Letters to the Editor

Alan Sokal Responds to Frank Fischer

November 03, 2010

To the Editor:

In response to The Chronicle's publication of evidence that the writings of Professor Frank Fischer of Rutgers University contain numerous instances of serious plagiarism, both Professor Fischer and a group of his colleagues led by Professor Hal K. Colebatch have written in his defense. Alas, these exculpations are replete with demonstrable misstatements of fact, along with irrelevancies.

I will first address the misstatements in the order in which they appear in Professor Fischer's letter. (This is not necessarily the order of importance. The most important one is in fact No. 5.) I will then briefly address the irrelevancies.

1) "The Petkovic/Sokal compendium, 70 pages in length, presents the outcome of a comprehensive electronic scan of many writings over a 30-year period. ... "

As we clearly stated in Appendix A of our report, this was not a "comprehensive" scan of Professor Fischer's work, nor was it automated:

"The matches compiled here were basically found by hand search on Google, Google Books, and Google Scholar of selected short phrases from Fischer's books, followed up by detailed side-by-side comparison of the full texts. We do not know what fraction of the complete corpus of plagiarism we have detected."

In fact, I input into Google only a tiny fraction of the text from Professor Fischer's books (probably less than 1 percent of the total), guided by my intuition (which might be mistaken) about what types of passages were most likely to be plagiarized.

2) "Especially problematic is the claim by Mr. Sokal and Mr. Petkovic that in numerous instances my referencing and quoting were not as accurate as they could have been."

This is a rather gross revision/understatement of the issue we have raised. To put it bluntly, the issue is whether the passages from Fischer's books quoted in pp. 2-51 of our report constitute plagiarism as defined by the codes of academic integrity at Rutgers University (Fischer's employer) and virtually every other American university.

At Rutgers plagiarism is defined as "the representation of the words or ideas of another as one's own in any academic work. To avoid plagiarism, every direct quotation must be identified by quotation marks, or by appropriate indentation, and must be cited properly according to the accepted format for the particular discipline. Acknowledgment is also required when material from any source is paraphrased or summarized in whole or in part in one's own words. To acknowledge a paraphrase properly, one might state: to paraphrase Plato's comment ... and conclude with a footnote or appropriate citation to identify the exact reference. A footnote acknowledging only a directly quoted statement does not suffice to notify the reader of any preceding or succeeding paraphrased material."

3) "Based on this, they speculate that I have 'plagiarized' materials of other writers with the intention of misappropriating their intellectual work."

On the contrary, we have quite consciously refrained from all speculation about Professor Fischer's intentions, motives, or other psychological states. We have limited ourselves to presenting evidence about published texts. At most universities, including Rutgers, plagiarism is defined as a matter of fact, not of intention.

4) "Although they find these errors to affect only a very small portion of the large number of materials they electronically 'tested' (98 percent of the material passed the test, Professor Sokal informed me. ..."

Again not true. Of the tiny fraction of Fischer's works that I input into Google, I don't know what fraction "passed," but it was certainly far less than 98 percent. (If it had been 98 percent, then I would have had to type 1,000 pages of text into Google in order to find the 20-odd pages of plagiarism reported in our document. I did not have anywhere near enough time to do that.) What I wrote to Professor Fischer on October 14 (shortly before The Chronicle article appeared) was:

"I am sad that all this has to come out now, as you are nearing the end of a distinguished career as a scholar. I don't know what fraction of the complete corpus of plagiarism we have detected, but I doubt that the plagiarism exceeds 2 percent of your total writings. So if my guess is right, then at least 98 percent of your scholarly output (perhaps more) was written by you. Why you chose to sully that output with a relatively small (but absolutely large) quantity of crude "tracing" of other people's writings, only you can know. Whatever your reasons, I feel sad that your distinguished career now has to be tarnished, only a few years before your probable retirement, by these revelations."

My half-baked guess that 98 percent of the whole scholarly output would turn out to be nonplagiarized is a far cry from the (untrue) statement that 98 percent of what I tested turned out to be nonplagiarized.

