Saturday, August 31, 2013

McCloskey "The Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" (also Lynn Conway)

Eastern Economic Journal 28, Winter 2002 by Deirdre McCloskey. (For an interesting parallel, see Lynn Conway, who is one of famous names in VLSI (very large systems integration, on a chip) with collaborator Carver Mead (of Caltech). McCloskey is a distinguished economic historian, Chicago School, and has recently done a series of  books on the rise of bourgeois values and economic development.

I will quote her main point, leaving out her italics:

"The only correct procedure for assessing scholarship in hiring or promotion is for the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from the outside."

I would add that it might be useful to have a designated devil's advocate (much as there is a designated driver).

My new book does not take this point of view, but had I read McCloskey when I was putting it together, I would have featured her argument.

Personality and Words in Social Media

Go to this link to get the whole story.

People are happier if they are about 50, at say 37 deg latitude and it is Monday.

I am not a tough teacher, but...

I am not a tough teacher. My courses are not exhausting in their workloads, I almost never give exams, and never feel compelled to grade on some sort of "curve." My grading is a matter of the excellence (or not) of the work, and that is almost always apparent and not subtle.

I am trying to teach people how to think about something, or how to do some craft with sufficient skill so that they can do interesting work. You might have to become acquainted with a literature, and learn to read it. The mastery is never a matter of being rigorous. It's a matter of can you do it well enough.

I try to teach people how to read a book (you try to figure out what's going on by reading the beginning, the end, the chapter beginnings) and how to take on a substantial project (write yourself notes about what you might do, and then one day just start on it). So the reading or the paper or the project need not be overwhelming. The trick in each case is to learn how to go back to your work and make it better, to reread to check your understanding of a book, ...

Trained in the natural sciences, it was a matter of doing the problem sets and trying to understand what was going on. And some courses were demanding. But I don't recall any that were exhausting or impossible to understand. Actually, I recall taking a first year graduate algebra course, as a junior, doing poorly, and realizing later that I did not know how to study mathematics or how to get help--so this course was beyond me, but I think it was in part that I did not know how to study, in part my mathematical imagination was too demanding of concreteness. And in my early undergraduate years, I did have some quite exhausting reading assignments, but I did not realize they were exhausting, nor did I realize how to read political theory or social theory or even novels and literature when you were reading for a course.

My point here is that whatever it was, my experience was never that courses were tough, per se. I seemed always to have missed the supposedly tough teachers--or perhaps their reputations were unearned?

Surely there are subjects which are difficult for some fraction of students, typically mathematical parts of social science, or subtle reading of texts, or mastery of a foreign language, or following a complex argument in theory or philosophy. My feeling is that these courses could do a much better job of giving away the secret handshakes, telling people what is going on in the formalism, in the text's argument, in the language or argument. And some of the time a course is difficult since you do not have the right background and prerequisites--and the instructor could make things better for you.

Soon after I received my PhD I discovered that what was most interesting about what I could do in a classroom or in a discussion with a student was to think out loud (even if that thinking was already written down in my lecture notes) and in response to a student. Watching me think through a problem was the best teaching I could offer. Since I could readily be encouraged to follow my nose (actually, going off topic), by a student's second question or something that came to mind, my meandering and high-jumping was part of the exhibition. That is, my lecturing was a matter of watching me think and watching me link up apparently disparate topics.

Now this all might be a vanity, an excuse for a lack of didactic focus. I do know how to teach physics and be didactic. But for what I teach, didactic would seem to be missing the point.


Friday, August 30, 2013

The Tragedy of the Tenured Less-Published PhD

If you want to get a PhD to have one, read no further.

But if you want to get a PhD, so that you can participate in the community of research and teaching, it's tragic when people have comparatively little published work to show for themselves after say ten years. Lots of dissertation work is never published. This would not be a problem, at all, if the scholar purused a career that led to many publications in a different direction. But if little ensues, there is a sense that people have failed. Now, you could use your talents for consulting firms, you could become a teacher at a non-research institution, you could be the Whore of Mensa (from a Woody Allen story, where you charge for conversations about esoteric subjects, and surely your dissertation work is esoteric). You could start a business that makes use of your doctoral training, whether it be writing formulaic romances or a consumer product or ...

I don't know the percentage of tenurings at research-oriented  institutions that then lead to a career that is not research-productive, but surely it is more than 10% at most institutions.

You don't want to be a second-rate person at a research university, unless you have a designated teaching appointment and focus on your teaching, and you are comfortable with being looked down upon (more likely, imagine you are being looked down up) by your research-productive colleagues.

And for most scholars, to have stopped publishing in your 40s or 50s does not feel good, although there are some scholars who make such a success early in their careers, it's unlikely they will even come close later--or they may feel that they have to take another such monumental research problem and it does not work out again and again.

You could become an administrator and be very effective at that, and be admired for that. But don't forget that you won't be admired as a scholar unless you laid a golden egg early in your career, and even then, "What have they done lately?" will haunt you.

None of this applies at most institutions.  But if you are at an institution that has high expectations, or aspires to such, and they put lots of emphasis on research, grants, publication, and external visibility and measures such a citations, h-indexes, etc etc.--you don't want to be there if you are not doing what they want. I am not sure fraction of all such institutions are of this sort (and some of them are four-year colleges of great reknown)--but it is perhaps something like 5-10% of all 4 year or more higher education institutions.

