Citation crimes and misdemeanors

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Terry Provost wrote to express interest in the topic of "citation plagiarism", linking to a couple of Bill Poser's LLOG posts ("Citation plagiarism", 6/15/2007; "Citation Plagiarism Once Again", 4/23/2008), and noting that "yours was one of very few mentions of the topic I found". Provost points to a somewhat more recent article on a related topic (Charlie Tyson, "Academic Urban Legends", Inside Higher Ed 8/6/2014), and added "Bottom line, I think the subject is quite important, as concerns things like the Jick letter, NEJM".

That's a reference to a letter reporting only four cases of addiction in 11,882 hospital patients who were given narcotics: Jane Porter and Hershel Jick, "Addiction rare in patients treated with narcotics", New England Journal of Medicine 1980. The idea seems to be that a harmful conclusion was spread by people who cited the letter without considering its content — see Taylor Haney, "Doctor Who Wrote 1980 Letter On Painkillers Regrets That It Fed The Opioid Crisis", NPR 6/16/2017.

I'm following up on this note because Bill Poser's old LLOG post no longer accepts comments, and so Terry Provost added his remarks as a comment on a randomly selected recent article, which is something we discourage. This new post gives Mr. Provost a chance to say his piece. (The reason for closing comments on old articles is that we were logging about 10,000 spam comments per day, before we closed comments on posts more than a couple of weeks old. We still get plenty of spam comments, but the number is more manageable, since there are fewer targets. )

While we're here, let me suggest that there are at least three kinds of crimes and misdemeanors to be found in academic citations.

First, there's something that almost everyone does, like driving 65 or 70 mph on a limited-access highway where the speed limit is 55. In cases of this kind, a work is known to be the source of a common technique or result, and is therefore often cited, athough many of the people who cite it haven't actually read it. For example, the idea of "i-vectors" for speaker recognition (and some other speech technology applications) was introduced in Najim Dehak et al., "Front-End Factor Analysis For Speaker Verification", IEEE Transactions on Audio, Speech and Language Processing 2011. I-vectors are a simple, effective, and novel idea, and so this paper has been cited 1,846 times.  Because there are several i-vector tutorials, open-source software packages, etc., it's not necessary to read the original paper in order to understand the concept — but it's still appropriate to cite it, in order to give credit where credit is due. And many of the people who cite it will have learned about it in the bibliographies of other sources that they may not choose to cite.

I agree with Bill Poser that this is not plagiarism at all, and in most cases is not an ethical lapse of any kind — except that the habit of citing sources you haven't checked can lead to a second type of citation offense that's ethically more problematic, namely the "academic urban legend" situation. Here an invalid conclusion or false claim of fact is attributed to a source that doesn't in fact support it, or may even not exist, and the resulting citation is then replicated by others who don't bother to check the original.  This process is very common in popular books and in journalism, but it does also happen in academic writing. For one extensively documented example, see "An invented statistic returns", 2/22/2013, and the other posts and sources linked therein.

This sort of thing typically gets started when someone makes an authoritative-sounding claim that feeds into a popular stereotype or other memetic amplifier, allegedly supported by a complex and somewhat obscure article that has little or nothing to do with the claimed conclusion. Then others may support the claim by citing the false citation, or the innocent cited article, and off we go. For some other examples, see "Sex and speaking rate", 8/7/2006;"Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008; "Innate sex differences: science and public opinion", 6/20/2008.

In those examples, the memetic amplifier is popular interest in sex and gender differences — similar things are common in other nature/nurture arguments, especially with respect to race. But similar things also happen on a smaller scale in other, less fraught areas.

Finally, there are episodes that really do amount to a kind of plagiarism. My comment on Bill Poser's 2008 post:

There are related cases that are more troubling, and where the history can be reconstructed. Say A writes an obscure (even unpublished) paper, drawing important conclusions based on (properly cited) data drawn from B. Then C publishes, more prominently, similar conclusions citing the same data drawn from B, without citing A either as the source of the data or the source of the idea. But C's presentation of the data contains a scribal error — say a couple of transposed letters or digits — exactly matching an error found in A.

