Monday, November 01, 2010

Plagiarism in Arab-Muslim Academia

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
One of the biggest academic scandals ever in the Arab world broke out a few days ago. The committee in charge of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which is given out in the Emirates each year, announced that it was withdrawing the prize it gave last February to Dr. Hafnaoui Baali for his book Comparative Cultural Criticism: an Introduction (in Arabic). Indeed, the literary circles had for the past month or more been aware of the damning accusations that had been made by at least one critic who had submitted to the committee (and sent to a respected website) proofs of dozens of plagiarism instances in the winning book. But never in the history of such prizes or in Arab academia more generally had any action as this public reprimand been made. Moreover, this is no small or obscure award, it is the largest in the Arab world, the winner pocketing over $200,000, plus a plaque worth $20,000 and other gifts and invitations.
Now, this raised a number of serious questions: 1) Do we have solid proofs of the crime? 2) If the plagiarism was so large and explicit (and it was), why did the committee not see any of it during its evaluation and deliberations? 3) Is this a special, albeit stunning, case that one should not rush to make too much of? 4) How widespread is plagiarism in the Arab-Muslim world, particularly in academia, where it would really be a seriously worrisome situation?
Let me try to address these difficult but crucial questions, to the best of my knowledge and experience.
1.     A detailed comparison between the book in question and at least one source (a book published in 2000 by Dr. Abdullah Al-Ghathami, a Saudi scholar) showed that while Baali referenced Al-Ghathami five times, he used his work (and words) some 30 times, often lifting full paragraphs and up to a page and a half straight from the source! The critique also alleged that Baali apparently tried to cover his deeds by sometimes referencing other works while copy-pasting from Al-Ghathami. And there were accusations of possible plagiarism from other sources as well, though no direct comparison was made with any other book.
There is no question then, for any objective, even non-specialist observer like me (and I did read the whole critique) that the plagiarism did occur and massively. I believe that on this basis, not only was it right for the Award to be withdrawn, with such a public show, but further punishment should befall the author, with his university firing him and the ministry of higher education banning him from academia for life.
2.     If the plagiarism was so blatant and huge, why didn’t the committee catch it earlier? (I should mention that Al-Ghathami was, interestingly enough, a member of the panel of judges for the award.) In interviews over the past few days, Al-Ghathami was of course asked this question; his reply was that the panel receives referees’ reports and only reads those, not the actual books for which an award is going to be given. But then the problem becomes even deeper: why didn’t any of the three referees who were asked to read and report on this particular book notice any plagiarism? Aren’t they experts in the field? When they read a book in their field, don’t they realize that they have seen these ideas, perhaps even these sentences, before? And when Al-Ghathami, on the judging panel, reads even the title of the book he and his colleagues are considering for the top award, and sees that it’s straight up his field, doesn’t he decide to at least browse through it?
Clearly, this episode raises questions on the practices of refereeing and awards in the Arab world, and my experience in this context (personal and through acquaintances) confirms that peer-reviewing in this part of the world is far from robust, to say the least.
3.     Is this an extra-ordinary case or is the problem deeper and more metastasized? First, I must state that there are very few studies of the plagiarism problem in the Arab-Muslim world, whether among students or scholars, only a few articles here and there.
Still, I must point to two recent reports that seem to paint a starkly gray (or even dark) picture of the region on this issue.
First, last December, there was the case of the Iranian ministers and senior officials who were found to have published several largely plagiarized papers. The authoritative British journal Nature uncovered a series of such cases by the minister of transport (who supervised President Ahmedinejad on his Ph.D. thesis), the minister of science, the secretary of the Academy of Sciences, and colleagues of theirs at the Iran University of Science & Technology. One of those colleagues took the blame for at least one series of offenses, while the ministers and the secretary of the Academy of Sciences denied any wrongdoing, the latter explaining that he had only “drafted” his paper and left it to “others in his office to ‘develop it and add the literature review’”, but it came out as largely plagiarized.
The Iran chapter of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World then issued a statement “deplor[ing] the recent cases of alleged plagiarism by Iranian scientists” and insisting that “Iran's scientific community is largely free of such unethical behaviour”, but then tried to explain the circumstances in Iran that are “conducive to the spread of plagiarism.” It essentially blamed it on the political system: “a university degree is a prerequisite for election to parliament. A higher degree is also considered an important qualification for holding other government offices. As a result, the Iranian political class, across the political and ideological spectrum, accounts for a disproportionate share of academic fraud.”
I would also like to mention the report published by University World News in July 2008, titled “EGYPT: Research plagued by plagiarism”. In it, several stunning cases of plagiarism are mentioned, contrasted with minimal punishment for the perpetrators (in one case, $90 in damages for copy-pasting large chunks of a book into a new book). Again, although there are no systematic studies to base any claims on, the report seemed to imply that plagiarism was spreading fast; as one academic put it, “We used to discover a case of plagiarism every several years. Now we discover a number of plagiarism instances committed by teaching staff at Egyptian universities every year.” As to the reasons, the lack of research funds and the low academic salaries were mentioned. And while some academics called for a very hard stand on this crime (“name the plagiarists in public lists ‘to shame them and make them an example…’”), others (like the president of the public Helwan University) considered the problem to be “insignificant”, adding: “plagiarism is not confined to Egyptian universities. It is found everywhere in the world.”
I have more to say, but this is already a long post, and I am sure (at least I’m hoping) that this will elicit some discussion, which will then give me a chance to express more ideas and opinions. I do believe that this is a hugely important issue, one that goes to the heart of academic pursuits, the intellectual culture of a society, and the policies that are instituted and passed on between the various spheres of society (administrations, professors, students, public, etc.).


