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Stealing words

Another article on plagiarism from the New York Times. This one concerns John Casti's Mathematical Mountaintops: The Five Most Famous Problems of All Time, a book on mathematics that, while intended for a lay audience, examines a number of complex mathematical concepts.

Casti apparently liberated a number of descriptions of mathematical proofs from other mathematicians' works. What's interesting is that there's no suggestion that Casti has stolen anyone's ideas, just other people's informative descriptions of them. So what's the big deal?

Obviously, representing someone else's words as your own (whether you do so deliberately or not) is improper. It deceives the reader, and it's wrong. But does it merit anything more than a demand for an apology and a correction? I honestly don't know that ordinary-language (as opposed to poetic or literary) descriptions of things can really be "stolen." It's wrong for them to be copied without attribution because that act is essentially a lie — saying, I wrote this, when you didn't — but that doesn't mean the original author is somehow thereby transformed into a master of the linguistic form whose words and descriptions are priceless and without peer. Does it?

March 10, 2002 8:02 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

It matters because explaining hard things is in itself hard. It takes a great deal of skill to explain something like a complex maths puzzle using only simple language. Quite a lot of the time, the explanation is actually more powerful than the idea itself: the way it is explained actually leads to deeper truths about the issue, especially in an abstract field.

But mostly, because it just shows the author is daft enough to not know the first rule of science writing: plagarise, plagarise, plagarise, but be sure to call it 'research'

Posted by Ben Hammersley on March 10, 2002 8:12 PM

Heh. In fact, the article linked to opens with that same Tom Lehrer quote you provide.

I agree that the author has made a bad mistake. And I also agree that, where the explanation offers its own value, its authorship should be protected. Not having seen the specific accusations, I am on shaky ground here, but the understanding I have from the article is that that was not the case with the descriptions in question here. They were simple, straightforward descriptions. For instance, "The problem with the proof lay in the construction of a complicated mathematical object called an Euler system." Must this sentence too be protected? Does it make sense to say someone "owns" it, even though it's hardly anything more than an ordinary-language utterance?

Posted by M on March 10, 2002 8:39 PM

That'll teach me to post without reading the link.

ooh, I dunno - that kinda makes it worse. Stealing a complicated example because it's good is one thing, but stealing a common-or-garden descriptive sentence like that just screams laziness. Use a thesaurus, for crumbly's sake!

Posted by Ben Hammersley on March 11, 2002 2:49 AM

I agree to a large extent with Ben. Explaining any "expert" topic -- from immunobiology to mathematics to history -- to a "lay" audience requires the ability to deconstruct a complex discipline and reconstruct it based on a simpler set of "rules" that can be followed by someone who has one hour instead of 30 years to get to bottom of things. This is no mere "turn of a phrase", no less than poetry (where the inherent power of "sound", the mother of language, is your ally).

In this specific case, it's hard to tell how much "proprietary" intellectual work went into distilling a sentence like "The problem with the proof lay in the construction of a complicated mathematical object called an Euler system." That "simple" statement may in fact be an eye-opening analysis; I couln't tell you because I haven't a frigging clue what an Euler system is. Then again, all knowledge and interpretation builds on the past. This author may have himself been a genius at even further dumbing down the topic for boneheads like me.

If a fiction writer uses a Shakespeare quote without quotation in the speech of a fictional character, that may be a conceit that this "character" has adopted Shakespeare as the voice of his soul. I have no problem with that. If a non-fiction writer adopts another person's speech verbatim -- even a seemingly simple declaratory sentence -- which is central to the argument, he has probably stolen a thought process of which he was incapable. There is nothing wrong our running example with the "complicated mathematical object called an Euler system" portion of the theft; rather it lies in the part that posits "The problem with the proof lay in....". That is a red flag for a stolen idea.

This probably shouldn't be illegal, or we'd all at some point be in jail. It's at the very least lazy, probably cowardly, and I'd even say reprehensible. It's a practice that should be pointed out publicly whenever discovered, with the commensurate (one would hope) consequences for the reputation and continuing commercial viability of the perpetrating author.

Posted by Les on March 12, 2002 4:31 PM

The fact that there was a problem with the proof, and that, specifically, it was with the construction of the Euler system, is indeed an important idea. But the idea WAS properly attributed! All that happened here was some ordinary words describing the idea (and not introducing any new ideas themselves) were borrowed without attribution to the words' "author" (but not without attribution to the idea's inventor). That's the whole point.

Posted by M on March 12, 2002 6:28 PM

As you may have noticed, I never read the actual source material from which your musings derive. I simply react to your posts. This probably will not change. Thus, in the past as in the future, I may achieve some clarity of thought without direct relevance to your "argument". I, if only I, appreciate the opportunity to think and write for a second now and then. If you feel my ramblings are leading your points astray, let me know and I'll find a new playpen. You've got my e-mail.

Posted by Les on March 12, 2002 7:09 PM

Erm, I'm not worried about your ramblings leading anything astray, but, naturally, I'm going to respond where appropriate, and if I think a comment misses the point, I will say so....

Posted by M on March 13, 2002 1:22 AM

Regarding the Casti plagarism issue,
I agree with those who accuse the author
of laziness, which should be called out.
However, was it appropriate to besmirch
the guy in a NYTimes article? As has been
noted, the phrases lifted -- whether consciously
or unconsciously -- were not lines containing
profoundly novel scientific writing, nor were
they dazzlingly poetic. Garden variety stuff,
as someone wrote.

Again I ask...did the author deserve to be
besmirched and held up as an example of
scientific plagarism? I hardly think so. The
coverage seemed rather harsh, and suggests to
me that a grumbly crank or two had it out for
him. An entirely disproportional response, in
my opinion. It should've been handled entirely
between Casti, the publisher, and those who took
offense.

Posted by Joe on October 15, 2002 3:31 PM


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