The academy is filled with wonder. There are professors who cannot teach. There are associate professors who cannot write. There are tenured academics who have been promoted on the basis of being able to be the fourth author on all their papers, able to put and patch together an abstract and jot down a signature. And there are those tagging types, the sort that come to the intellectual show once it has been played, attaching their names to a monograph they have never written. All make sure about one thing: to spell their name correctly and hail the merits of the work.
Amidst this jumble of derivative junk are those who take things just that bit far. They lift papers wholesale. They market data and results with astonishing confidence. They also run the same paper, if only slightly adjusted, in multiple fora. This is confidence tricksterism at its highest, a defiant scoff at convention. But in some ways, it is also a celebration of it, a push-the-envelope mentality that is invariably given that sense of complicity. These are offences that take place in plain sight and are questioned even less for that fact. (The academic mind resists the obvious, preferring the vague to that of the profound.)
Such was the case with an academic at Melbourne’s Swinburne University. Dr. Ali Nazari of the university’s School of Engineering faced a true flood of retractions by scientific journals during the course of the year. In 2017, Nazari was feted by Swinburne University Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson. He had been a golden boy, commended for research excellence and heaving under the weight of a million dollars in research funding from the Australian Research Council. Both the Vice-Chancellor, and the ARC, have played their not-so-small parts in this tawdry episode.
But most damnably of all are the journals themselves, whose editors were evidently asleep at the wheel when it came to the peer review process. The academic journal publisher SAGE took the somewhat dramatic step of issuing a retraction notice for 22 articles published in the International Journal of Damage Mechanics and Journal of Composite Materials. It was found that certain articles contained “significant overlap with previously published articles by at least one of the authors listed”. Another retraction notice claimed that Nazari had duplicated his work as many as 70 times. The number of papers caught up in this may number 188.
As always, an accepted hypocrisy in such cases is perpetrated. Students are not permitted to get away with it. Each semester or term is filled with the curt warning, the formal placing in week one in course guides, that plagiarism is the big misdemeanour. They are not permitted to recycle and run their same papers in other subjects. (Some, of course, do, and some even get away with it.) Universities prefer to apply a different a set of big boy and girl standards to those who are rather cavalier with the material (or, as is tediously called in some circles, the data).
Plagiarism is the postmodernist’s celebrated child. It involves doing away with author and ownership, killing both. Jacques Derrida himself toyed with it (well, wrestled with it), suggesting that a work is never really yours – at least exclusively. Your corpus is a compound of what has come before, not merely building on shoulders but merging with them. Jean-François Lyotard dreamt of “a book with no title or authorship”, though admitting to its naïve sense.
Their legacy persists with stubbornness. “No concept is truly unique,” claim Mike Reddy and Victoria Jones tritely, “and all ideas are created in the context of the society and culture in which they are engendered. Therefore, there cannot be any true ownership, or indeed theft, of these artefacts as they are an integral part of the environment that learning is taking place within.” This rather lazy reasoning ignores the point that plagiarism is very much a matter of power, and its misuse. Far from acknowledging the commonness of ideas that is part of a corpus or a body of knowledge, it suggests a special entitlement to it. The plagiarist is a poacher, and conceals that fact.
And it happens to the best, the worst, and the most mediocre. Slavoj Žižek, for an essay in Critical Inquiry, lifted “an extended passage” from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. That passage, it so happened, had originally found a home in a white supremacist magazine. The editors were apologetic. Žižek recalled the ease with which texts can be easily replicated without seeming attribution. He had been writing the text on Derrida, containing “the problematic passages” when he received word from a friend about Kevin Macdonald’s theories. A brief resume was requested. “The friend sent it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought.” Blame the friend: sloppiness came on that side of it, and Žižek, rather than apologising for himself, was doing so for the one who put him in the fix. Perhaps the Slovenian thinker should have stuck to plagiarising himself.
In the sciences, the issue might be considered less problematic. The field is populated by thieves, made all the more easier by multi-authorship, laboratories and the problems of the big professorial bully. This also encourages mass production, and imitation. Researchers desperate to make a way in their fields also find their name vanquished to lower tiers as they bask in the exaggerated glory of the God Academic. All hail the maximiser of the minimal.
But this is slightly different to the individual who happily duplicates and replicates material that has been done before and runs it persistently even as the cash flows in. They remain the mass production people, those who have discovered that the academy can, at points, be open to the same piece, or the same set of items, reproduced ad infinitum. This is an ugly form of plagiarism, and Nazari might count himself unlucky that he was found out.
No university has been spared the instances of another Nazari moment, but many refuse to act on this. It took an academic publisher, the faces of its employees and journal editors egged, to make a move that may have some repercussions. Knowing the away the academy works, these are bound to few and slow.
So, suggestions to future academic plagiarists seeking to avoid being Nazarified: It is not just slicing the salami that counts, but how you do so. Be derivative, be banal and unvaried. Dress your work up as the new. If you stick to those rules, you will be playing an acceptable game. A brazen replication of material you have done before is permissible but must be undertaken with caution. At the very least, change the title of your paper.