This is not meant to be comfortable. What it means is that you need to find another pond in which your strengths are valued. Tenure, if you take it to be a barrier to changing your work, is a sure road to death.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lev Landau on High Quality Work.

Lev D. Landau was a distinguished physicist of the USSR, died in 1962, who led a great school of theoretical physicists. Here is one of his colleagues...
Landau thought there was a lot of stupidity  out there (in science and life) and not much intelligence. One aphorism  thus went as follows: “Why are singers stupid? It’s a different  principle of selection.” Here’s another, a good fit for the present day:  People who hear of some extraordinary phenomenon start proposing  to explain it with improbable hypotheses. First consider the simplest  explanation: that it’s all nonsense.  Finally – and with great relevance for today – Landau believed  that a leader in science absolutely has to have his own generally  accepted scientific results. Only then does he have the moral right  to lead people and set problems before them (and, I’ll now note, to  give recommendations to the political administration). Landau used  to say:  No scientific career can be based on decency alone – this will  inevitably lead to a lack of both science and decency.”  One wants to expand on these words now: No scientific career can  be based solely on organizational skills without like consequences.
B. Ioffe, pp. 25-26
Under the Spell of Landau
When Theoretical Physics was Shaping Destinies
edited by Mikhail Shifman (University of Minnesota, USA)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Psychopathology in Academic Life + La Devoradora (an opera)

I refer to academic life, since I want to focus on the university, rather than the more isolated scholar or scientist.

Universities are big enough, and porous enough, so that they accommodate many people who are "difficult." Some may be Aspberger's Syndrome, the currently popular confessional of the academy. There are alcoholics, drug addicts, OCD, depressives, and sometimes psychotics. The latter is often a tragic story of enormous promise and achievement, but then they are too ill to do their work. Some of these "difficult" people respond well to therapy and medication, others much less so.

There are as well sociopaths (Wikipedia "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. There may be an impoverished moral sense or conscience and a history of crime, legal problems, impulsive and aggressive behaviour") and psychopaths (Wikipedia "personality trait or disorder characterised partly by enduring antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, and poor ).")

And many insecure or manipulative or dangerous people (who are dangerous for whatever reason). In general, you may well end up being in the focus of their obsessions and anxieties, just because you happen to have done something--more or less how you get drenched in a rainstorm because you happen to be someplace. Such people may well be unstable, psychologically needy of attention, temporarily or permanently. They may well have strengths, valuable skills, but that does not make them less dangerous. If you are lucky they will send you a note in the middle of the night resigning their jobs. Immediately send a note to the effect that you regret their decision but must accept it, and you will initiate their separation from your institution immediately.

You need to treat these people clinically, trying not to feed their anxieties, although that may well prove impossible. Never assume they are normal, even if they appear to be. See below.

And try to avoid putting these people in contact with clients, students, or others--you cannot rely on them.    


It is useful and helpful to refer some to the university health or therapy offices, but sometimes they are in positions where that just won't happen. They may act out in astonishing ways, they may be liars and manipulators, they may organize trouble for whomever they happen to focus their anxieties upon.

Now you have to protect yourself. Usually, it is best to very politely be Teflon for them, their shenanigans having nothing to do with you. Never respond to their emails, and if they want to talk with you, after five minutes announce a pressing engagement. They are unlikely to take your kind counsel, perhaps saying that they know you are against them. It's not nice, but probably they will have to hit rock bottom, offending some powerful person (or creating liabilities for the institution) who will have the authority to do something.


Imagine an opera: La Devoradora (The Devourer), an opera in one act, by Kockadoodle Do, a Japanese composer.

       [The homonymic reference to Dora The Explorer is intentional, and reflects Kockadoodle Do's fascination with girls of great competence facing danger. But now the Dora figure [see below on Dora in Freud, and on Devora in the Hebrew Bible] in effect becomes her opposite, "Swiper,  bipedalanthropomorphic masked thieving fox" (Wikipedia). The opera directly engages the audience (much as in Dora) but now they are deceived into helping La Devoradora, the broken fourth wall  inverting traditional theater's audience that was more involved with socializing with each other than what was happening on stage. Rather than Dora finding her goal and singing "We Did It!", La Devoradora "finds" a goal she accepts but does not search for. The parallels to Don Giovanni are deliberate.]

The premier performance stars Ezio Peni, as Panini, who sings loud and slightly off key (as required by the music!), and Ms. Nana Ntrebki who sings beautifully, under her breath and with a forked tongue, again as in the libretto and music. We are incredulous watching and hearing La Devoradora's machinations to defrock Panini. For by his mere being, Panini challenges La Devoradora's claim to be the best interior desecrator in all of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and in the Avenues of Art and Design. The three-star operatic moment is when La Devoradora arises from her zombie state and takes over Panini’s soul ("Il Authoritorio," sung majestically by Ntrebki). Panini then sings, “Going to Wash That Woman Right Out of My Hair”--echoing the melody of the song from South Pacific, but of course off key and with a frightening thumping bass. The great anti-climax follows, when La Devoradora falls into a pit of her own making, and sinks below (much as does the Don in Mozart's Don Giovanni). The rest of the characters, especially Panini, joyfully join holy orders, resolving to be better people, as they sing "We Did It!", so bringing the audience back to their early television experience of Dora the Explorer. We see at the end, a chorus of interior desecrators wondering what has happened to Panini and to La Devoradora.

