Thursday,24 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Thursday,24 August, 2017
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The problem of plagiarism

Plagiarism in academic life has reached staggering proportions, but not all of it is a bad thing, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Some six months ago, I spent five hours with two prominent Egyptian intellectuals, one of them being the best translator I know. Usually, we exchange ideas and gossip, but this time the whole evening was dedicated to plagiarism.

They focused on Egyptians plagiarising foreigners. The number of cases evoked was staggering. With the proliferation of academic publications and the standardisation of academic writing, it is very easy to steal a paper published in a language an individual is not supposed to know, such as German or Russian. However, the translator in this case spoke many languages and had tracked publications in Arabic.

Plagiarism is not only an Egyptian plague. Egyptians and Arab intellectuals are also victims of it. Hurried Western academics may know, for instance, that a certain Arab intellectual does not speak their language, or does not read Western literature. Therefore, they can extensively borrow from his research published in Arabic.

However distasteful, this borrowing at least looks intelligent, especially if the individual concerned is working on a country that is not the focus of international attention. The probability of being caught is weak. Moreover, those who discover such plagiarism have nothing to gain in exposing it.

What is truly stupid, and therefore less frequent, is stealing a paper written in the same language. In France, I know at least two striking cases of this, however. In the first, which occurred in the early 1980s, the victim was the then young academic Gilles Kepel. The second was much more recent, and as far as I know it has not yet surfaced. The plagiariser in this case was a prominent scholar and the daughter of an important intellectual. Of course, we also have similar cases in Egypt.

There have been funny cases of plagiarism. In France, a public figure has a kind of obligation to write a smart book from time to time. More often than not, he does not have the time for research, so he hires someone else to write the book for him, or at least a first draft of it. If the ghost-writer is not happy with his boss, or if he simply has no morals, he may be tempted to plagiarise, meaning that his boss will be trapped and will have to take the blame for it.

Of course this means that many books attributed to well-known authors were actually written, at least in part, by somebody else. In addition, sometimes this “somebody else” could himself be a prominent figure. Those who gossip about it may feel important as a result of knowing who in fact wrote the book, and they may then broadcast this knowledge.

A slightly different practice goes like this: a professor has an ambitious intellectual project, the research for which he cannot do himself. Therefore, he mobilises his students, instructing them to write Masters theses, or similar things that will never be published, on one of the topics in one of his next books. He then heavily “borrows” from his students’ work. He may, or may not, quote them directly, though a surprising number do in fact choose the latter option.

Some are smart enough to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket, and they will give the same subject (or similar ones) to two different students. However, many are not, and sometimes the result is a disaster if the student completely mishandles the topic, with the teacher then being unable to detect mistakes. This phenomenon explains why some chapters in some books are brilliant and innovative, and others are astonishingly stupid. It also explains why in some books the same phenomenon or idea is explored over and over again. In order to avoid repetition, the professor in question may attribute an idea to a “preferred” student, thereby opting for an imperfect book.

Many students consider this state of affairs to be a fair deal, if the professor then recruits them later on or helps them to find a job. Most complain to colleagues or other scholars, with a mixture of disgust and pride, but they do not protest. The ones who do are taking considerable risks.

All this is clear enough. But there are also other cases in which a scholar “borrows” an idea expressed by a colleague or a student during a discussion without quoting him. This occurs frequently, especially when a foreigner meets local researchers. He tends to consider these as “sources”, not as colleagues, and as a result Egyptian and Arab scholars often complain about this state of affairs, seeing anyone travelling abroad for study as potentially “guilty” of plagiarism.

The “borrowers” say that unpublished ideas do not belong to anybody in particular, adding that they are the ones who have developed the initial intuition, turning it into a concept, and thus their modifications are the most valuable part of it. This may or may not be true. In any case, many scholars stop talking to identified borrowers, though personally I do not think this is a good choice. A better approach would be to quickly publish the same idea themselves. I myself want to disseminate most of my ideas quickly, so I do not mind doing this.

I should add that not all borrowers are ill-intentioned. The circulation of ideas is a mysterious thing, and dialogue with colleagues is often necessary. I usually quote my interlocutors, both for ethical reasons and for practical ones: when somebody knows you quote those who inspire you, therefore paying tribute to them, they talk more freely, and I am keen on this.

But sometimes you may sadly discover that you have unwittingly forgotten to quote someone who inspired you. I can give two or three examples from my own experience. A senior French civil servant once summed up his experience by saying that if you want an efficient police force, you should pay decent wages and exert strict control. If you are unable to do this, forget about efficiency as all other solutions are simply expedients. This insight oriented my own research, but I am afraid I never quoted him, though in any case he would probably not have wanted me to do so.

Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, one of my main ideas on this group stems from a discussion with Mustafa Khayati, a well-known Tunisian scholar who has read almost all the relevant books and is able to accurately sum up their contents. I discovered with some horror that I had not quoted Khayati in the first two papers I wrote on this subject, and I hastened to repair this, seeing it as a lesson in modesty and tolerance.

There is no academic life without serious discussion and the exchange of ideas. So those who decide to keep their mouths shut are wrong. However, a more general effort to recognise the contributions of others would be welcome for both ethical and practical reasons. When you quote them, people talk to you.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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