5) "In each of the books and various articles targeted by Mr. Sokal and Mr. Petkovic I provide extensive references and bibliographies that give attribution to the authors whose work I have discussed."

Professor Fischer has repeatedly made this claim, but it is simply not true. In the cases of Goulet (Section 4), Ferguson (Section 5), the first Fairclough passage (Section 8), Polkinghorne 1988 (Section 13), Polkinghorne 1983 (Section 16) and Majone (Section 17), the author in question is either not cited at all in the book, or else cited only very far from the passages in question.

Unfortunately, the letter by Professor Fischer's colleagues repeats this misstatement of fact ("He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on."), though even a cursory examination of our document would have revealed its falsity.

Professor Fischer's colleagues then go on to produce some rather startling examples of special pleading:

6) "Mr. Fischer concedes that he should have taken more care with the wording of the texts cited, and Kresimir Petkovic and Alan Sokal concede that this runs both ways: Mr. Fischer sometimes used the words of other authors, and other authors sometime use his. This is what happens in academic conversation. ... "

What Professor Fischer's colleagues are referring to is this: In addition to the 20-odd pages of copying-with-minor-modifications that we found in Professor Fischer's books, our Google searches also revealed three instances in which minor authors had apparently plagiarized Professor Fischer's words, and we reported this ironic fact (see Section 20 of our document). If this is merely "what happens in academic conversation," god help us.

7) "So this is at most a misdemeanor of literary style, admitted and regretted, and finding 19 instances of it in five books does not appear particularly remarkable."

Let's be clear: The 19 "instances" of copying-with-minor-modifications are not 19 sentences, but 19 passages that each range in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to several pages (for the latter, see, e.g., Sections 3, 9, and 19). Perhaps this type of "academic conversation" is unremarkable in policy studies; if so, it is news to the rest of us.

The bottom line is that virtually any three-sentence passage in our document (except the boldfaced nonplagiarized sentences that we sometimes included to provide context) would constitute unambiguous plagiarism according to the student guides published by numerous American universities. A few of those three-sentence passages taken together, inserted in two or more separate papers, and the student would risk expulsion. The 70-page document indicates plagiarism, by these standards, a few hundred times over.

Finally, Professor Fischer and his colleagues bring up irrelevancies:

8) Professor Fischer spends much of his letter impugning the alleged motives of Mr. Petkovic and myself in uncovering and revealing the evidence of his probable plagiarism. We indeed foresaw that Professor Fischer and his supporters might attempt to divert attention in this way, so we addressed this issue pre-emptively in Appendix A of our report, where readers can find a clear statement of what our motives are and are not. But this line of defense is anyway curious. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that our motives were indeed thoroughly vile. In what way would that change the facts about whether or not Professor Fischer's writings constitute plagiarism?

9) Professor Fischer's colleagues, after redefining his transgressions of scholarly norms to a mere "misdemeanor of literary style", then change the issue by lauding his contributions to the analysis of policy.

But that is precisely not the issue. Imagine that a person accused of fraud in a business deal were to cite the many nonfraudulent deals in which he had also participated. Even Professor Colebatch, et al., would presumably answer with a yawn, "Yes, but so what?" The solution to this nonissue is simple: laud Professor Fischer's contributions to scholarship if you wish, but also recognize that he is a serial plagiarizer. The two are in no way contradictory.

At the end of his letter, Professor Fischer raises one legitimate question: Why did Kresimir Petkovic and I reveal our evidence to The Chronicle of Higher Education rather than, say, to the president of Rutgers University? The answer is that plagiarism is not principally an offense against one's employer—or even against the person whose words are plagiarized—but is rather an offense against the ethical norms of the scholarly community as a whole. This is why there has been such intense public interest in this case, as exemplified by the 200-plus comments on The Chronicle's Web site. And it is why Mr. Petkovic and I decided to make our information publicly available, so that each member of the scholarly community could evaluate it with his or her own brain.

It is sad that Professor Fischer's colleagues have chosen to use their brains, not to honestly and dispassionately analyze the evidence, but to produce sophistical (and ultimately unavailing) excuses for their friend.

Alan Sokal

New York University

New York