CNRS Commission Defends Roques in Response to Plagiarism Accusations

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From Daily Nous:

A commission formed by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has issued a statement defending a researcher in medieval philosophy against multiple charges of plagiarism.

Last fall, several articles by Magali Roques were retracted owing to them containing passages copied from others without attribution (details here). A commission composed of “three experts in the field, all foreigners” was tasked by CNRS to investigate, and the results of that investigation have recently been made public by CNRS.

Using a conception of plagiarism according to which plagiarism “signifies above all the theft of another author’s whole argument or the structure of their work or their fundamental ideas,” distinguishing between “plagiarism” and “unacknowledged borrowings,” and noting that they were unable to discern in Roques’ writings “a wish to appropriate anyone else’s ideas or of an intention to deceive the reader about the origin of the ideas put forward in the articles,” the commission concludes that though they are “seriously flawed by the regular presence of bad scholarly practices,” her writings contain “neither academic fraud nor plagiarism properly so called.”

Here are the commission’s “primary findings” (the report refers to Roques as “MR”):

  1. The results of our qualitative analysis show that there is neither academic fraud nor plagiarism properly so called in MR’s English articles. Moreover, there is no sign to be found of a wish to appropriate anyone else’s ideas or of an intention to deceive the reader about the origin of the ideas put forward in the articles.
  2. The results of our quantitative analysis have shown that the proportion of unacknowledged borrowings is relatively limited—sometimes even minimal—in comparison to the total size of each article. Admittedly, a brute calculation of the passages borrowed by MR from third-parties
    would tend, at first glance, to justify the accusations made against her. A more careful calculation, however – one which, in particular, takes into account the nature of the borrowings, has shown that in a number of cases it is not a matter of undeclared borrowings in the strict sense. Once the Commission had thus come to realize that many passages had been wrongly accused of being plagiarized, the proportion of borrowings open to accusation in the various articles became considerably smaller.
  3. The qualitative and quantitative analysis of the publications under accusation has led the Commission to reach a dual conclusion. On the one hand, it is undeniable that MR has been the victim of an injustice, because her accusers have fashioned and diffused, wrongly, if not with ill intent, the shameful image of a ‘serial plagiarist’, who composed all her writings simply by copying what others have written (see ‘Philosopher Revealed as serial Plagiarist’ [multiple updates], Daily Nous). On the other hand, it is also equally undeniable that the whole body of work in English published by MR is seriously flawed by the regular presence of bad scholarly practices, by what might be called a sort of active negligence, which, although not a matter of academic fraud, cannot be excused.
  4. In her publications in English, MR has quite clearly lacked rigour in her way of making references and has not respected the academic standards accepted in the area. These publications suffer from serious, persistent negligence in the manner of referring to the secondary literature and sometimes also in references to the sources. In these articles, MR has therefore failed to keep to the requirement for a scrupulous and irreproachable method of work, which every researcher should observe.
  5. In her defence, MR cites various reasons to explain the deficiencies noted in her articles in English. Some of them (such as ‘youthful errors’ and a lack of awareness about plagiarism) did not do much to convince the Commission. The Commission did, however, accept her lack of assurance in writing English as a credible reason for MR’s frequent borrowings of technical terms and formulations from authoritative studies published in the Anglophone world. Moreover, trying to forge an academic career in an ever more competitive world, MR seems to have engaged in a race to publish, writing many articles in English at breakneck speed, but cutting corners in a number of her publications, in the method, quality and rigorousness of her research. The Commission accepts that MR’s explanations are sincere and in good faith, yet it wishes to emphasize strongly that unacknowledged borrowings, even if they are accidental, involuntary or incidental, are unacceptable according to the academic standards recognized in the area.
  6. The accusations of plagiarism concern the publications which were written in a limited period,
    during which MR was trying to make a place for herself in the Anglophone academic world. It is exactly in this specific context that there occurred the failings that mark the articles in English. It is fitting to observe here that, before they could be published, all these articles were subject to peer review and that, in most cases, the reviewers came to very positive judgements both about the contents of the articles and the originality of MR’s contribution to the subject: judgements which convinced the editors of the academic journals in question who, although they are specialists in the area, did not notice the slightest indication of failings in these works.
  7. The Commission notes that, in the great majority of cases, the unacknowledged borrowings discovered in the various articles occur in the parts which introduce the general area being studied, which put the questions treated into context and in syntheses about authors who are introduced by way of comparison. These borrowings do not have anything to do with either the general interpretation or the main arguments developed by MR in her works. Each of the articles examined thus presents an individual contribution of her own by MR, with her own original ideas, based on which she presents distinctive views, which she offers to specialist readers in order to engage in academic discussion among equals.
  8. The Commission did not discover any academic fraud or any sign of plagiarism in the three French publications. The accusations regarding these publications turned out to be to a large extent unfounded. There is, indeed, the borrowing of a phrase from an article by Irène RosierCatach, but the passage in question merely states a commonplace. That said, the Commission notes that MR’s negligence over giving references is also found to some degree in these articles.
  9. The Commission observes that the idea of plagiarism goes far beyond tacit citation: it signifies above all the theft of another author’s whole argument or the structure of their work or their fundamental ideas. Nothing of this sort can be attributed to MR.
  10. Finally, the Commission wishes to give an explicit reply to the question of whether ‘supposing that the borrowings had been correctly cited … the articles under accusation contain enough original ideas of MR’s own to justify their publication.’ It can indeed confirm that if MR had cited all her borrowings correctly, this would not have lessened the number of original ideas that she proposes in the articles under accusation. The publication of these articles would therefore be entirely justifiable if MR put her borrowings into inverted commas and attributed them correctly to their authors.

