A fascinating, if somewhat depressing, article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Andrew Gellman) discusses recent accusations of plagiarism against Rutgers-Newark political scientist Frank Fischer by (1) an angry graduate student from the University of Zagreb and (2) Alan Sokal of science-wars fame.

The account begins with a political-science graduate student at the University of Zagreb, in Croatia, named Kresimir Petkovic. Last year Mr. Petkovic submitted a paper to the journal Critical Policy Studies. The paper was a critique of the work of Frank Fischer, a professor of politics and global affairs at Rutgers University at Newark, who also happens to be an editor at the journal. Mr. Fischer has edited or written numerous books on public policy, and in 1999 he won an award for his scholarship from the Policy Studies Organization.

He took issue with Mr. Petkovic’s paper, saying that the graduate student had mischaracterized his work. In an e-mailed back-and-forth between the two, the possibility was raised that Mr. Petkovic’s paper might be published in the journal, along with a debate-style response from Mr. Fischer. That possibility was later dropped and, after several months, Mr. Petkovic’s submission was rejected.

Petkovic enlisted the help of Sokal; using the kind of content analysis many of us are familiar with from turnitin, they identified a number of instances in which Fischer more-or-less lifted text from other authors. While he did not place the text in quotation marks, Fischer did cite relevant authors at or around the relevant passages. He also attributed quotations to original sources that, in fact, appear to have been culled from cited (but not associated with the quotations) secondary sources.

Mr. Fischer regularly cites his sources, but he doesn’t make clear that he’s borrowing the structure of the sentences, and often strings of exact wording, from those sources—in a sense, “tracing” the other books. While words have often been changed or added, the similarity of the passages is striking.

Using Mr. Sokal’s research, Mr. Petkovic and the physicist then prepared the 70-page document explaining what they had found, and included the e-mails between Mr. Petkovic and Mr. Fischer. The document also includes Rutgers’s policy on plagiarism, which states that “every direct quotation must be identified by quotation marks, or by appropriate indentation.”

Fischer’s response:

In an e-mail exchange with The Chronicle, Mr. Fischer challenged the idea that what Mr. Sokal and Mr. Petkovic had discovered was plagiarism, calling it only sloppiness. When asked whether the verbatim material should have been in quotation marks, he responded: “Yes, but does one have to change every word? I don’t think what I did is all that uncommon. I think the important part is to cite the works.”

He argued that Mr. Petkovic was lashing out at him because his paper had been rejected.

Mr. Fischer also sent an e-mail to colleagues alerting them that accusations of plagiarism against him had been made, and that there are “passages that should have been more carefully checked” in his books. But he maintained that there were no “no out and out examples of whole passages taken without attribution.”

The article’s comments section contains, strong repudiations of Fischer, defenses of his actions and his career achievements, a response apparently from Fischer himself (#38), and a reply from Tom Bartlett, the author of the Chronicle piece (#52).

I don’t know any of the principals involved (although I’m pretty sure I can identify a number of the commentators), but I do have a vague connection to this incident: I identified and challenged a published piece that engaged in similar kinds of quasi-attribution of my own work–as well of that of a number of other writers. During this process I found a lack a consensus over whether Fischer’s conduct constitutes plagiarism.

As his accusers note, Fischer’s own school defines it as plagiarism. And so do many other institutions. Indeed, under restrictive understandings of plagiarism, borrowed sentences–even if modified to include some word changes–must be both attributed and placed in quotation marks.

But these understandings of plagiarism are not universal. For example, Cambridge University’s definition of plagiarism doesn’t cover many of the passages identified by Sokal:

Examples of plagiarism include copying (using another person’s language and/or ideas as if they are a candidate’s own), by:

• quoting verbatim another person’s work without due acknowledgement of the source;
• paraphrasing another person’s work by changing some of the words, or the order of the words, without due acknowledgement of the source;
• using ideas taken from someone else without reference to the originator;
• cutting and pasting from the Internet to make a pastiche of online sources;
• submitting someone else’s work as part of a candidate’s own without identifying clearly who did the work. For example, buying or commissioning work via professional agencies such as ‘essay banks’ or ‘paper mills’, or not attributing research contributed by others to a joint project.

If I recall correctly, European institutions are more likely to adopt a more relaxed understanding of the parameters of plagiarism than US ones. But such differences of opinion, which exists within North America as well, illustrate how Fischer’s conduct falls in a grey zone. If a Georgetown student turned in an essay that contained similar quasi-attribution, he would find himself hauled before its Honor Council, but that might not be the case at another school.

All of this suggests to me that we need to–as any honor council would–consider the pattern of activity, the specific nature of the borrowings, and the disposition of the accused before rendering judgment.

The article I challenged did not, in my estimation, provide grounds for escalating the issue. I could find no evidence of quasi-attribution in any of the scholar’s other published works–indeed, that academic’s other citation and quotation work was scrupulous. The problems involving my work were clearly the unintentional product of sloppiness during a rushed publication schedule.

So how should we judge Fischer? The widespread pattern involved implies a number of possible causes: general sloppiness, malfeasance, or fidelity to standards inconsistent with those found in Rutger’s current guidelines. And as some commentators note, academics working before the advent of cheap, powerful computers faced greater challenges in working with citations than we do now.

But given the consistent pattern found here, it strikes me that there are only two relevant defenses against these charges:

1. The pattern reflects accumulated mistakes, but that does not excuse them, and a major apology is in order.
2. Quasi-attribution does not,and should not, constitute plagiarism.

Invoking someone’s standing in his field, arguing that none of the putative “victims” ever complained, impugning the integrity of Fischer’s attackers, or any of the other nonsense going on among Fischer’s defenders? Well, that’s just what it is: nonsense. Unfortunately, too many scholars are able to shield themselves via their “standing” with the public or in their discipline–and don’t even get me started on passes for “authorship” at Harvard Law School. If that’s the way academia is going to operate then, at some point, we should just disband our honor councils and call it a day.