Johnny Levi conducts the Barclay's Center Brooklyn orchestra, featuring Brooklyn Nets players, Lubavitchers from Coney Island Avenue and Eastern Parkway, and children from neighborhood families in the Barclay's Chorus (who, of course, know Dora and Dora the Explorer very well).

As for Dora, here is Wikipedia on Freud on Dora:
Through the analysis, Freud interprets Ida's hysteria as a manifestation of her jealousy toward the relationship between Frau K and her father, combined with the mixed feelings of Herr K's sexual approach to her.[15] Although Freud was disappointed with the initial results of the case, he considered it important, as it raised his awareness of the phenomenon of transference, on which he blamed his seeming failures in the case.
Freud gave her the name 'Dora', and he describes in detail in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life what his unconscious motivations for choosing such a name might have been. His sister's nursemaid had to give up her real name, Rosa, when she accepted the job because Freud's sister was also named Rosa—she took the name 'Dora' instead. Thus, when Freud needed a name for someone who could not keep her real name (this time, in order to preserve his patient's anonymity), Dora was the name that occurred to him.[16]

And on Devora (bee in Hebrew) Judges 4-5, again Wiki:
Deborah (HebrewדְבוֹרָהModern ‹See Tfd›Dvora Tiberian ‹See Tfd›Dəḇôrā ; "Bee", Arabicدبورة Daborah) was a prophetess of the God of the Israelites, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel, counselor, warrior, and the wife of Lapidoth according to the Book of Judges chapters 4 and 5.
The only female judge mentioned in the Bible, Deborah led a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera, the narrative is recounted in chapter 4.
Judges chapter 5 g

Friday, August 23, 2013

Three Books (or Two plus a Second Edition) in Three Years

I plotted the year of when my books appeared, but started the chart with when I entered college (Columbia) and and then when I received my PhD (in physics). [See below. I have also included fellowships and grants for research time.] One year two books appeared, and I have "three" books in a row recently (two new ones plus a second edition), with a promised fourth (also a second edition) coming up. Since two of these are second editions, I counted them as 0.8 books, and the promised book is 1/2 of 0.8. So one of the three books in the topic of the post is a second edition. Four of the books are about mathematical modeling, four are about theory of planning and design, and the most recent reflects years of service on our university's promotion and tenure committee

It took seven or eight years to find a publisher for my first book, the second was a product of a research grant (with some of its chapters already in journals, but not most). The third took a while to find a publisher and includes one or two published chapters but most were not previously published. The fourth and fifth happened to appear the same year; one was written three years earlier, the other was something I did on the side for perhaps six or seven years. The 2000 book was driven by an article I published in 1973, and included subsequent work mostly unpublished, and it took forever to find a publisher. The next book was also written on the side, and after some frustration I did find a publisher but I had to give them camera-ready copy, as is done nowadays in mathematics and similar LaTex fields. The 2011 book again took a while to find a publisher. The next book was a second edition, and the publisher was quite happy to do it since the first edition sold reasonably well. The newest book was taken on the by the same publisher. In prospect is a contracted second edition of the 2003  book, and they are quite happy to do a second edition. In further prospect, and not on the chart is a book I wrote in 1979!, and I have yet to find a publisher (maybe it is not worth pressing any longer); and, another book that demands color printing and I have been shopping for a publisher for seven years. I am not sure there are any more books in prospect.

The hiatus between the first and second book reflected the fact that I did all the research for the second after the first appeared, and I had not found a publisher (still not) of the book drafted in 1979. The second hiatus again reflected years of research in a new field.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Email Flames: Wait Forever

It is well known that email encourages people to write incendiary or insulting or idiotic messages, expressing sentiments they would never express if they thought a second time. If you receive such email, put it aside. If the email has been broadcast, surely put it aside.

Most of the time, you will want to save the message, never respond, and if asked if you read it say it must have been lost in the Inbox and have them send it again. They won't.

If you feel compelled to respond, think twice. And in any case, never respond immediately--wait a week.  But if in the end you respond, respond in an unemotional manner, stick to facts, never argue. It won't stop the flamer but it may help.

I have found that this sort of email comes out of insecurity, anxiety, and an inflated sense of importance. There is little you can do about those sources. If things continue, you hope the source will self-immolate, so to speak.

I know that I have an earlier post on this topic.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Road to Pi

You can express pi as a sum of terms: A power of 16 x [a sum of 4 fractions)], each a function of k, k=0... that is, a sum of terms, each of which is a scaling factor times a fraction.

The first term is 3.1333, and very shortly (by k=4) you are well past 3.14159 in accuracy. In fact this formula,  in octal, produces the digits of pi way out without needing to know all the previous terms. Current issue (as of 8/2013) of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and it is called a BPP formula.

What I like about this sort of formula is that it is easy to program on a calculator and you get the advantages of sophisticated analysis. You are participating in what is called "experimental mathematics." BPP comes from the PSLQ algorithm.

