Alan Sokal, the 1996 Hoaxer, Takes Aim at an Accused Plagiarist at Rutgers

Rutgers U.

Frank Fischer, a political scientist at Rutgers U., says his alleged plagiarism was mere sloppiness and not all that uncommon in scholarship.
October 14, 2010

Two scholars have accused another scholar of committing plagiarism multiple times in a half-dozen books, the first of which was published in 1980 and the most recent just last year. The scholars make the accusations in a 70-page document, provided to The Chronicle, that includes many instances in which exact wording is reproduced without quotation marks, and long passages that closely mirror other authors' previously published work.

It is an unusually painstaking effort to uncover apparent scholarly wrongdoing. But what makes it even more unusual is how it all came about, and how it came to involve Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University who is best known for the hoax that bears his name.

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.

Mr. Petkovic was annoyed. He felt that his paper had been accepted for publication, and that the acceptance had been withdrawn without a satisfactory explanation. Mr. Fischer says the paper couldn't be published because Mr. Petkovic refused to remove the supposed mischaracterizations of his work. The dispute was nothing noteworthy, except to those involved; misunderstandings and hurt feelings are part of academic publishing.

Then, according to Mr. Petkovic, he discovered a passage in a 2003 book by Mr. Fischer that appeared to have been lifted, in part, from another book. He wrote a paper that accused Mr. Fischer of plagiarism and submitted it to a different journal.

Mr. Fischer blames the incorrectly cited section on an oversight by an editor. More broadly, he says the allegations of plagiarism in the 70-page report by Mr. Petkovic and Mr. Sokal are evidence of no more than sloppiness.

The paper in which Mr. Petkovic alleged plagiarism in the 2003 book was forwarded to Mr. Fischer, who warned him that such accusations would be "grounds for a lawsuit against you were they to appear in print."

Mr. Petkovic responded in an e-mail to the effect that Mr. Fischer could sue him if he wanted to. He also made clear what had prompted his investigation: "If you have treated my text and me as an author seriously, nothing of this would have happened," he wrote. The subject of the e-mail is "Devil in Mr. Petkovic," and the sign-off is "Hugs 'n' Kisses."

50 to 100 Hours of Checking

Next Mr. Petkovic did something rather strange. He sent an e-mail message to Alan Sokal, whom he had never met, and knew of only because of the mid-1990s hoax in which Mr. Sokal successfully submitted a nonsensical paper to the journal Social Text in an effort to prove that such journals were interested in trendy ideology, not scientific rigor.

Why send a message to Mr. Sokal, a physicist, about supposed plagiarism in political science? "He seemed like a nice and funny guy," Mr. Petkovic says. "I didn't think he would respond."

But he did respond. Mr. Sokal says he read the e-mail message and had some free time to look over the paper Mr. Petkovic had sent. He became upset with how Mr. Petkovic had been treated, he says, and was outraged at the threat of a lawsuit against a graduate student by a senior scholar. So he decided to help Mr. Petkovic by investigating Mr. Fischer's work.

According to Mr. Sokal, he had never heard of Mr. Fischer or the journal in question. But that didn't stop him from throwing himself into the project. Over the summer, Mr. Sokal estimates, he spent 50 to 100 hours searching for instances of plagiarism in Mr. Fischer's work. What he found were more than a dozen passages, many of them several paragraphs long, that parallel already published work.

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."

Mr. Sokal says it was "with a certain sadness" that he went about chronicling the similarities. "I don't take any pleasure in exposing this pattern of plagiarism," he says.

Asked if there was any relationship between this project and the famous Sokal affair of 1996, he says the only connection is that "I'm willing to engage in issues outside my field if I feel competent to do so."

Denial of 'Out and Out' Copying

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."

He also noted that "we are now in the electronic age, making possible a careful scrutiny of every detail—a technique that I will myself use in the future to check my own texts."

Scrutinizing the Words

Below are a couple of the passages flagged by Mr. Petkovic and Mr. Sokal in their report. The first is an excerpt from Alan Sheridan's 1980 book, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth. Following that is an excerpt from Frank Fischer's 2000 book, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment. The highlighted passages show the alleged duplication in Mr. Fischer's work.

Mr. Sheridan writes, on Pages 139-140:

But this power is exercised rather than possessed; it is not the "privilege" of a dominant class, which exercises it actively upon a passive, dominated class. It is rather exercised through and by the dominated. Indeed, it is perhaps unhelpful to think in terms of "classes" in this way, for power is not unitary and its exercise binary. Power in that sense does not exist: what exists is an infinitely complex network of "micro-powers", of power relations that permeate every aspect of social life. For that reason, "power" cannot be overthrown and acquired once for all by the destruction of institutions and seizure of the state apparatuses. Because "power" is multiple and ubiquitous, the struggle against it must be localized. Equally, however, because it is a network and not a collection of isolated points, each localized struggle induces effects on the entire network. Struggle cannot be totalized--a single, centralized [pagebreak 139-140] hierarchized organisation setting out to seize a single, centralized, hierarchized power; but it can be serial, that is, in terms of horizontal links between one point of struggle and another.

Mr. Fischer writes, on Pages 26-27:

Professional disciplines, operating outside of (but in conjunction with) the state, are thus seen to predefine the very worlds that they have made the objects of their studies (Sheridan, 1980). Because this power is exercised rather than possessed per se, it is not the privilege of a dominant elite class actively deploying it against a passive, dominated class. Disciplinary power in this sense does not exist in the sense of class power. Instead, it exists in an infinitely complex network of "micropowers" that permeate all aspects of social life. For this reason, modern power cannot be overthrown and acquired once and for all by the destruction of institutions and the seizure of the state apparatuses. Such power is "multiple" and "ubiquitous"; the struggle against it must be localized resistance designed to combat interventions into specific sites of civil society. Because such power is organized as a network rather than a collection of isolated points, each localized struggle induces effects on the entire network. Struggles cannot be totalized; there can be no single, centralized power. For this reason, argues Foucault, resistance can only be leveled against the horizontal links between one point of struggle and another (Foucault 1984).