points, as if to say, multiple citations following one sentence confirms the veracity of the claim being made, in addition to, the thoroughness of the author.

  2. Okay, I had a big long response, but I feel like I might be misinterpreting you or going off on a tangent. I don’t disagree with most of what you said, but it seems to me like there might be reasonable times when a nod to the well known literature is appropriate without the necessity of having an in depth, first hand grasp of it. For instance, for general statements of fact, such as: “Many anthropologists have studied the X” (A, B, C, D), or when you’re explaining who you’re not using: “Embodiment has been studied from many perspective. I draw heavily on X, but others who have written from different perspectives are Bourdieu [pat summary] and Foucault [pat summary].” Obviously the person should have read X in the original and in detail, but knowing the general consensus on Bourdieu and Foucault from second hand sources and/or superficial reading seems reasonable, since they don’t pertain directly and appear more as a guide for the reader and the ‘performance’ of academics, as one advisor recently put it.

    (It’s possible that I’m just feeling overly defensive since I’m writing my field work proposal and being told that I should explain how I articulate with about 5 distinct literatures with hundreds of publications in each, and the implication that it’s intellectually lazy for me to rely on a couple of second-hand summaries feels unfair. But perhaps that is not what your are trying to imply. Or perhaps you have an idea of how to do this efficiently, in which case, please share!)

  3. Carmen,

    I may not make it clear enough in my post, but I do agree with Poser that there are some cases where it is OK to cite something you haven\’t read – where the point is simply that a certain literature exists. However, I personally resisted the pressure from my committee to write the kind of literature review chapter that certain members wanted in my thesis. I know it is part of what our discipline has come to expect, but I feel it is more important to build an argument than to demonstrate erudition and I am particularly uncomfortable with what Fred calls the mere \”appearance of erudition.\”

    Still, a dissertation and a proposal are quite different beasts. At the proposal stage I think it is fine to over-reach since you are merely marking out the territory you wish to explore down the road. But in the end one has to find one\’s own comfort level.

  4. Kerim,

    To connect this thread to earlier ones, I think citations in the humanities and social sciences very often operate like brands or trademarks. They are a shorthand way that people position themselves in a commercial field, viz. the so-called marketplace of ideas. People are implicitly aware of this, and so the actual content of the citation (what it denotes) is less important than the fuzzier activity of positioning an idea in a good spot on the supermarket shelf (what the citation connotes). For junior scholars, this very often means that a citation gives one’s own ideas the touch of authority (the appearance of erudition). Some of my teachers were strongly opposed to this practice, and would require citations to include not just author and date, but the specific pages that one is addressing in the citation.

  5. The laziness comment by Fred reminded me of the Bourbaki story–though not relevant to the citation plagiarism issue, it still is a good story! Andre Weil and one of his students, while writing a paper, were too lazy to prove a Lemma which they were sure to be correct. So, they added a reference to a fictitious author Bourbaki (of course, published in a fictitious journal). Later, when the Bourbaki team was formed, they decided to use the name of Bourbaki to refer to themselves.

  6. what work does a citation do? that it may be plagiarized? you are claiming a quite extensive and i’d argue over-reaching understanding of the work that a citation performs. I think the citation performs 2 tasks, a. it says, ‘this is not my idea, but i found it here, and here, and here, etc.’, it performs attribution. b. it says, ‘if you want more information on this line of argument/position/etc then look to these folks’, it performs reference. It does not say in my opinion, anything more than that. So, you cannot plagiarize a citation, as the citation is not identifying, at least with any reliability, any sort of ‘scholarship’ because the ‘plagiarism’ you mention above is actually what i would call a great tradition of citation in that you can find it in Aristotle’s use of reference and it has been around ever since. If you want to call every author in that tradition, ‘intellectually lazy’, that is fine, I’d tend to recognize it as what it is, attribution and reference.

  7. Jeremy,

    Funny you should say that, I just caught a student plagiarizing. She had two quotes and two citations that just so happened to exactly match the same quotes and citations as they appeared on one of my colleagues blogs.

    As I said in my post: “it is not the mere fact of citation that is at stake, as Poser mistakenly infers, but rather the wholesale appropriation of another scholar’s academic labor, warts and all.”

