Archive for the 'Plagiarism' category

What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science?

Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wishes people would lay off of Jonah Lehrer. It's bad enough that people made a fuss last July about falsified quotes and plagiarism that caused Lehrer's publisher to recall his book Imagine and cost him a plum job at The New Yorker. Now people are crying foul that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a mea culpa that Lehrer's critics have not judged especially persuasive on the "lesson learned" front. Ulin thinks people ought to cut Lehrer some slack:

What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.

Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so.

Ulin apparently feels qualified to speak on behalf of all of us. In light of some of the eloquent posts from people who feel personally betrayed by Lehrer, I'd recommend that Ulin stick to "I-statements" when assessing the emotional fallout from Lehrer's journalistic misdeeds and more recent public relations blunder.

And, to be fair, earlier in Ulin's piece, he does speak for himself about Lehrer's books:

That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Probably Ulin wouldn't go to the mat to assert that what he learned from Imagine was what Bob Dylan actually said (since a fabricated Dylan quote was one of the smoking guns that revealed Lehrer's casual attitudes toward journalistic standards). Probably he'd say he learned something about the science Lehrer was describing in such engaging language.

Except, people who have been reading Lehrer's books carefully have noted that the scientific story he conveyed so engagingly was not always conveyed so accurately:

Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs. You can read my review and the various parts of my exchange with him that are linked above for detailed explanations of why I make this claim. Others have made similar points too, for example Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic and Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions. But the tenor of many critics last year was "he committed unforgivable journalistic sins and should be punished for them, but he still got the science right." There was a clear sense that one had nothing to do with the other.

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer -- like almost all successful science writers nowadays -- used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan's 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn't have been as smooth. It's human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer's science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

(Bold emphasis added.)

If this is the case -- that Lehrer was an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge -- did Ulin actually learn what he thought he learned from Lehrer's books? Or, was he misled by glib storytelling into thinking he understood what science might tell us about creativity, imagination, the workings of our own brains?

Maybe Ulin doesn't expect a book marketed as non-fiction popular science to live up to this standard, but a lot of us do. And, while lowering one's standards is one way to avoid feeling betrayed, it's not something I would have expected a professional book critic to advise readers to do.

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Limits of ethical recycling.

In the "Ethics in Science" course I regularly teach, we spend some time discussing case studies to explore some of the situations students may encounter in their scientific training or careers where they will want to be able to make good ethical decisions.

A couple of these cases touch on the question of "recycling" pieces of old grant proposals or journal articles -- say, the background and literature review.

There seem to be cases where the right thing to do is pretty straightforward. For example, helping yourself to the background section someone else had written for her own grant proposal would be wrong. This would amount to misappropriating someone else's words and ideas without her permission and without giving her credit. (Plagiarism anyone?) Plus, it would be weaseling out of one's own duty to actually read the relevant literature, develop a view about what it's saying, and communicate clearly why it matters in motivating the research being proposed.

Similarly, reusing one's own background section seems pretty clearly within the bounds of ethical behavior. You did the intellectual labor yourself, and especially in the case where you are revising and resubmitting your own proposal, there's no compelling reason for you to reinvent that particular wheel (unless, if course, reviewer comments indicate that the background section requires serious revision, the literature cited ought to take account of important recent developments that were missing in the first round, etc.).

Between these two extremes, my students happened upon a situation that seemed less clear-cut. How acceptable is it to recycle the background section (or experimental protocol, for that matter) from an old grant proposal you wrote in collaboration with someone else? Does it make a difference whether that old grant proposal was actually funded? Does it matter whether you are "more powerful" or "less powerful" (however you want to cash that out) within the collaboration? Does it require explicit permission from the person with whom you collaborated on the original proposal? Does it require clear citation of the intellectual contribution of the person with whom you collaborated on the original proposal, even if she is not officially a collaborator on the new proposal?

And, in your experience, does this kind of recycling make more sense than just sitting down and writing something new?

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First dispatch of the semester from the Cave of Grading.

Today, a brief video dispatch from the Cave of Grading.

First Plagiarism of Fall

I would have typed something, but I was afraid it would end up being a pastiche of frequently used paper comments, and that would just be confusing.

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When applicants for medical residencies plagiarize.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that plagiarism is a topic that comes up with some regularity, sometimes fueled by "kids today!" stories from the mainstream media, and sometimes due to actual research on plagiarism in different educational and professional spheres.

