Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More confusion on plagiarism: The case of Johann Hari

If you were to read the right-wing papers in the UK you'd think Johann Hari (a high-profile left-wing columnist at the Independent newspaper who has also published for Slate and other outlets) had committed a terrible terrible crime. Not unexpectedly his enemies, of which there are surprisingly many, want to see his head (well, they want to see him fired). The plagiarism charge is currently being leveled against Hari all over the place.

What makes this an interesting case is the nature of his transgression. Hari admitted essentially to using content as part of interviews that was not part of the actual interview in question. Say, he interviewed Hugo Chavez. Hari would include in the interview quotes from sources other than what was said during the interview (but the quotes were nonetheless verbatim quote from the person he interviewed, it's just that the stuff wasn't actually said during the interview but was published elsewhere by someone else).

What is interesting here is that by standard definitions of plagiarism he has not actually plagiarised anything. After all, he didn't pass someone else's content off as his own. The people he quoted during the interview really said the things he quoted, but they did not say it during he interview. It would have been correct and arguably required to give the other interviewer credit (ie the person who got the quote he eventually quoted as if it had been said during his own interview).

What Hari did is no doubt a bit dodgy, but does it really constitute plagiarism? Clearly not, because the intellectual content was corrected ascribed to whoever was quoted. However, he should have given credit to the person who managed to get the quote in question from the subject of the interview.

Did Hari commit a capital crime here? I don't think so. One understands the campaign run by the right-wing media against an unloved left-wing commentator and competitor, but to my mind it's time to move on. Hari admitted his errors, promised to change his ways. That should be the end of it. Plagiarism  he did clearly not commit.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


The journals
We got our annual report from our publisher a few days ago. Much of the stuff there is confidential, of course (and would likely bore you, too). However, there's bits and pieces of statistics that you might find interesting. In case you don't know the journals, or don't know them well, Bioethics is now in its 25th year of existence. It publishes 9 issues per calendar year. Developing World Bioethics is now in its 11th year of existence. It publishes 3 issues per calendar year. The journals come in a package, so what it boils down to is a monthly publication schedule. Bioethics is also the official publication of the International Association of Bioethics. This essentially entails us publishing every two years a special issue with the best contents form the IAB Congress, as well as us offering deeply discounted subscriptions to paid-up members of the IAB. We continue to sponsor events held during the IAB Congress every two years. Recently we have also provided sponsorship to a postgraduate bioethics conference held in the UK.

Our reach and academic success
We have been able to increase the reach of both journals quite significantly in 2010. The journals are available in about 3,500 university libraries by regular subscriptions. A further 6,000 libraries in developing countries have access to the journal at this point in time. I should like to add that this - to my mind - puts to rest claims about the unavailability of our academic content in the developing world due to high subscription fees. A further 5,200 libraries worldwide are able to access our content a year after it has been published.  So, in total, slightly less than 15,000 libraries across the globe provide access to our content.

This wide availability has also resulted in another significant boost to article downloads from our journals. In total about 250,000 articles from both journals were downloaded in 2010.

The European Science Foundation has given Bioethics the highest ranking available in the philosophy category.

Our upcoming content
Ruth Chadwick, Bioethics' other Editor, and I have lined up a whole range of interesting special issues over the next few years, covering topics all the way from synthetic organisms to ageing.  In case you're one of our readers, give us a shout with suggestions for special issue topics. We are always keen to hear from you!

Publication ethics
On the publication ethics fronts, we have introduced extensive regulations on authorship and conflict of interest matters that we hope will keep us out of the firing line on these issues for the foreseeable future.

Editorial board, bias and peer review
Last but not least, following our most recent review, invitations will be going out to a few academics to join our Editorial Board. Funny enough, that should also put to rest any suspicions that you might have with regard to editorial bias. Of the new members on the Editorial Board of the journal two are colleagues with whom I had quite serious professional conflict in the distant and in the very recent past, respectively. None of that made any difference to our decision to appoint to our Editorial Board. What matters crucially are competence and reliability. Reliability of reviewers is becoming sadly an ever bigger challenge. You would expect that academics who themselves publish academic contents in academic journals would be willing to review colleagues' academic content (the golden rule and all that jazz). The truth is though that that is becoming ever more difficult. All too often the most experienced peer reviewers decline and editors have to move lower down the list of experienced and knowledgable academics. The same authors, in other words, who would be all too keen to have their paper reviewed by a top academic like themselves are all too often not prepared to provide a similar courtesy in return when they are being asked to review academic content. This is quite disappointing, but equally, until university administrations and research funders give credit to academics for providing such services to the academic community, it is understandable that individual academics vote for working on their own paper rather than reviewing someone else's paper. All I can say is that some academics are paradigms of how a professional should act in this context and others are paradigms of the how-not-to. The former probably do not know how grateful we really are to them, as journal editors, for their services.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Beware of Priceline's unethical business practices

Eish, the last few weeks have been an ongoing travel nightmare. I'm glad it's over for a while. 2 days ago I had to quickly book a hotel for a night in Toronto (while on the train on my way back from another journey). Like so many people I went to check out Hotwire and Priceline prices. For better or worse Priceline seemed (sic!) to offer a better deal on this occasion. That is, until I saw my booking. Let's leave for a moment their 20% taxes and charges. A very serious transgression is their underhanded selling of add-on products one does not want. Most of these sites when you think you've finally sorted out your booking prevent you from simply paying by forcing you to go through one or two pages of travel related goods and services that you usually neither need nor want to look at. That in its own right is bad enough but you can discount it as bad marketing efforts (as they annoy customers).