There are many other series that express pi, the usual ones being something like arctan 1= pi/4, and you use the series for the arctan.  But here, to get a certain accuracy, you need to add up all the relevant terms up to some k

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rhetoric for Presidents/Deans Vs. for Faculty

"a committee to develop a detailed curriculum proposal to be presented to faculty ...for an ultimate and final vote.  The committee will ... setting out to determine strategic goals and program competencies, designing learning experiences that inspire creativity and enhance knowledge in critical domains to catapult already accomplished professionals into expanded capacity to serve communities of practice and address global challenges." [my italics, my source here is left out deliberately]*

Here are the key terms:
an ultimate and final vote
setting out to determine 
strategic goals
program competencies
designing learning experiences 
inspire creativity
enhance knowledge 
critical domains
expanded capacity 
to serve communities of practice
address global challenges

This quote is ideal for presidents and deans, but it won't work for your faculty colleagues since they are immediately skeptical of the use of ideas in good currency (another such term, due to D. Schon), and they know that votes are neither ultimate nor final, at least until the provost and deans go along.  

What are you really up to? Is this quote meant to have specific content, or is it meant to  be flag-waving (a good thing, but it won't work for faculty).  See below under * for a translation that might do a bit better.

The deep problem is that when we initiate programs we tend to describe them in apocalyptic and chiliastic terms. But someone is bound to ask, Where's the beef?, and for a recipe that one might follow (and not something that is well beyond Julia Child).

Similarly, of late my colleagues seem to be skeptical of terms like "transformational", and they wonder what is the "interdisciplinarity" that has concrete meaning in their areas of concern. "Student centered learning" and "learning styles" are interesting notions, but they always thought they were being student centered. It's not that my colleagues are deaf to transcendent goals; they see these in football and other athletic endeavors. They are willing to engage in such talk in fund-raising, but most donors are quite smart and not at all deceived by grandiose language--although it may serve their interests to be so seen. But they do know where's the beef.

*I believe the following conveys the sense: The proposal will be discussed and voted upon by the faculty, and the dean and university committee will have the final say. The proposal will focus on skills and policy areas that reflect our faculty’s unique strengths; describe the basic courses, courses meant to teach you how to learn even more--so that you can develop your ideas about advancing practice in your profession (while grounding those ideas in the scholarly literature).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Plagiarism's Repeat Offenders: Three Strikes or Two?

There is surely overlap, but I thought it better to just put together all the recent posts about plagiarism, and they are to be found a few postings earlier than this one. I worried that I was obsessed by this, but the university people who are concerned about plagiarism assure me that I am OK--it hurts the university and the student (their degree could be rescinded) if their work is discovered to be copied. That so many are unaware of the rules of the game is striking.

I have discovered that you are best off having the university experts take over for students who do not hear the message. Not to penalize the students, but to make sure they do not become repeat offenders. In effect there is a three-strikes rule, but it may well be only be two strikes.

Earlier this year, after the end of the semester, I received the following note:

"I've received numerous emails from students about your correspondences to them regarding their final exam papers being filtered through Turn-it-In [Turnitin]after the semester has ended and final course grades submitted. Some students are very upset, even frightened.  

I know your intention is to raise the bar on student writing.
Some students will seek you out to mentor them.  Others want to go on with their summer.
Please stop emailing students in your classes now that the semester is over.  
Let them feel free to contact you."

I would think that the students should be upset or frightened if they plagiarized, and reassured if they had not. 

That I discovered the plagiarism after the grades were submitted does not free students from the concern of the University Judicial Committee. And the rules are that I consult with students about such discoveries on the way to reporting the problem, which it would seem to be mandatory. In effect this note was telling me to violate university policy. (By the way, I was not about raising the bar on student writing, nor about mentoring. It was about plagiarism.) And the students have no option about communicating with me about this sort of problem. So I take this note to be a form deliberate obstruction of university rules and procedures.  I ignored the note, by the way.

IN GENERAL, SUCH NOTES, AND RANTS, TOO, ARE BEST TREATED AS PRE-TRASH: READ ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE THEM AS SUCH AND TRASH. Otherwise the sender is setting themselves up for university trouble, and one's goal is to "include me out."

But never assume it will stop...

I understand you have reported several of our students to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for plagiarism.

After your Spring 2013 courses ended, after you submitted final semester grades to the registrar, you ran papers through Turn-it-In.

On 6/18/13, you then sent this email to all students:
I will be sending Turnitin Originality Scores to you in the next week. Higher scores mean more similarity with other sources. (I was advised not to send you any more messages this summer. Think of this as a message from your oncologist six months after having had a "clean" bill of health post-surgery and chemo, now with the six month MRI. There are now cancers throughout your body. Miraculously, you can now excise them with a simple pill. I figured you'd want to know immediately.)

I will not be changing grades or going to the university committee. This is what they call a teachable moment. Be grateful for it.

What began as a teachable moment has become an ongoing drama. You did submit formal complaints to the university Student Judicial Affairs Committee.

In addition, today, you sent yet another email blast announcing to all students that you filed complaints against some students with Student Judicial Affairs. To that end, I have receive panic phone calls and multiple concerns. You’ve left my office yet again with cleaning up chaos and confusion.
Please stop all your email blasts to  students from this point on and moving forward.

Thank you,
Actually, after a while I did consult the University Judicial Affairs people, and they took over. So in this sense, I changed my mind. But it turns out to be mandatory to report plagiarism...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Trying to Understand Stuff

In the weeks just before the Fall semester, I have been trying to understand some mathematics in order to revise my book Doing Mathematics (2003). But what I am trying to understand is highly technical in the case of what are called "large cardinals" (essentially numbers much bigger than the size of the set of the integers, aleph-nought--a countable infinity--for these are uncountable infinities, such as the size of the interval 0,1 of the real line).  In the years since the mid-60s, this field of set theory has flourished, its results important but not at all easily mastered (at least by me).

