Thursday, August 21, 2014

Three Strikes, and You're Just Getting Started

Can't anybody here play this game?  This week comes word that yet another humanities professor, in this instance Mustapha Marrouchi of UNLV, has pieced together his writings from the patches of other scholars.  The Chronicle of Higher Education tells the tale, its side-by-side reprintings of original and stolen passages the now familiar tombstones of our scholarly hopes and dreams.  Like Matthew Whitaker at Arizona State University, Mustapha Marrouchi is the well-paid possessor of a named professorship.   Like Matthew Whitaker, he seems to have spent a career writing with others' books and articles open on his desk, their research and analysis to be appropriated as needed. It's all quite deplorable.   But what about the rest of us?  The Cabinet is struck by an unwelcome thought:  do these professors get away with not actually writing, because the rest of us are not actually reading? 
Professor Marrouchi can be accused of many things, but covering his tracks is not one of them.  The Chronicle details his theft of distinctive passages from such well-known scholars as Frank Kermode and Edward Said.  (And, charmingly, Slavoj Zizek, who now stands as both debtor and creditor in the chain of illegitimate borrowings that seems to link us all.) Over and over again, Professor Marrouchi published journal articles that turn out to have been crazy quilt gatherings of others' work.  And over and over again, almost no one noticed: not peer reviewers, not editors, not readers.  When occasionally someone did notice, it was almost always the plagiarized author himself.  This raises the question:  are we the only true readers of our own work?  The conventional, beloved wisdom is that at the heart of the humanities lie inquiry, debate, and the augmentation of human knowledge through competition and collaboration. But the success of Professor Marrouchi suggests that at the heart of the humanities lies little more than the incentive to put stuff on our c.v.'s.  Don't read: write.  We need outlets, but we can do without readers.  The exception might be that we read when we want to criticize, but even that is not reliable.  Earlier this summer, Slavoj Zizek was revealed to have plagiarized his description of the very book he was critiquing.  Because, of course, he hadn't read it.  An apotheosis, in its way.

Professor Whitaker's method is now slightly different from Professor Marrouchi's naive lifting: although his past work on Muhammed Ali contained passages simply taken from Wikipedia, Professor Whitaker and the director of the University of Nebraska Press both say he now runs his writing through plagiarism software more than once.   The effort seems to be to avoid obvious tells (and that, apparently, takes more than one rinse) while also avoiding the work that actual originality might require.  Yet the result raises the same question as the work of Professor Marrouchi:  does anyone read this stuff, or do we simply write, edit, and blurb it?   After all, despite the use of plagiarism software, Peace Be Still is still riddled with plagiarism; it's just that it also possesses some disheartening citations to encyclopedia websites, as well as some odd locutions drawn from changing words in a textbook source.  Yet, there was no shortage of scholars willing to declare this book a "strong contribution to the field and historiography," and "indispensable."  One might presume that experts in the field would be familiar with the standard work in the field, which Professor Whitaker disturbingly misuses, just as one would have presumed that readers of journals that explore postcolonial theory would recognize the borrowed works of Edward Said.  One might also presume that historians would check the notes of books they are evaluating, and be disturbed by reliance on websites such as "," whether or not they suspect plagiarism.  One would be wrong, as one would also be to think that the review service the ALA sells at great cost to libraries, Choice, would actually evaluate the books it recommends.  Instead, the University of Nebraska Press description of Peace Be Still declares it "a history of African Americans for a new generation," and Choice obligingly tells libraries that "this history of African Americans for a new generation breaks new ground."  Welcome, Choice, to the feeding trough!

Professor Marrouchi's and Professor Whitaker's success within academia raises the question of whether, outside a small circle of truly rigorous presses (or rigorous parts of presses) and journals, we're engaged in an enterprise in which everyone's only incentive is to produce words, not to read and think about them.   So entirely is the emphasis on production and profit -- whether literal profit or through status -- that when plagiarism is discovered, the accused routinely declare that they have been subjected to unfair scrutiny.  And the Cabinet thinks they are sincere.  The unfair scrutiny to which they have been subjected?  Someone has actually read their work.  And so, rather than asking whether anybody here can play this game, perhaps the Cabinet should instead ask what kind of game we are playing.   Any referees want to comment?


  1. Thank you for this argument--you raise some important questions about the quality of our institutions of higher ed. These recent plagiarism scandals reveal even more that universities have become places that value product and prestige above all else--above students; above enlightenment; above creating, sharing, and spreading knowledge. The content and meaning of the writing is not important, apparently, only the fact that it's been published. The hypocrisy inherent in plagiarism should not be borne. How can professors require their students to adhere to academic honesty codes when they themselves do not? How can universities keep these thieving liars on their payrolls (with six-figure salaries no less) when thousands of honest, hard-working Ph.D.s can't even get jobs at all? Even worse, how will universities continue to draw funding when such very public scandals continue to occur?

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. Where I work, instructors in the English department make around 1/3 of what a full professors make and roughly 2/3 of what an assistant professor makes.

    The fact is, practically all English instructors are much, much better at their jobs and work much harder at actual teaching than the overpriced charlatans in the professorial ranks. When stories like this come to light, one cannot help but be utterly appalled at what some of those "scholars" get away with and continue to live off the largesse of taxpayers.

    At the same time, a bit of schadenfreude is in order, too. Cheats and liars should be held entirely accountable and should be made to reap what they have sown.