I've been told about one real case with exactly this structure. I know of several others where the tell-tale scribal error is missing, but the apparent exaggeration of originality remains. I grant that there's a long, gradual slope between this and the natural and inevitable diffusion of ideas.

And in my opinion the ethical lapse is similar in cases where the original insight was communicated verbally, and is then published as original with no acknowledgement.

Update — Another layer of complication is added by translation. Nietzsche is often quoted in English as referring to "the prison-house of language", most famously in Frederic Jameson's book The Prison-house of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. The whole epigram is typically given as

We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language; for we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we see is really a limit.

But David Lovekin explains (Technique, Discourse, and Consciousness: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jacques Ellul, 1991) that the prison-house metaphor was entirely invented in (generally uncited) translation:

I have discovered, however, that Jameson's quotation is taken from Erich Heller's essay "Wittgenstein and Nietzsche" in which Heller provides a quite loose and poetic translation of Nietzsche's actual words from Der Wille zur Macht that state: "Wir hören auf zu denken wenn wir es nicht in dem sprachichen Zwange thun wollen, wir langen gerade noch bei dem Zweifel an, hier eine Granze als Grenze zu sehn." Here, Nietzsche literally says: "We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language; we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation." Heller has made a metaphor out of Zwange, constraint. Jameson has, apparently, copied Heller's translation without indicated the metaphor's origins (perhaps without knowing these origins). And literary critics have slavishly referred to the importance of this notion — the prison-house of language — with no sense of context or limitation. Jameson thereby adds force to the notion of the academic assembly line by example in its reduction of language to arbitrary nonreferential expression.



  1. arthur waldron said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

    Father LaDany was a major victim at Harvard in my time, thirty years ago. If you so much as acknowledged the existence of such a rightly guided caliph (or as they would have thought, wrongly) let alone spoke is name or–horrors! –visited him, your Friend of China Medal lost its mana..

    But time to write a term paper on something? The good Jesuit's footnotes were a G-d-send!!

    Now of course he has turned out to have been completely right, but that was all a very long time ago.


  2. boynamedsue said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    Articles on the topic of the early modern mediterranean Romance pidgin known as Lingua Franca almost always cite:

    WANSBROUGH, J.E., Lingua Franca in the Mediterranean, Surrey, Curzon Press, 1996.

    This book largely concentrates on the historical succession of Mediterranean lingua francas, in the sense that English is a lingua franca today. There is no mention at all of the Pidgin known as Lingua Franca or Sabir. I sometimes wonder if anyone else ever bothered to look at it.

  3. ohwilleke said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

    Multiple variants of this appear on one joke from a page of math jokes:

    Proof Methods:

    Proof by vigorous handwaving:
    Works well in a classroom or seminar setting.

    Proof by forward reference:
    Reference is usually to a forthcoming paper of the author, which is often not as forthcoming as at first.

    Proof by funding:
    How could three different government agencies be wrong?

    Proof by example:
    The author gives only the case n = 2 and suggests that it contains most of the ideas of the general proof.

    Proof by omission:
    "The reader may easily supply the details" or "The other 253 cases are analogous"

    Proof by deferral:
    "We'll prove this later in the course".

    Proof by picture:
    A more convincing form of proof by example. Combines well with proof by omission.

    Proof by intimidation:

    Proof by adverb:
    "As is quite clear, the elementary aforementioned statement is obviously valid."

    Proof by seduction:
    "Convince yourself that this is true!"

    Proof by cumbersome notation:
    Best done with access to at least four alphabets and special symbols.

    Proof by exhaustion:
    An issue or two of a journal devoted to your proof is useful.

    Proof by obfuscation:
    A long plotless sequence of true and/or meaningless syntactically related statements.

    Proof by wishful citation:
    The author cites the negation, converse, or generalization of a theorem from the literature to support his claims.

