I know, I know, I should have promoted that OrbitCon talk on Steven Pinker before it aired. I was a bit swamped developing material for it, ironically, most of which never made it to air. Don’t worry, I’ll be sharing the good bits via blog post. Amusingly, this first example isn’t from that material. I wound up reading a lot of Pinker, and developed a hunch I wasn’t able to track down before air time. In a stroke of luck, Siggy handed me the material I needed to properly follow up.
Enough suspense: what’s your opinion of self-plagiarism, or copying your own work without flagging what you’ve done?
… self-plagiarism does carry with it some level of dishonesty, at least in some situations. The problem is that, when an author, artist or other creator presents a new work, it’s generally expected to be all-new content, unless otherwise clearly stated. … with an academic paper, one is generally expected to showcase what they have learned most recently, meaning that self-plagiarism defeats the purpose of the paper or the assignment. On the other hand, in a creative environment, however, reusing old passages, especially in a limited manner, might be more about homage and maintaining consistency than plagiarism.
It’s a bit of a gray area, isn’t it? The US Office of Research Integrity declares it unethical, but also declares that self-plagiarism isn’t misconduct. Nonetheless it could be considered misconduct in an academic context, and the ORI themselves outline the case:
For example, in one editorial, Schein (2001) describes the results of a study he and a colleague carried out which found that 92 out of 660 studies taken from 3 major surgical journals were actual cases of redundant publication. The rate of duplication in the rest of the biomedical literature has been estimated to be between 10% to 20% (Jefferson, 1998), though one review of the literature suggests the more conservative figure of approximately 10% (Steneck, 2000). However, the true rate may depend on the discipline and even the journal and more recent studies in individual biomedical journals do show rates ranging from as low as just over 1% in one journal to as high as 28% in another (see Kim, Bae, Hahm, & Cho, 2014) The current situation has become serious enough that biomedical journal editors consider redundancy and duplication one of the top areas of concern (Wager, Fiack, Graf, Robinson, & Rowlands, 2009) and it is the second highest cause for articles to be retracted from the literature between the years 2007 and 2011 (Fang, Steen, & Casadevall, 2012).
But is it misconduct in the context of non-academic science writing? I’m not sure, but I think it’s fair to say self-plagiarism counts as lazy writing. Whatever the ethics, let’s examine an essay by Pinker that Edge published sometime before January 10th, 2017, and match it up against Chapter 2 of Enlightenment Now. I’ve checked the footnotes and preface of the latter, and failed to find any reference to that Edge essay, while the former does not say it’s excerpted from a forthcoming book. You’d have no idea one copy existed if you’d only read the other, so any matching passages count as self-plagiarism.
How many passages match? I’ll use the Edge essay as a base, and highlight exact duplicates in red, sections only present in Enlightenment Now in green, paraphrases in yellow, and essay-only text in black.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. (The First Law is that energy is conserved; the Third, that a temperature of absolute zero is unreachable.) Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.
In its original formulation the Second Law referred to the process in which usable energy in the form of a difference in temperature between two bodies is inevitably dissipated as heat flows from the warmer to the cooler body. (As the musical team Flanders & Swann explained, “You can’t pass heat from the cooler to the hotter; Try it if you like but you far better notter.”) A cup of coffee, unless it is placed on a plugged-in hot plate, will cool down. When the coal feeding a steam engine is used up, the cooled-off steam on one side of the piston can no longer budge it because the warmed-up steam and air on the other side are pushing back just as hard.
Once it was appreciated that heat is not an invisible fluid but the energy in moving molecules, and that a difference in temperature between two bodies consists of a difference in the average speeds of those molecules, a more general, statistical version of the concept of entropy and the Second Law took shape. Now order could be characterized in terms of the set of all microscopically distinct states of a system (in the original example involving heat, the possible speeds and positions of all the molecules in the two bodies). Of all these states, the ones that we find useful from a bird’s-eye view (such as one body being hotter than the other, which translates into the average speed of the molecules in one body being higher than the average speed in the other) make up a tiny sliver of the possibilities, while the disorderly or useless states (the ones without a temperature difference, in which the average speeds in the two bodies are the same) make up the vast majority. It follows that any perturbation of the system, whether it is a random jiggling of its parts or a whack from the outside, will, by the laws of probability, nudge the system toward disorder or uselessness —not because nature strives for disorder, but because there are so many more ways of being disorderly than of being orderly. If you walk away from a sand castle, it won’t be there tomorrow, because as the wind, waves, seagulls, and small children push the grains of sand around, they’re more likely to arrange them into one of the vast number of configurations that don’t look like a castle than into the tiny few that do. [Enlightenment Now adds five sentences here.]
I could (and have!) carried on, demonstrating that almost all of that essay reappears in Pinker’s book. Maybe half of the reappearance is verbatim. I figure he copy-pasted the contents of his January 2017 essay into the manuscript for his 2018 book, and expanded it to fill an entire chapter. Whether I’m right or wrong, I think the similarities make a damning case for intellectual laziness. It also sets up a bad precedent: if Pinker can get this lazy with his non-academic writing, how lazy can he be with his academic work? I haven’t looked into that, and I’m curious if anyone else has.