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.).