In line with the claim that the publicization of the accusations of plagiarism against Roques constitutes “an injustice” (see #3, above), the commission writes:

the vast damage done to MR’s academic standing by the accusations of plagiarism seems already to outweigh in severity any sanction proportionate to the deficiencies and mistakes considered during our enquiry.

The commission also notes that it is not up to them “what course of action the CNRS should take in response to this affair.”

Link to the rest at Daily Nous

The OP, which appears in a longer blog post apparently written by the individual accused of plagiarism, reminded PG of the Sayre’s Law (named after Wallace Stanley Sayre, a now-deceased political science professor at Columbia University):

Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.

That said, PG does advise one and all not to practice plagiarism and, with his lawyer hat on, will mention that plagiarism and copyright infringement, while similar, are not necessarily the same thing.

At least in the United States, plagiarism may or may not rise to the level of copyright infringement, depending on the nature and extent of copying.

Including a 40-word excerpt from a longer work in one’s own writing without attributing the author, thus giving the impression that the excerpt is one’s own creation/idea, is plagiarism, but would likely not rise to the level of copyright infringement.

Copying an entire 250-page book, even if one attributed the author, might not technically be plagiarism (although it would certainly be academic bad form), but it would be copyright infringement.

Copyright law is designed to allow the creator of a work to reap the economic fruits of her/his creative labors without others wrongly depriving them of such rewards.

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are both bad behavior, presenting other’s works as one’s own and attempting to gain some benefit from those acts.

5 thoughts on “CNRS Commission Defends Roques in Response to Plagiarism Accusations”

  1. Thanks for including all ten of the articles of the statement – it is an odd duck: yes, she did not follow academic practice, but no, it isn’t actually plagiarism? And no, nobody who accepted the articles at the journals noticed anything amiss (a straw man – peer review should catch things like this and didn’t, so the journals have no responsibility?).

    It could ALL have been avoided by citing properly when using other people’s work – which should be the standard every young researcher starts from. Every time. Every direct citation. Every paraphrase. I can’t believe the French are less rigorous about this.

    In fact, putting those references in correctly from the beginning gives academic papers their awkwardness – but allows others to check directly that you are, in fact, quoting and interpreting the work of others accurately. A false impression in many papers, which when chased to original sources did not say that at all. Without the citations, those who disagree with you have a task orders of magnitude harder.

    • I’m not sure this is quite true Alicia. If you don’t provide attributions then the reader will presumably consider it your own work and value it in accordance with the evidence your present and the logic of your argument. So the reader has no need to check any original sources, or give any special credence to “your” words (but of course this means you are definitely guilty of plagiarism, despite the report’s attempt to argue otherwise).

      Failing to attribute is an academic crime but, as you have so rightly pointed out, a much more common and much more heinous, though rarely punished, one is misrepresenting what the original sources say. In history the misrepresentation will make it into secondary works which will themselves be taken as sources for new books and the lie may end up as uncontested conventional wisdom.

      • I meant within the context of the original ten-point explanation of why it might/might not be plagiarism.

        For ‘real’ plagiarists, using other people’s words in such a way that it is assumed they are your own work is the crime. And the point. This committee is trying to say it’s possible to interpret that another way.

        I find that the original source – the one referenced – is often misquoted. That would be, in my mind, a good place for the peers to focus when reviewing.

        In a publish or perish environment, both are sloppy or deliberate attempts to shortcut – because committees on tenure don’t read – they count.

        But I am extremely leery of the results of medical papers as a result – and have been the victim of doctors trying to literally scare me into things which, on closer investigation, turned out to be so close to scams as doesn’t matter. Combined with the power of life and death, and practically no accountability if the doctor recommends the wrong thing, it makes my automatic reaction ‘NO’ and sometimes ‘Hell, NO.’

        Some people want the doctor to decide. If possible, I prefer to ask for data or research the question myself, and make as good a decision as I can under the circumstances.

        • When it comes to medical matters I think you are very wise.

          Unfortunately there is so much money involved that ethics often go by the board and even the peer reviewed works are not always trustworthy. It will be interesting to see if anywhere outside the USA approves aducanumab.

          • The CEO saying $56,000 per year for the drug – which every family with an Alzheimer’s patient will be demanding insurance cover – terrifies me. IIRC, it only slows the deterioration down by a few (5?) months. If it works at all.

            Those demanding it don’t plan on paying for it personally.

            When a couple of dollars will keep a child in Africa from getting polio.

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