Today, let's have a look of a report of one such investigation, "Plagiarism in Residency Application Essays," published July 20, 2010 in Annals of Internal Medicine. The investigators looked at the personal statements applicants wrote (or, in some cases, "wrote") as part of their application to residency programs at Brigham and Women's hospital. As they describe their study:

The primary goals of this investigation were to estimate the prevalence of plagiarism in applicants’ personal statements at our institution and to determine the association of plagiarism with demographic, educational, and experience related characteristics of the applicants. (112)

The people applying to residency programs have already successfully completed medical school. The residency is an additional part of their training to help them prepare to practice a particular medical specialty. And, the personal statement is a standard part of what's involved in applying for a residency:

All applicants to U.S. residency programs must complete an original essay known as the “personal statement.” The format is free-form, the content is not specified, and expectations may vary by specialty. Common themes include the motivation for seeking training in a chosen specialty, the factors that affect suitability for a field or program, a critical incident that affected the applicant’s career choice, and circumstances that distinguish the applicant from others. (112)

There are some fairly commonsense reasons to expect that these personal statements ought to be original work, written by the applicant rather than copied from some other source. After all, the personal essay represents the applicant to the residency program, not as a transcript or a set of test scores but as a person. The essay gives insight into why the applicant is interested in a particular medical specialty, what training experiences and life experiences might bear on his or her motivation or likelihood of success, what kind of personal qualities he or she will bring to the table.

Also, since plagiarism is explicitly forbidden, these essays may give insight into the applicant's personal and academic integrity, or at least into his or her grasp of rudimentary rules of scholarship:

The ERAS [Electronic Residency Application Service] also warns applicants that “any substantiated findings of plagiarism may result in reporting of such findings to the programs to which [they] apply now and in the future”. Applicants must certify that work is accurate and original before an ERAS application is complete. (112)

In the study, the investigators performed an analysis of the personal statements in residency program applications to Brigham and Women's Hospital over an interval of about 18 months. They analyzed 4975 essays using software that compared them with a database that included previously submitted essays, published works, and Internet pages.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers defined evidence of plagiarism as a match of more than 10% of an essay to an existing work. Since the software was flagging matching strings of words between the essays and the sources in the database, this methodology may well have missed instances of plagiarism where the plagiarist changed a word here or there.

It's also worth noting that the authors point, in the Discussion section of the paper, to the following definition of plagiarism:

Plagiarism may be defined as “the action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft”. (114)

This definition seems (at least to my eye) to make intent an element of the crime. As we've discussed before, this requirement is by no means a standard part of the definition of plagiarism.

What did this research find? In the 4975 essays analyzed, they detected evidence of plagiarism (i.e., a match of more than 10%) in 5.2% of the essays, for an incidence of a little more than one plagiarized paper in 20. Rather than relying solely on the software analysis, the researchers examined the essays the software flagged for plagiarism to rule out false positives. (They found none.)

I'm not sure whether this frequency of plagiarism is unusually high (or unusually low). However, for a personal statement, I reckon this is higher than it should be. Again, what better source could there be for your personal statement than yourself? Still, we might want some data on the frequency of plagiarism in personal statements for other sorts of things to get a better sense of whether the results of this study indicate a special problem with people applying for medical residencies, or whether they reflect a basic human frailty of which people applying for medical residencies also partake.

The authors also report demographic trends that emerged in their results. They found a higher incidence of plagiarism among the applicants who were:

  • international (which included non-U.S. citizens and those who had attended medical school outside the U.S.)
  • older
  • fluent in languages other than English
  • applying for a residency with previous residency training under their belts

They found a lower incidence of plagiarism among the applicants who:

  • were members of Alpha Omega Alpha (a medical honor society)
  • had research experience
  • had volunteer experience
  • had higher scores on the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam Step 1

The authors offer no hypotheses about causal mechanisms that might account for these correlations, and it seems likely that more research is required to tease out the factors that might contribute to these demographic differences, not to mention strategies that might address them. (I'm guessing that the applicants with research experience and/or volunteer experience had an easier time finding stuff to write about in their personal essays.)

One might reasonably ask whether plagiarism in these personal essays is a problem that ought to worry those training the next generation of physicians. The authors of this study argue that it is. They write:

First, residency selection committees would probably find misrepresentation on the application to be a strong negative indicator of future performance as a resident. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has deemed professionalism 1 of the 6 core competencies to be taught and assessed in undergraduate and graduate medical education. We believe that program directors would find a breach of professionalism in an application to be an unacceptable baseline from which to begin residency. Second, lapses in professionalism in medical school and residency training can be predictive of future disciplinary action by state medical boards. Third, increasing public scrutiny of physicians’ ethical behavior is likely to put pressure on training programs to enforce strict rules of conduct, beginning with the application process. (114-115)

The presumption is that honesty is a quality that physicians (and those training to be physicians) ought to display -- that there is something wrong with lying not only to the patients you are treating but also to other members of your professional community. Indeed, the "professionalism" to which the authors refer is important in large part because it allows member of the larger public to recognize the professional community of physicians as possessing the necessary skills, judgment, and trustworthiness. Without this recognition, why should your average patient trust an M.D. any more than a snake-oil salesman?

