The academy is filled with wonder. There are professors who cannot teach. There are associate professors who cannot
write. There are tenured academics who have been promoted on the basis of being able to be the fourth author on all
their papers, able to put and patch together an abstract and jot down a signature. And there are those tagging types,
the sort that come to the intellectual show once it has been played, attaching their names to a monograph they have
never written. All make sure about one thing: to spell their name correctly and hail the merits of the work.
Amidst this jumble of derivative junk are those who take things just that bit far. They lift papers wholesale. They
market data and results with astonishing confidence. They also run the same paper, if only slightly adjusted, in
multiple fora. This is confidence tricksterism at its highest, a defiant scoff at convention. But in some ways, it is
also a celebration of it, a push-the-envelope mentality that is invariably given that sense of complicity. These are
offences that take place in plain sight and are questioned even less for that fact. (The academic mind resists the
obvious, preferring the vague to that of the profound.)
Such was the case with an academic at Melbourne’s Swinburne University. Dr. Ali Nazari of the university’s School of
Engineering faced a true flood of retractions
by scientific journals during the course of the year. In 2017, Nazari was feted by Swinburne University Vice-Chancellor
Linda Kristjanson. He had been a golden boy, commended for research excellence and heaving under the weight of a million
dollars in research funding from the Australian Research Council. Both the Vice-Chancellor, and the ARC, have played
their not-so-small parts in this tawdry episode.
But most damnably of all are the journals themselves, whose editors were evidently asleep at the wheel when it came to
the peer review process. The academic journal publisher SAGE took the somewhat dramatic step of issuing a retraction notice
for 22 articles published in the International Journal of Damage Mechanics and Journal of Composite Materials. It was found that certain articles contained “significant overlap with previously published articles by at least one
of the authors listed”. Another retraction notice claimed
that Nazari had duplicated his work as many as 70 times. The number of papers caught up in this may number 188.
As always, an accepted hypocrisy in such cases is perpetrated. Students are not permitted to get away with it. Each
semester or term is filled with the curt warning, the formal placing in week one in course guides, that plagiarism is
the big misdemeanour. They are not permitted to recycle and run their same papers in other subjects. (Some, of course,
do, and some even get away with it.) Universities prefer to apply a different a set of big boy and girl standards to
those who are rather cavalier with the material (or, as is tediously called in some circles, the data).
Plagiarism is the postmodernist’s celebrated child. It involves doing away with author and ownership, killing both.
Jacques Derrida himself toyed with it (well, wrestled with it), suggesting that a work is never really yours – at least
exclusively. Your corpus is a compound of what has come before, not merely building on shoulders but merging with them.
Jean-François Lyotard dreamt of
“a book with no title or authorship”, though admitting to its naïve sense.
Their legacy persists with stubbornness. “No concept is truly unique,” claim
Mike Reddy and Victoria Jones tritely, “and all ideas are created in the context of the society and culture in which
they are engendered. Therefore, there cannot be any true ownership, or indeed theft, of these artefacts as they are an
integral part of the environment that learning is taking place within.” This rather lazy reasoning ignores the point
that plagiarism is very much a matter of power, and its misuse. Far from acknowledging the commonness of ideas that is
part of a corpus or a body of knowledge, it suggests a special entitlement to it. The plagiarist is a poacher, and
conceals that fact.
And it happens to the best, the worst, and the most mediocre. Slavoj Žižek, for an essay in Critical Inquiry, lifted
“an extended passage” from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. That passage, it so happened, had originally found a home in a white supremacist magazine. The editors were apologetic
. Žižek recalled the ease with which texts can be easily replicated without seeming attribution. He had been writing the
text on Derrida, containing “the problematic passages” when he received word from a friend about Kevin Macdonald’s
theories. A brief resume was requested. “The friend sent it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely
resumes another’s line of thought.” Blame the friend: sloppiness came on that side of it, and Žižek, rather than
apologising for himself, was doing so for the one who put him in the fix. Perhaps the Slovenian thinker should have
stuck to plagiarising himself.
In the sciences, the issue might be considered less problematic. The field is populated by thieves, made all the more
easier by multi-authorship, laboratories and the problems of the big professorial bully. This also encourages mass
production, and imitation. Researchers desperate to make a way in their fields also find their name vanquished to lower
tiers as they bask in the exaggerated glory of the God Academic. All hail the maximiser of the minimal.
But this is slightly different to the individual who happily duplicates and replicates material that has been done
before and runs it persistently even as the cash flows in. They remain the mass production people, those who have
discovered that the academy can, at points, be open to the same piece, or the same set of items, reproduced ad
infinitum. This is an ugly form of plagiarism, and Nazari might count himself unlucky that he was found out.
No university has been spared the instances of another Nazari moment, but many refuse to act on this. It took an
academic publisher, the faces of its employees and journal editors egged, to make a move that may have some
repercussions. Knowing the away the academy works, these are bound to few and slow.
So, suggestions to future academic plagiarists seeking to avoid being Nazarified: It is not just slicing the salami that
counts, but how you do so. Be derivative, be banal and unvaried. Dress your work up as the new. If you stick to those
rules, you will be playing an acceptable game. A brazen replication of material you have done before is permissible but
must be undertaken with caution. At the very least, change the title of your paper.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.