I am also trying to understand the relationship between the Yang-Baxter Equations (and commuting transfer matrices), YBE,  the Bethe Ansatz, BA, and Hopf algebras, HA--in statistical mechanics and other realms. The YBE come up naturally in the solution to a model of a ferromagnet. The BA says that when you have many particles interacting with each other, you can treat the situation as a suitable sum of two-body interactions. (The consistency conditions for this to work is related to the YBE, I believe). I am not sure how the HA play a role, but they are ways of expressing the YBE I believe. I have no intuition of just what makes a HA special.

Moreover, I am not sure that my exposition of a crucial analogy in chapter 5 is really right.

I will work it out, time will help. But what's interesting for me is that when I am ready, as I now am, I become willing to work hard to figure things out, or at least to make a serious guess as to what is going on.

Time disappears when I am working, although a daily nap or two is needed to clear the mind.

It is time like these where I wished I really had a much deeper training in mathematics, training deep enough so that I had some useful intuitions about what is going on.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Clawbacks for Deans? for Chairs? for Faculty?

Clawbacks for Deans? for Chairs? for Faculty?

1. In George Akerlof’s Nobel-prize article, “The Market for Lemons,” he notes that used car buyers will rationally offer less for a car than the dealer would like, believing that the dealer has more information on the vehicle than the buyer, and assuming that negative information is unlikely to be conveyed.

Of course, this also affects the offer for really good used cars. So, the dealer might solve this problem by offering certified used cars with an extended warranty. Or the buyer might leave the used car market and buy a new car (if they can afford one). Similarly, buyers might not tell all the information relevant to their credit history…

2. When a dean (or chair) proposes tenure for one of their faculty, presumably they know more about the faculty member than the university committee or the provost. In effect the dean (and also the chair) is a used car salesman. The letter writers might have been subtly chosen, the weaknesses might not be revealed. And what economists (Kahneman and Tversky) call the “endowment effect” may also apply, where we value what we have in our possession more than if it were offered for sale by someone else.

The university committee and the provost would like to believe that the dean tells them all, that the letter writers are forthcoming, that all participants are committed to the whole university. But human nature being what it is, the provost might want to be sure the university is not getting stuck with a lemon. You can sell that used car that turns out to be a lemon, perhaps for much less than you paid for it. But tenure is for 30 years or so. On the other hand, when really strong candidates come up, both the dean and the provost want to know that.

Moreover, there is evidence that deans can count but do not read. That is, there are studies that numbers of articles are a better predictor of deans' tenure decisions than the quality of the work. So even an honest dean may not be reliable.

3. Faculty tell their chairs and deans their future plans. Given what we know about what people accomplish on their sabbaticals, it is reasonable to suppose that faculty overpromise. The book is almost done, when in fact there are a few draft chapters and outlines at best for the rest. The articles will go out in the next month. The grant should be coming down the line in three months.

Now some faculty actually deliver. They do just what they said they would do--in grant applications, in annual reports, in personal statements at promotion time.

But many faculty overpromise, at best, or they are actually deceptive. Their good intentions dominate their capacity to say where they are in projects.

4. Used car dealers (and deans, chairs, faculty) can avoid some of these problems by building a reputation for honesty and reliability, and for taking charge of their mistakes. At the same time, provosts, deans, and chairs must be willing to hear mixed messages and not immediately say NO, and be willing to consider extraordinary cases. The cream puff on the outside may be just what some buyers want, especially if they are told about the rusting frame and so the price is lowered.

5. Now, deans have limited appointments, usually for 5-10 years. But tenure for the faculty member (who is a lemon) is lifetime. Their colleagues are stuck with them, and if they are not forthcoming with negative opinions at tenure time, at least they suffer the consequences of their acts. But deans do not.

Of course, the university could have a devil’s advocate, providing the strongest negative case for a tenure decision, in effect balancing the dean. It would be much as if you had your mechanic go over the car before you buy it. But, still, it may make sense for deans to face clawbacks for their lack of transparency. It’s hard to know what these might be, since a dean may now be a provost elsewhere, being bamboozled by the deans under them. Still, reputational damage is a strong disincentive, much as rescinding of the doctorate might be a strong disincentive to plagiarism.

6. As for faculty who overpromise, salary raises can be delayed until the promised material arrives. If the faculty member is a tenured associate professor, promotion can be delayed as well. Those who are promising a big book year after year have to be given deadlines.
7. Now, people could go buy a new car, avoiding the used car market. Universities could get a new assistant professor whenever there was any uncertainty about the person coming up for tenure (saying NO to all but the most obviously in good working order--making the tenure track rather more tenuous). Or, they could make tenure decisions further down the line, say at year 10, the car having proven itself as reliable after 50,000 miles, so to speak. Or, you could only hire more senior scholars, for whom information is much more widely shared. The new assistant professor and the two-book scholar are in effect the new cars of the academic marketplace, in one case you don't know if you have a Yugo or a Prius, and in the other you don't know if the well-tested vehicle will continue to perform at a high level, when it will begin to break down (and this does depend on the model).