  8. But if she had just taken the quotes? and citations and you think that is plagiarizing, because I don’t think that is. I cite the same things many people cite, same passages sometimes, give or take, and I think most people actually do tend to cite the same passages to make the same points, so I tend to not see that as plagiarizing. Now, taking a person’s words without attribution is plagiarizing, but not taking a standard quotation.

  9. I’ve just recently become aware of the Finkelstein-Dershowitz drama, and I think the reason that this case is supposedly so important is because Frankenstein is arguing that Dershowitz used the information that he did merely because it strengthened his case, and so he did not NEED to read it. He just had to know that it suited his needs, and thus he could cherry-pick some examples without confirming or rejecting the information within, which is what a real scholar would do.

    If Dershowitz was REALLY trying to get to the bottom of things he would be cross-checking the claims in “From Time Immemorial”. Lifting citations and reproducing them without regard to their validity or giving credit to the original author (and thereby demonstrating your chain of logic to those who would like to examine your claims) IS intellectually dishonest. It’s hard to think that someone who writes as much on the topic as Dershowitz didn’t know that the book existed, and hadn’t been familiar with it’s claims, and yet still magically comes up with the same information that said book presents, but in an entirely separated context. It just doesn’t seem like an honest mistake to me.

  10. I just want to share an experience of mine. On reviewing an article, I had doubts whether the author somehow ‘plagiarized’ some of my ‘academic efforts’. The author (Y) briefly reviewed the discussion on the topic of X, which happens to be my speciaty. In an earlier article that I published, I reviewed the development of the concept of X, citing and commenting on A, B, C, D’s (and more) works, and how they diverged. This takes about 2-3 pages. Y, in his article, mentioned that I had dealt with the topic of X, and then in a paragraph also reviewed A, B, C, D and giving almost same comments (a bit different wording). It really read like the abstract of my 3-page-literature-review section.

    A, B, C, D are interesting works on the topic of X, but they are not ‘logo references’ such as Foucault or Appadurai. They are good for a particular line of discussion only.

    Since I know Y personally, I kind of know that he probably knew those references from my work. I have no idea whether he had really read those literatures since he only drop a few words on each or just listed the references. There should be no problem if he learnt their sources from me and digested them himself. However, the whole paragraph reads like it was he who organized those literatures in that order and under a certain conceptual framework, while in fact I had done so earlier and he read it.

    I think there is a gray area here. Yes he had mentioned my article, but he did not mention that the review of ABCD on the topic of X was also my idea (in that same article), or at least he agreed with me. I had spent a few months searching, sorting and reading those materials to come up with my own way of making sense the intellectual development on topic X. Seeing that I was not properly acknowled on that part of academic effort was not a pleasant experience.

  11. i’m wondering about the construction of ownership and authorship in ‘academic labor’, ‘academic work’, ‘intellectual labor’, etc. I’m thinking that these constructs tend not to recognize the wholeness of the body of knowledge from which the ‘product’ is derived. This inability to recognize the broader communities of knowledge, traditions and fields as citable is what I think lends to the confusion of the role of citation. We want to give people credit for their ideas, attribution, but when we discover those ideas in reference in secondary and tertiary forms, participating uncited in a wide variety of discourses, with origins that are clouded in the mist of time, we have no appropriate tools. Now as background and common knowledge, which we do not attribute ownership or authorship to, confronts citable knowledge, we have to admit that there is a mutual informing of each category, that they exist within a space of flows, and that the as ted nelson says, they intertwingle, there should be real problems with the idea of ‘academic labor’, or at least any construction of ‘academic labor’ that constitutes any sense of originality outside of composition. The ideas, the thoughts, that some people present as evidence of plagiarism seem much like the labor of the discovery, then the labor of the conversation. It seems to reify a construction of the author that i don’t think should be reified as it implies a sense of moral rights and property rights which i do not think exist outside of composition and publication. In short, I think we should resist the idea that one can take someone’s academic labor, ideas or thoughts. I think we should consider much more deeply the intersubjectivity and distributed discursive fields that people exist within when we think about these concepts and how they relate to plagiarism. Plagiarism after all is a claim about property and the right to publish, it is about the ownership of the work. I worry that ownership is not as tightly bound when we talk about ideas and thoughts, and that really it shouldn’t be bound much at all in those contexts, while in composition, i can clearly see ownership.

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