The sudden departure of blogger Avicenna from FtB


Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, who is the person who maintains and is responsible for the FtB network, gives the sad news that a fellow FtB blogger over at A Million Gods has been removed from the network because of serial plagiarism. The charge is that he lifted entire chunks from the writings of others without attribution.

As a teacher and a long time member of academia, I am familiar with the problem of plagiarism, since it is considered a major violation of ethics. For students, the most common reason for committing this act is that they frequently underestimate how long it takes to write something and think they can dash it off the night before the due date and then, confronted with the impossible task of completing something original on time, simply cut and paste from their sources. The problem is further compounded by the fact that some think that attributing too much to other sources somehow devalues their own contribution and will thus result in a lower grade.

I try to take preventive measures to help them avoid these traps. First I tell them that almost all of academic writing consists of small incremental increases in knowledge, and very little is of blinding originality. This is true for even scholarly papers and thus applies doubly to term papers written by students for courses. So I tell them that I don’t expect highly original work but I do expect them to put their own interpretation on the subject.

Secondly, I do not have hard and fast deadlines. I tell them that they can take extra time if they wish and I give them opportunities to rewrite based on my own feedback and the feedback of their peers. This stretches out the writing process and prevents the absurd practice of pulling an all-nighter. Rewriting is an essential part of writing and thinking that you can get it right the first time is one of the biggest misconceptions students have.

Finally, I tell them that citing and quoting others does not detract from their work but actually adds to it because they are harnessing other writers as allies in their cause.

The point of these guidelines is to help them become better writers. The beneficial side effect is that it eliminates the conditions that so often drive people to plagiarize.

In the case of blogging though, none of those conditions really apply which makes Avicenna’s plagiarism so puzzling. We write when we want to about things we care about. There is no time pressure. We are not graded on our writing, though we do get comments. So why plagiarize? Laziness? Ignorance of proper attribution methods? A desire to be seen as a more original writer than one actually is?

Occasionally errors can creep in. As regular readers know, I often use blockquotes when citing others but html is unforgiving of errors and if you make any mistake in the blockquote formatting, it does not do it and the quoted text appears as if it is a continuation of your own words. I catch this when I preview the post before publishing. In addition, I link to the source and mention the name of the writer so that the fact that I am quoting is fairly obvious. It does not take that long to do these things so not doing it implies that one is really sloppy or incredibly lazy or just does not care.

Whatever the reason, it is always a bad thing to plagiarize and one would have hoped that the recent repeated occasions of major writers being exposed would result in people being more careful.

Comments

  1. Pen says

    Out on a limb and speculating wildly about other people’s conduct – I think he underestimated the importance of proper practices. Maybe in his head he never quite transitioned to professional blogger? When I’m rambling to myself in my notebooks, I don’t attribute either, which is fine. To some people, blogging starts as rambling to yourself in public (sort of, given the minuscule audience). If the blog grows and the writer fails to transition or doesn’t have the skills… you get plagiarism, and a host of lesser writerly sins, actually.

  2. DsylexicHippo says

    @ Pen, #1: I don’t think this is about naivette attributable to a tendency to ramble. The evidence is quite overwhelming. Like you, I was a bit skeptical and was willing to give him the benefit of doubt until I read up on it here:

    After Plagiarism Charges, Atheist Blogger Removed from Freethought Blogs Network

    Some of the plagiarism involved slight alteration of original text which indicates that the writer had put some thought into it besides blindly copy-pasting (which he also did, BTW). It is hard to come up with excuses like forgotten or inadvertently dropped blockquotes when it comes to stuff like that.

    For someone who never lost an opportunity to express himself in fifty thousand words where thousand would have sufficed, this not-so-clever intermixing with stolen stuff came as a total surprise to me. Sad.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    But still… it’s pretty steep to kick a blog out of the network without a warning. Especially when the rules are unwritten. That doesn’t leave much room for learning better manners.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Lassi,

    The thing about plagiarism is that among writers it is such a well-known taboo that ignorance is not really an excuse. While one may be excused for not knowing the proper way to attribute work to others or for occasional sloppiness, to not attribute at all and to fail to do so repeatedly, is a serious offense.

  5. leni says

    I found it baffling too, especially how easy is it to search text on the internet.

    But still… it’s pretty steep to kick a blog out of the network without a warning. Especially when the rules are unwritten. That doesn’t leave much room for learning better manners.

    In addition to the egregious nature of the plagiarism, his apology was, well, a not-pology. And I saw this as someone who is sad to see him go and generally enjoyed reading his blog. He minimized the offense. He offered some half-assed excuses to Hemant Mehta when asked. He didn’t demonstrate that he got it. It may have been harsh (I don’t think so), but it was necessary.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    My comment was about the procedure. Avicenna kept on going for a long time without nobody complaining, and then he was suddenly kicked out.

    Blog networks could check the writing of their contributors in the same way teachers check the submissions of their students. There are automated tools for it.
    http://elearningindustry.com/top-10-free-plagiarism-detection-tools-for-teachers
    Avicenna could have been caught much earlier. Maybe early enough to tell him to stop it before it became a habit.

    And about his excuses – I’m a computer engineer, and I could immediately see that he was just using technobabble as a smoke screen.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Lassi,

    This network is a loose affiliation of bloggers with a couple of people responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, There is no one charged with overseeing the content because that would require pretty much a full time person devoted to the task (which we don’t have the resources for) and would create a different set of problems. The network operates essentially on an honor system. If someone raises a serious issue, as in this case, then people look into it but that is about the extent of monitoring.

  8. says

    Lassi: as I said elsewhere, a less extreme response might have been appropriate if Avi had been caught much earlier, like maybe the first or second time he plagiarized. But now, it’s much too late to treat it as a “first offense” or “rare indiscretion.”

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    There is no need for human monitoring in real time. The check could be a script that runs in the background, and alerts the admin when something dubious is found.
    Or you could just name a tool and tell the writers to use it themselves, if they doubt their own judgment.

  10. leni says

    You should bring that up with Ed Brayton or PZ, Lassi. It’s not a terrible idea and automated might work, though someone would still need to monitor it. Perhaps they could get a volunteer or two to assist.

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