8. Now you might have a repair shop that takes in lemons and makes them good. You bought a lemon, but rather than getting rid of it, you bring it to the repair shop and they do the best they can without breaking your bank. Provosts should have active programs of faculty improvement, where the lemons are in fact repaired and set on a more fruitful path--although the mechanics here have to be very sophisticated in their people-skills and their technical skills.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

PLAGIARISM--ALL My Posts in One Place, From Earliest to Latest

0. [Turnitin is a computer application, provided in many universities I believe, that takes a paper and searches the net (ala Google) for sources that are similar to what is written in the paper. You can discover others who have quoted you, and you can determine how much of your work is similar to other work--even excluding parts of your work that are in quotation marks and the bibliographic notes.] I ran the manuscript of my new book The Scholar's Survival Manual through Turnitin, and after excluding all the people who quoted from my blog, or sources I had acknowledged, I was at the 1% level at most.


0.1 Another example: I ran a page from a filed dissertation and received 15% similarity. Looked at carefully, and given the information from Turnitin, we have the following situation. On that one page:

Joe Schmoe had almost said the obvious when he wrote "junk is junk....." (p. 145 of Schmoe)

But it turns out that there is another source, PostSchmoe, which says exactly that whole line (what is underlined above). That is, while the quotation from Schmoe is referred to and quotation marks are used, the fact that the whole sentence is taken from PostSchmoe is not referenced nor are there quotation marks around the underlined sentence. This is not acceptable. It is ok to use the quotation from Schmoe with reference and quotation marks, and you can make up your own sentence around it. It is ok to indicate that your original source for the Schmoe quotation "junk is junk...." is from PostSchmoe, but you had better check the Schmoe source to be sure PostSchmoe quoted Schmoe correctly. You can even leave out PostSchmoe if you go to the original source, Schmoe, and are assured that Schmoe is quoted correctly by PostSchmoe--although I am not sure this is really acceptable.


I have deliberately not used "plagiarism" and "theft" and "property" in this posting. I leave that to committees at universities, and to theorists about the nature of copying.

An excellent source on copying is provided by the Harvard College Writing Program .

1. I have put a number of student papers through Turnitin, a program that finds similarity among sources and papers. It is possible to eliminate quoted passages and the bibliography and even similarities that are say 15 words or less. I get anywhere from 1% similarity to 5, 6, 7, 12, 27, 31% similarity after removing quotes, bibliography, and 15 words or less similar in a passage. You have to look at the paper to know the significance of the copying. Almost always 1% is never a problem. But, for example the 5% paper copies passages from a variety of internet sources, the 6% paper seems to coincide with lots of student papers but no other sources, and those coincidences are not serious. The 31% paper quotes long passages from authoritative sources, and all that would be needed is quotation marks or indents.

2. Namely, if you need to give exact quotes from a source, as in a government document or a writer, use quotation marks. If you borrow sentences from a source, and they are not meant to be authoritative you will need to use your own formulation or put quotes there (usually, The sky is a golden yellow. need not be in quotes, but if you are referring to a line in a song, or to a description given on a website, you must give source and use quotes).

You cannot copy word for word and expect to fulfil your obligations by giving a reference. You MUST have quotation marks if it is word for word, and if you are paraphrasing a source should be given.

3. To one class, I wrote: Had I used Turnitin before sending in your grades, I would have had to send many of you to the university committee that is concerned with academic integrity. And as indicated in the syllabus, you would likely have received an F in the course. I had not thought to Turnitin the papers, since none of your copying was so obvious to me.

Some of the students were scrupulous (Turnitin similarity is 1% or less after quotations and bibliography are taken out), so this is not a blanket statement, by far.


4. I am not sure what is the level of most papers that are original and use quotation marks around materials that is taken from elsewhere. But what is striking to me is that there are other forms of borrowing that ought be acknowledged. So if you adopt a periodization of an institution's history, you probably want to indicate your source. So if you are more or less reproducing a map, but now redone in your own hand, so to speak, you probably need to acknowledge the source. And if you are making an argument that is derived from another source's argument, in your own words, you want to acknowledge that other source.

5. For students, it makes sense to put your paper through something like Turnitin to know how it might be rated. If you've done all the right things, and you find that you are borrowing more than you would expect, you'll need to think about how to acknowledge that borrowing without saying that you got it from there. "After writing this essay, I found a similar argument in..." might work.

For the most part, none of this is subtle. And if you have forgotten a source but you are now channeling its language, the Turnitin test will help to keep you honest. Few people can channel more than a few sentences, in any case.
In sum: Practical advice, repeating some of the above:

1. You can put your paper through Turnitin (I believe this is available to students before they hand in papers, but I am not sure) to find places where you quoted from sources, but did not use quotation marks, or where you might put in a source reference if you have not done so already.

2. If you are copying more than few words from a source, quotation marks and reference are needed. If those few words are distinctive, quotation marks and references may be needed.

3. Internet sources are almost sure to be detected. Moreover, I have discovered that nowadays they often dominate a paper's references. That does not help the authority of your paper.

4. If you are taking a general structure from a source--for example the four periods of citizen participation over the last 50 years, or an argument--you want to give a reference. "This division of historical periods is taken from X", "Here I follow the argument given by Z"

5. If you discover a source that mirrors what you are saying, after you have written it, you might say, "After drafting this passage, I found that Y had made similar points. However...."

6. Don't borrow sentence structures, etc. Don't try to compose a paper out of bits and pieces of other papers and sources. You can borrow and use whatever you want to if you use quotation marks and references. But if it appears that the paper is a patched-together set of quotations, you won't do well.