Princeline, however, has gone to unethical length here. They sneak default add-on purchases into your booking. So, when you finally see your confirmed booking (that they cleverly prohibit you from changing in any respect), you will see that they sneaked a travel insurance into your booking. It is a booking that you never pro-actively made and that almost certainly you did not want. They know that, of course, so among their other offers (where you have to click in order to book/buy), on the insurance occasion you have to un-click. It's easy to miss (they literally bank on this), and cleverly you only see the charge when your complete booking has been made and can't be changed.

The danger, in terms of permitting Priceline to get away with this is, of course that nothing would in the future prevent them from selling you other crap (unless you unclick purchases you have not even made!), After all, why not sell you a sex worker for the night (oops, you forgot to unclick, well tough...), or a bunch of roses delivered to your hotel room, toothpaste and the list truly is infinite.

So, my advice to anyone reading this is to stop doing business with Priceline until they revert to a policy where you proactively choose what you want to purchase as opposed to underhanded selling tactics designed to confuse you into purchasing stuff you never needed and certainly did not want to purchase. At this point in time this once reputable company operates like a bunch of crooks.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Self-Plagiarism - a misnomer if there ever was one

If you browse documents on academic misconduct you'll bump sooner or later into the term 'self-plagiarism'. Students in many universities are threatened with sanctions if they submit plagiarized as well as self-plagiarized content in seminar papers.

I take issue with this. There is no such thing as self-plagiarism. It's a misnomer. Plagiarism's defining feature is that it involves the theft of someone else's intellectual content and the attempt to pass off this intellectual content as one's own. So, I steal someone else's content and claim it is my own intellectual, creative contribution in a paper or some other medium.

What goes for self-plagiarism is nothing of that sort. I use my own content and recycle it in another paper I produce. This might involve using text blocks from an older paper in the new paper without referencing the text as such. Or it might involve the rewriting of text from an older paper in a new manuscript.

Now, because there is no theft of intellectual property involved, calling this plagiarism seems wrong to me. It also seems to me as if such behavior is not necessarily wrong. Let me give you a couple of examples. Say I invent a new method in genetics research and I re-use it time and again. Is it really wrong to copy-paste the description of my method in the method section of paper I produce? I doubt it. Equally, thinking about my own field. Say I got famous for having said something remarkable about the ethics of human enhancement. Obviously, I will be invited by textbook authors, journal editors, encyclopedia producers and whatnot to write my argument afresh for them. Is acceding to those requests really wrong? I doubt it. I might also be asked to reproduce my argument/analysis for a different audience (say a different language journal or a different audience comprised of readers of a specialist journal etc). Would it really be wrong to re-use content from an older paper I wrote without diligently referencing every single line of my own analysis? I doubt it. I also think that if you believe you have a really good idea, you'd aim to promote it, instead of burying it in one paper that might be missed by the community you hope to reach with your analysis.

Where what is called mistakenly self-plagiarism is wrong is:
1) when students are required to write an original piece for a seminar and it is made explicit by the teacher that they must not use content they produced earlier. The 'crime' here would lie in the violation of the rule though, and not in the renewed use of one's own intellectual material.
2) when the same argument is published in different journals with similar target audiences.  Doing this gives the mistaken impression that there's a deluge of interest in your particular analysis, while other content is prevented from getting published. Current guidelines tend to see this as a breach of etiquette rather than a capital crime (in publishing ethics terms).
3) more difficult is it when people re-use their content in multiple papers and then add it to their CVs. This is so, because these CVs are used to attract research funding (ie impress review committees), get promotions and stuff like that. I see this as more difficult, because more often than not, only bits and pieces of content are recycled. It's rarely the whole shebang published earlier. My view would be that the onus should be on the reviewers to ascertain the originality or lack thereof of papers listed on CVs. Alternatively, academics could be required to state per paper/book listed on their CVs to what extent the individual publications constitute original contributions. In any case, the violation here is not related to the integrity of the academic content but to do with other matters altogether.

My view would be that we should do away with the general term of 'self-plagiarism', because it is a misnomer, and that instead we should describe more carefully under what circumstances the recycling of one's own intellectual content is ethically problematic.  I hope to have shown that what is called today self-plagiarism is not at all always wrong, but that it can be wrong under certain circumstances.

I should stress what is true for everything posted on this blog, this is my personal view on this matter, no more, no less. 

Any comments?