Ali said...

Interesting topic, Nidhal.

I think plagiarism is not uncommon in academic circles. May be it is more common, perhaps even rampant, where regulations are slack.

In the case you described, I don't know how the panel missed such massive chunks of copy pasting. But I am glad they withdrew the award. At least they have made it clear that the award is for real work and not for fakes.

The other thing is, I have seen at least two books in which large chunks of text were cut and pasted from other books.

One author is a Muslim who copy pasted from another Muslim author. The other authors are both Christians and their books were published on the same year. So i don't know who copied who but one thing I know is that the two books have much in common. The amazing thing is, these books are available on Amazon and google books.

Nidhal, there is also something called fair use. I don't know how much is allowed under it. But one serious question that I would like to ask you is, can we take, say, about 100 words from a blog and use in a book without the knowledge of the blog author? I am not saying I will do it, but just wondering whether I can.

Anonymous said...

Ali, if you think these 100 words are important for your thesis to make a point you should acknowledge that and name the original author of those 100 words. In academia you're responsible to quote for far less than 100 words. As soon as it contains an original idea that helps you to make a point you're required to cite the author. It's pretty simple.

Benjamin Geer said...

I think there's a deeper problem: in much of the Arab world at least, in the social sciences, there's simply little or no incentive for academics to do original research.

The UNESCO World Social Science Report 2010 notes that in the Arab world, "the social understanding of science considers obtaining a PhD degree as the end of the reading and research process".

Alain Roussillon's article (in French), Sociologie et identité en Égypte et au Maroc : le travail de deuil de la colonisation sums up the situation in Egypt: the huge number of students who get degrees in socical science "underscores the paradox of the extremely small contribution of this academic sociology to the accumulation of knowledge about Egyptian society. In this regard, one should not be misled by the large number of publications produced -- no less than 2000 per year since the beginning of the 1980s: for the most part, these consist of textbooks, compilations, unacknowledged translations, lecture notes sold in the form (and at the price) of books, in which the amount of empirical research is usually insignificant, and which exist mainly in order to produce income for their authors, at the expense of a captive student audience. As for the students' MA and PhD theses, they usually focus on 'verifying' a particular sociological concept or the relevance of a particular school of thought to the Egyptian context, but the discussion of the bibliography constitutes the bulk of the work. . . ." (My rough translation.)

Of course there are exceptions; there are people doing excellent, original research, and I know some of them personally. But in an environment where there's usually nothing at stake (the withdrawal of the Sheikh Zayed award is something highly unusual), I think it's not surprising if an author writes a book largely by copying and pasting from other books, and if a reviewer doesn't really bother to read the book carefully or to wonder whether the same ideas have been written elsewhere.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Ali.
Actually, "fair use" is related to copyrights and the extent to which one can copy, cite, or use some material in any way, provided -- of course -- that the reference is duly cited. If one copies or uses some material, even 1 sentence, without acknowledgment, from anywhere, even a blog, that's plagiarism, period. Now, if someone wants to legally use some text, image, or other material, then there are limitations to what can be used "fairly" and with/without permission.

BTW, blogs are intellectual products too, and so they cannot be copied and used without proper citation. Now, I don't know if there is any automatic copyright to blog material, or whether it's in the public domain (someone help!), so that would determine whether there are limits to the size of the material that can be copied (and cited).

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Benjamin, thanks for your comments and for the two references; I'll read at least the executive summary of the Unesco report and, when I have a moment, Roussillon's article.

I would agree with you if you changed your analysis from "no incentive" to "no risk" or "no threat". Because I think it's the incentives of promotion, higher status and salary, reputation, etc., that lead many to just publish either junk or copy-pasted pastiches.

From my experience, there are two serious problems at play here: 1) a social pressure on university graduates, especially holders of doctorates, to climb the social ladders by getting titles, publications, and media appearances; 2) little to no solid academic culture even on how to reference sources (you would be surprised to read many "papers" in Arabic and witness the disastrous ways that references are presented)...

Feel free to comment more. Cheers.

Benjamin Geer said...