University rules re academic integrity will force your instructor to send your work the a university office to review such apparent violations. Your instructor may call you in to discuss. But the marked up Turnitin version of your paper, which indicates sources and quoted passages (say, just those without quotation marks) is in effect your being caught red-handed. I have never heard a good excuse for such.

Ia//In my university, quoting from the regulations:

"Plagiarism in a graduate thesis or dissertation. ... Expulsion from the university when discovered prior to graduation; revocation of degree when discovered subsequent to graduation."

Hence, doctoral students do not want to think that any yet-undetected plagiarism in their schoolwork will never have consequences. Their final grades may be in, and their dissertation filed and awarded, but ... if it is discovered that plagiarism occurs in their thesis/dissertation, they are likely to have their degree revoked, and if in their schoolwork prior to the dissertation they might well be expelled. Good academic integrity habits have to be inculcated from the beginning of their graduate work, so they do not set themselves up for future disaster. Dissertations are public documents, and anyone might discover plagiarism--although it is remarkable that anyone at all will read the dissertation after it is filed. Of course, once plagiarism is detected, then it will be searched for in other documents. (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, story is telling and troubling.)

There have been several very public cases in Europe of distinguished politicians having their doctorates revoked. This site has various German dissertations that were revoked, including a map of the plagiarized pages:

If you are interested in more complex issues, the Committee on Publication Ethics has a large number of cases.

Percentage of "similarity" from almost all the papers I received this semester--see below.

Note that each paper needs to be examined carefully since the Originality Report
from Turnitin does not tell you the nature of the copying. Also, it does not tell you about
appropriating an argument without giving credit. And if the quotations are indented
they are treated as if they do not have quotation marks. In any case, these percentages
are for copying that does not havequotation marks, it does not touch the bibliography,
and it says that copying that is 10 words or less in sequence is not to be counted
in the percentage. One can adjust all of these, and again one must look at the paper.
Often, one finds a reference but no quotation marks around the copied passage.
Sometimes, arguments or structures are not referencedand that will not be picked
up by Turnitin.
I have discovered that even in doctoral theses, there is perhaps 5 to 8% or more similarity,

usually because of copying without quotation marks. I am not sure there would be warrant to
revoke these doctorates, but there's no reason to be in this position.  Slide past blank space to next posting.


II//Mathematics of Turnitin Originality Scores:  Say that you have C(N) passages of length N that are copied. The total number of copied words of length N passages is just N times C(N), and the Percentage of the W words-long paper that is similar, where we ignore passages of n words or less that are similar is just

Sim(N)=(1/W)*100* SUM N to W (n x C(n)) percent.
dSim(N)/dN = - (100/W) N C(N)

I checked on longish paper with a high similarity score and
Sim(N)= 0.0011 N x N - 0.4N + 49
was a decent fit from N=5 to N=200, and so
dSim(N)/dN= 0.0022 N - 0.4 (obviously this makes no sense for large N).
The basic point is that you start out with 49%, and lose about 0.4% for each additional word, while at the 25 word cutoff, you lose 0.35%/word.

Two different papers, Originality Scores vs. Length of quotation that does not count
This one is for a paper that had a 29% score at 10 words. It should be monotonic but the Originality Scores I get are not? Why? The chart at the bottom had a score of 42% for 10 words and is the example in the main text.

This one below is for the example in the text.


III//In reading publicly available documents, such as dissertations, or speeches by prominent individuals, or scholarly articles, I am sometimes tempted to check them out on Turnitin. Perhaps their author seems cavalier about the problem of copying. Perhaps you have a run of students all of whom seem to have no idea of scholarly practice--something I am told you learn in high school--about quotation and reference.

For example, here below are two examples of similarity of more than one or two words, where the source is given but the fact of exact quotation of a phrase is not indicated by quotation marks. If it happens once or twice in a piece of work, it's likely to be carelessness. But if it is pervasive, it indicates that the author does not fully appreciate the consequences of such unacknowledged exact quotation. We see it often when students are writing in a language that is not native. But for scholars, there is at least the problem of having your work questioned, your degree rescinded!, your reputation besmirched. I will call this brick wall plagiarism, as suggested by a friend, since the Turnitin marked up manuscript looks like a brick wall. See below.


Also, Secondary Quoting: You see a useful quote in source S1 taken from source S0. You had better go back to S0 to be sure that S1 has quoted S0 correctly. You might say, S0 as quoted by S1, but you then are depending on S1 being scrupulous. And keep in mind the problem of using quotation marks, for S1 may not have done that correctly. Scrupulous scholars (actually, any properly trained writer) are likely to indicate that they were alerted to the S0 quote by S1's reference and quotation (with or without quotation marks--but no need to indicate that!).

---The source is first, the text checked is second. It may be that both have copied from the same source without quotation marks, or we have a S1/S0 situation.------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

IV//A distinguished colleague wrote me:

" [I]t is simply not always possible to paraphrase somebody (even in English there are only so many synonyms for many words and they all don't sound right). But I don't think it is necessary to put quotes around things that aren't paraphrased.
"I suspect this is a spectrum (like so much in the world). I'm not sure how many words from one source I would consider to be ok to use without quotation marks--somewhere between 30 and 70 I think (again as long as sources are given).