    Proof by eminent authority:
    "I saw Karp in the elevator and he said it was probably NP-complete."

    Proof by personal communication:
    "Eight-dimensional colored cycle stripping is NP-complete [Karp, personal communication]."

    Proof by reduction to the wrong problem:
    "To see that infinite-dimensional colored cycle stripping is decidable, we reduce it to the halting problem."

    Proof by reference to inaccessible literature:
    The author cites a simple corollary of a theorem to be found in a privately circulated memoir of the Slovenian Philological Society, 1883.

    Proof by importance:
    A large body of useful consequences all follow from the proposition in question.

    Proof by accumulated evidence:
    Long and diligent search has not revealed a counterexample.

    Proof by cosmology:
    The negation of the proposition is unimaginable or meaningless. Popular for proofs of the existence of God.

    Proof by mutual reference:
    In reference A, Theorem 5 is said to follow from Theorem 3 in reference B, which is shown to follow from Corollary 6.2 in reference C, which is an easy consequence of Theorem 5 in reference A.

    Proof by metaproof:
    A method is given to construct the desired proof. The correctness of the method is proved by any of these techniques.

    Proof by vehement assertion:
    It is useful to have some kind of authority relation to the audience.

    Proof by ghost reference:
    Nothing even remotely resembling the cited theorem appears in the reference given.

    Proof by semantic shift:
    Some of the standard but inconvenient definitions are changed for the statement of the result.

    Proof by appeal to intuition:
    Cloud-shaped drawings frequently help here.

  4. Ian Myles Slater said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    "Articles on the topic of the early modern mediterranean Romance pidgin known as Lingua Franca almost always cite: ….."

    Back in the 1970s, I saw John A. Wilson's "The Burden of Egypt," of 1951, cited in a chapter bibliography of a textbook on the Middle East from the appearance of Islam. From the subject of the chapter, the compiler apparently thought that the title must be about European imperialism in Egypt — and no one challenged it.

    The title comes from the KJV of Isaiah 19:1, and means, in modern English something more like "the message concerning Egypt." (This passage serves as an epigraph to the book in question.)

    The full title is "The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture." The short title may have been opaque to many other readers, as the University of Chicago Press altered the title of their 1956 paperback to "The Culture of Ancient Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture," assuring clarity at the cost of redundancy.

    Both titles (along with very much else) are now offered as free PDFS by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. There a few small differences in the front-matter of the two versions.

    Oh well, under either title its a good book.

    (Sorry, I no longer have the textbook, and I can't cite it from memory.)

  5. D-AW said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

    There's a related problem in Humanities disciplines, which arises when A wants to quote a passage by B which A (first) read in C. I normally cite only B, unless there is a good reason to use the "B, quoted in C" form (e.g. B is hard to get ahold of, or A is taking issue with C's use of B) but I know some graduate students are taught always to use "quoted in C," I guess to avoid giving the impression that they have read more than they actually have (even if they have gone back to read B, as they should).

  6. Jonathan said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    Just recently I came across the word 'apud' being used for exactly the situation described by @D-AW. It was in a paper by a historian from Oxford. I'd never seen it before, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm not a historian, because I'm not an academic, or because I'm not from England.

  7. Ryan said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

    As an undergraduate student in ecology, I remember writing a paper on global warming and realizing that there was one article that was cited constantly about the detrimental effect that global warming is having on one particular species. I finally tracked down that particular article and was shocked to find that the conclusion of the article was that in this particular species, there was no evidence that it was being affected by global warming. As someone who wholeheartedly believes in the threat that global warming causes, it annoys me that there could be such a widespread lack of rigor, even (or especially?) if that lack of rigor leads to a widespread belief that feeds into the greater narrative.