Nidhal, your point is valid. There must be some incentive for people to publish, otherwise they wouldn't bother. But is promotion in social science departments in Arab universities really linked to publications? (Of course things might work differently in different states and in different disciplines.)

I have doubts about this, and I'll explain why.

In global scientific fields, you don't just have to publish; you have to publish in a competitive, selective forum, otherwise your publication is meaningless. For example, I could just publish my research on my blog, but nobody would care; it only matters if it's published as an article in a respected (i.e. competitive and selective, preferably peer-reviewed) journal, or as a book from a respected publisher (e.g. a university press, where books are peer-reviewed).

But that possibility hardly exists in the Arab world. There are hardly any Arabic-language social science journals. (I know of exactly one, <a href=">إضافات</a>. Please let me know if you're aware of any others.) And as far as I know, there's nothing like a university press.

At the same time, in Egypt at least, it's easy for anyone to publish a book (as long as it doesn't bother the censors), regardless of its quality, because authors almost always pay to publish their own books. No matter how bad a book is, the author can probably find some publisher who's willing to publish it for a fee.

If anyone can publish anything, and there's no institutionalised way to tell the difference between texts that got published because they're good and texts that got published just because the author paid cash, then publication becomes meaningless.

Why would something meaningless be a criterion for job promotion? Maybe there's some other incentive that's motivating all these publications?

Benjamin Geer said...

Sorry, here's that link: إضافات

Ali said...

@ Anon

Thannks. Of course, the author and source will be acknowledged. But i don't know whether material from blogs are treated the same as material from books and papers.

@ Nidhal

Thanks. Yes, blogs are intellectual intellectual products but I don't know whether they are in the public domain. Exactly why I asked that question.

Also academic publishing is different from commercial publishing. But I heard 'fair use' applies for both. Not sure.

I agree with Benjamine.
Its mainly because of lack of incentive that people opt for the easy way. And if this easy way is a 'no risk' and 'no threat' approach, who will care to opt the hard way?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Being an astrophysicist, I am not very familiar with the journals and practices in the social sciences in the Arab region. Some years ago, the Journal of Social Affairs was established here in the UAE in Arabic, then my university got involved and an English part was added, so the journal became bilingual; it was fully refereed and tried to establish some standards. If I think harder and/or I ask some colleagues, I am sure we could come up with some other titles, though they may be of limited distribution/impact.

Having said this, your point is also valid, though I think a bit exaggerated. It is true that quality assessment is very fuzzy around here, especially in the social sciences. (I have seen newspaper articles listed in CV's, etc.) Even in the "hard" sciences, things like "impact factor" and "citation numbers" only recently started to be widely used. But still, there are some measures, such as the reputation of a publisher or even of a magazine. (BTW, the American University of Cairo does have a press.) There are ways of figuring out whether the published book contains any scholarship or was a (vanity) paid-by-the-author piece, though such methods are rarely used.

But to go back to the original issue, I think we agree that there are some (wrong) "incentives" for people to "publish" stuff; it's the culture of quality, honesty, rigor, and correct evaluation that is clearly lacking.

Benjamin Geer said...

Nidhal, many thanks for telling me about the Journal of Social Affairs. I think there's no doubt, though, that such journals are very rare, and I haven't seen any evidence that hiring and promotion in Arab universities really depends on publication in these very rare journals.

What I was trying to say is that there are incentives to publish, but few incentives to do original research, and that this probably facilitates plagiarism. The "culture of quality, honesty, rigor, and correct evaluation" that you're talking about can't exist unless it's supported by institutions (e.g. academic publishers) and material incentives (e.g. linking academic hiring and promotion to publication in peer-reviewed journals), and these seem to be lacking.

AUC Press does publish high-quality social science research, but only in English. AUC is definitely an exception to everything I was saying. I was thinking instead of the universities where the main language of instruction is Arabic.

It's true that there are some commercial publishers that publish good social science in Arabic, such as مركز دراسات الوحدة العربية in Beirut and دار الشروق in Cairo, but their academic output is very small, their editorial process doesn't involve peer review (as far as I know), and they're driven much more by commercial interests than a good university press would be. (One sign of this is that their academic titles tend to go out of print very quickly.)

I think that another reason for the very limited amount of social science research published in Arabic is almost certainly censorship. In Egypt, the intelligence services routinely interfere in hiring and promotion at universities, and controversial books and research topics are banned. Authoritarian regimes are clearly aware that social science can question the legitimacy of the social order, and it seems to me that they tend to prevent this by stifling social science research as much as possible, or at least restricting it so much that it becomes an empty exercise.

Benjamin Geer said...

More on police interference in Egyptian universities here.

Benjamin Geer said...

Nidhal, the Journal of Social Affairs doesn't seem to exist any more. The web site at the link you gave only lists issues up to 2004, and if you follow the links, they all lead to "404 page not found" errors.

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