Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Copy cat!! How 'bourgeois' we've become!

In the sad way that science has become ever more bourgeois, Nature, itself now largely a checkout- counter mag, has a feature editorial on plagiarism (p 435, 28 March 2019).  The author, Debora Weber-Wulff, seems to specialize in sleuthing academic verbal cheaters, as if it is a new profession in itself.  She goes over the various software developed to detect plagiarism in professional and student papers, and evaluates them and the detection problem itself.  Commercial, profiteering, competing software--more than one--to detect academic cheaters!

The commentary mentions strategies that authors use to get multiple pubs on the same subject, and even seems to suggest that publishing an article from or part of your doctoral dissertation is a kind of plagiarism (who in recent memory has searched for or found, much less read doctoral theses after the defense?).

And now, the most bourgeois thing of all, in my opinion, is that there are conferences on academic integrity, and even they have their own plagiarism as the author relates!  And as part of the new class system even in esoteric academia, she notes that those that were detected were "demoted" to mere posters.  Surely I've mis-read this commentary.  Surely!

Somehow, this seems just another routine story about academic life.  Since it's basically gossipy, it takes place of honor in Nature.  It's a kind of 'how-it's-done' review, as if cheating was as common as, say, making espresso.  Can you imagine that such a thing would largely have been unthought of not many decades ago?  It's true.  I was there (and I didn't plagiarize!).

There must always have been some plagiarism, since there are always rogues.  There have long been rewards to publish much the same paper in several different places, to reach different audiences in the days before web-searching.  But it was likely much easier to detect real plagiarism, which was doubtlessly far less prevalent in the old days.  At least that was my experience in my particular old days.  There was no need for competing companies to profiteer by selling plagiarism-detecting programs!  That almost institutionalizes cheating as a cat-and-mouse part of modern careerism, and a commentary like Weber-Wulff's that describes plagiaristic ploys almost helps one do it!

One, if not the main, reason for this situation is that far less was being published, less often, in fewer journals, and by far fewer players in a given academic arena.  The players were much better known to each other, far fewer published more than an article now and then, and most readers knew the relevant literature (and each other). The pace was less.  The Malthusian academic overpopulation didn't exist, so the competition was less (even if there were of course Big Egos competing).  Publishers were mainly non-profit, careers less intensely grant-dependent (and grants were easier to get).  The competition was more about ideas and actual substantive impact, and far less about academic score-counting (citations, publication counts, impact factors).  Less pressure to survive, and less pressure to cheat.  No first-semester graduate seminars on 'grantsmanship'.

....and no need for Nature to  have a feature commentary on how to catch academic cheaters.

Just after this was posted, a commentary appeared in Nature on a major academic fraud case:

If we really want to encourage honor and honesty in science, we need to look not at the science but at the science culture, the money-driven, competitive, frenetic area--and Nature and its proliferating for-profit satellite publications is a culpable part of the problem.  We need to cool down the temperature of the research industry.  But to me that requires reducing the amount of selfish gain available--to investigators, journals, universities, equipment suppliers--the academic-industrial complex to pick up on Dwight Eisenhower's long-ago warning about military's similar excesses.

But where is the will to do this?

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