  8. Nick Z said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    @ Jonathan: I use apud in just this way. But I'm an Oxford-educated classicist, so don't provide much variation in attestation

  9. Martha said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    Yeah, in grad school, I was taught to do just what D-AW describes, other than to cite B if you did go and find B. It's surprising to me that doing otherwise is even a thing, maybe because no one ever indicated that using "as quoted in C" would make us look bad. If anything, it's more ass-covering to do it that way, especially in the event that C didn't know what they were talking about.

  10. Alan Taylor Farnes said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

    As for #3, how do we cite an unpub source? If you received the idea from someone else but produced evidence yourself, how to cite unpublished source? Seems like it would look unprofessional to say, "so and so [not a prominent scholar] mentioned to me in personal conversation the idea that…" I've then produced evidence of my own of this claim but I got the idea from someone else. How to cite?

    [(myl) The usual thing is "Kim Miller ms. 2015" (for manuscript — and these days it might well be on arXiv or in some other repository), or "Leslie Fields (personal communication)". In some forms of publication, a more complete explanation can be given in the acknowledgements.]

  11. AntC said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

    Jameson's quotation is taken from Erich Heller's essay "Wittgenstein and Nietzsche" in which Heller provides a quite loose and poetic translation …

    Writing in English about two famously gnomic, contradictory and contrarian Philosophers; whose thought is ineluctibly tied up in German?! That seems like positively begging to be misunderstood.

    (Part of the difficulty of undertsanding Wittgenstein at all, is that the most commonly available translations of his works are by people from completely other Philisophical Traditions.)

  12. Sean M said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 2:34 am

    When I am feeling squeamish, I find =non vidi= and =non legi= to be useful phrases for footnotes; so is "The forthcoming $type_of_work by $someone_i_admire_or_fear will also address this topic."

    One common issue is when giving a list of previous work on a topic. If you don't read, say, Russian, do you leave out the work in Russian which seems to have been very influential?

    See also: Akira Kobayashi, "Arrogant Quotations from Reference Citations," Journal of Orthopaedic Science November 2007

  13. Michael Watts said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 3:16 am

    We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language; for we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we see is really a limit.

    And then:

    Here, Nietzsche literally says: "We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language; we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation." Heller has made a metaphor out of Zwange, constraint. Jameson has, apparently, copied Heller's translation without indicated the metaphor's origins (perhaps without knowing these origins).

    I find it much more worrying that, as far as I understand English, Jameson has inverted the meaning of the second clause. "We barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation [having to use language to think] as a limitation" would appear to indicate that most people do not perceive that a limitation exists. The difficult-to-reach doubt is the idea that, although most people do not perceive it, the limitation is nonetheless there.

    But "we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we see is really a limit" indicates that most people do perceive that a limit exists, and the difficult-to-reach doubt is the idea that, although you may perceive it, the limitation is nonetheless not there.

  14. AntC said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 9:14 am

    @Michael Watts [a translation has] inverted the meaning
    @myl the "academic urban legend" situation.

    You don't need something lost in translation to build an academic urban legend on inverted meaning:
    my gripe is with Political Economists/so-called Libertarians' total misinterpretation of Adam Smith, incl the Society named for him. They love to quote (highly selected) passages from The Wealth of Nations whilst completely ignoring its frequent references back to his foundation A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    The unseen hand of the market [says Smith] is only effective within the morality and strong governance established in the first book. In fact Smith is almost as much of an Interventionist as J.S.Mill — another champion claimed wrongly through the Libertarians' mis-reading.

  15. Bill Benzon said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    LOL! I love the update. Almost two weeks ago I put up a (longish) post with the title: Reply to a traditional critic about computational criticism: Or, It’s time to escape the prison-house of critical language [#DH]. I was deliberately using "prison-house" as an allusion to Jameson's very well-known book; it's the book that put him on the map. As my post title indicate, I'm arguing that ordinary lit crit discourse has become a conceptual prison-house and it's time to move on. That Jameson's use is somewhere between over-reaching and a mistake just compounds the irony.

  16. Smut Clyde said,

    September 11, 2017 @ 3:56 am

    "Always… no, no… never… forget to check your references." [Meredith, 1985].

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