In this study, as in all studies with human subjects, the researchers were required to look out for the interests of their human subjects -- here, the applicants to the residency programs who wrote the personal essays that were analyzed. Protecting their interests included maintaining the anonymity of the authors of the essays in the context of the study. This, in turn, means that it's possible that the plagiarism identified in the study may not have been identified by the residency selection committees who were also reading these essays.

Finally, near the end of the paper, the authors offer recommendations for how to address the general problem of plagiarism in applications for residency programs:

Ideally, the submission of applicant essays for comparison in a centralized database would occur at the level of ERAS, which would make this process unavoidable for applicants.This method also would eliminate the difficulties inherent in having multiple institutions using plagiarism detection software programs simultaneously, because submitted essays become part of the database for future submissions. Furthermore, manual inspection of the similarity report itself rather than simply reporting the score would allow individual program directors to make independent judgments about the seriousness of any putative offense. Finally, the mere knowledge that essays are being screened by plagiarism-detection software may substantially deter would-be plagiarizers. (119)

These recommendations are clearly leaning toward detecting plagiarism that has been committed, rather than being weighted towards prevention efforts. As they note, and as other researchers have found, an expectation that there will be a plagiarism screening may discourage applicants from committing plagiarism, but it's possible that prevention efforts that depend on fear of detection may just end up separating the risk averse applicants from the gamblers.

Segal S, Gelfand BJ, Hurwitz S, Berkowitz L, Ashley SW, Nadel ES, & Katz JT (2010). Plagiarism in residency application essays. Annals of internal medicine, 153 (2), 112-20 PMID: 20643991

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From the annals of plagiarism: with friends like these ...

As we creep toward the end of the spring semester, I noticed a story at Inside Higher Ed about a commencement address gone wrong:

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Ethical use of student labor.

MommyProf wonders whether some of the goings on in her department are ethical. She presents two cases. I'm going to look at them in reverse order.

Case 2: Faculty member is tenure-track and he and I have collaborated on a paper. He was supposed to work on the literature, and sends me a literature review. It reads a little strangely to me, and I check the properties and find that it was actually written by an undergraduate in one of his classes. I write back to him and ask if that undergrad should be an author on the paper, since it would be a fairly major contribution, and he says yes, he forgot. This faculty member is assigned a graduate student each semester. This semester, the faculty member's graduate student comes to me and said his work has included collecting and analyzing all the data and writing substantial portions of the lit review, but the student is not being credited on the final paper.

This case embodies a number of problems of which we have spoken before, at length.
Indeed, it bears some striking similarities to a case we considered a couple years ago. (In that case, an undergraduate research intern was helping an advanced graduate student in the research group to round up the relevant literature background for their research project ... and the undergraduates summary of that relevant literature crept, word for word, into the graduate student's dissertation.) Here's what I wrote about that case:

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'My work has been plagiarized. Now what?'

I received an email from reader Doug Blank (who gave me permission to share it here and to identify him by name) about a perplexing situation:

I thought I'd solicit your advice. Recently, I found an instance of parts of my thesis appearing in a journal article, and of the paper being presented at a conference. In fact, further exploration revealed that it had won a best paper prize! Why don't I feel proud...
I've sent the following letter to the one and only email address that I found on the journal's website, almost three weeks ago, but haven't heard anything. I tried contacting the Editorial Advisory Board Chair (through that same email), but he doesn't have any specific contact information anywhere available on the web, or elsewhere. He is emeritus at [name of university redacted], but they won't tell me how to contact him. I asked a secretary there to forward my contact to him. I emailed website maintainers. Nothing yet.
Some questions from this: can one have a journal without having someone easily contactable for such issues? No telephone numbers? Who is responsible for catching this kind of thing? Reviewers? Could the community rise to the challenge? For example, could we build a site where papers that are ready for publishing get scrutinized for plagiarism? People would love that more than wikipedia!
Am I in any risk for even sending such accusatory emails? Should I contact the perp? What would he do? What can he do?
I hope to follow this through to the end. Feel free to use any of this as material. If you are interested, I'd be glad to update you. More importantly, I'd be glad to hear of advice.

Doug appended the email message he sent to the elusive Editorial Advisory Board Chair (which I present here heavily redacted, just in case the guy turns up and makes an effort to set things right):

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27 responses so far