"SO the number of sources is very relevant to me, in that I care about the ratio of sources to identical words. Many authors and a few identical words--no problem. Using a few authors with a lot of identical words requires quotation marks."
I was surprised that someone would disagree with me on this. So, the distinguished colleague has made me think twice. I am not convinced their argument is correct, but perhaps others will find it persuasive.

V//Here is a repeat in different words of an earlier posting.

Last semester I encountered a curious form of excuse for what is manifestly copying without quotation marks but with a reference. Perhaps all of you know this already and I am latecomer?


Perhaps several sentences are copied, but transitions or adjectives or ... are paraphrased (but most of the main text is copied verbatim). A footnote gives a reference, although perhaps not the page. But there are no quotation marks around the verbatim phrases. I was told by one person that this was standard in their field (health), reference but no quotation marks, that is how they were taught. But I could not find evidence for this norm, and in any case writers outside the field do the same thing in papers and dissertations.

Most students and scholars I spoke with knew this was a no-no, and learned that in high school. They tell me the copying practice is endemic to consultants and bureaucrats, but I don't know.

I call this "brick wall" plagiarism, since if you put the paper through Turnitin the verbatim phrases are highlighted in color, and so the paragraph looks like a brick wall, the now paraphrased parts being the "mortar." Here the copied text is covered by blue paint (the source is above, the paper is below), and the mortar for the copied text is in silver.

It would be useful for us to emphasize to students that this is not acceptable.

One has to be careful in using these similarity scores, since copied passages that are indented and footnoted are "similar", but this is not plagiarism. Here, also, I have set it that passages in quotation marks do not count for similarity, and similarity less than 10 words in sequence is set not to count (but you can change both of these readily). And if someone has copied the work in question, you also get this original taken as "similar" but obviously the copying is the reverse order. You have to look at the Turnitin markups--they also give you the "original" source. I also did a sample of dissertations and theses and found this problem legion (and so set people up to have their degrees rescinded, although I suspect this is not what universities would consider actionable). The chart below indicates the distribution of similarity scores in a corpus of 40 student papers. (More than half have scores greater than 10%.) One-time/ten-pages probably does not matter, and is just sloppy work. More is a real problem.

VI//Copying and Sampling and Influence in the Arts and Music. Authority in Scholarship. Plagiarism as Sloth...

It is interesting how artists and composers and jazz are filled with various sorts of imitation and copying, and that is acceptable. Never is it plagiarism unless it is total copying.If you take a passage from another musical work, you might be thought to copy but it is what you do with that passage that is crucial. Plagiarism has little to do with art, music, performance. Steal This Music is a title of a book by a colleague. Think of current practice with sampling etc.

It's a no-no to publish a fiction or nonfiction book where you take the plot or a good hunk of text from elsewhere without references and quotation marks. People usually say that they had research assistants, or they have eidetic memory, as an excuse. It usually is not credible. If you are doing a reworking of Dante's Inferno, as does Gloria Naylor in Linden Hills, you don't have to mention it at all, by the way. The same for Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres and King Lear. The novelist and essayist Jonathan Lethem has a pastiche article on pastiche in Harper's Magazine, February 2007.

But academics/scholarship demand sources for ideas and for quotations. This comes out of a tradition of biblical commentary and legal discourse, giving authority for what you say. Namely, it's not about stealing so much as being authoritative, where your own authority depends on how you stand on the shoulders of giants (see Merton's book, On the Shoulders of Giants). To paraphrase without giving a source of ideas, to copy text without quotations marks and sources, hurts you because your ideas are then just yours, and why should I take you seriously. Idiosyncratic originality per se is not much of an academic virtue. Scholarly originality takes what every knows (and you have referred to it in your review of the literature) and moves forward the argument and discovery.

There is a problem of copying to avoid work, what we see in students and sometimes in dissertations(Germany has had a bunch lately, politicians and social science degrees, but Merkel is a card carrying physical chemist with an earlier career). That is what we want students to avoid. Consultants and bureaucrats seem to copy and give few references if it serves the work they are doing in internal memos etc. No one seems to be too concerned about that, but those standards do not apply to schoolwork or scholarly work.

VII//1. Perhaps this is a useful analogy: You marry, and you yourself have a notion of a more open marriage, while you spouse is more conventional about matters of faithfulness and monogamy. You promise to be faithful to your spouse, even though you have a notion of faithfulness that is different than your spouse's.  For you and your spouse fulfil your conjugal duties on Friday and Monday, happily, at least as often as most married couples. On Wednesday and Saturday late afternoons you meet with other partners, telling your spouse you have to stay late at work on Wednesdays and you go to horror movies on Saturdays (your spouse hates horror movies). And your spouse has little reason to check up on you, since your work demands that you stay late other days as well, and your knowledge of the latest horror movies is legion among your friends. 

When it is discovered that you seem to be working less late than promised on Wednesdays, and your knowledge of horror movies is taken from the New York Times, you plead, either that your spouse never said anything about her notion of faithfulness (and it is old fashioned, to boot), or you surely do work extra on Wednesdays and you do keep up with horror films. ...

Analogously: So you surely put stuff in your own words in your papers (on Friday and Monday), but regularly (on Wednesday and Saturday) copy with attribution parts of the referred to sources, but no quotation marks. 

2. fROM:

"The problem is that the PhD system is designed for people who intend to become researchers. For these cases, plagiarism is not at all a common problem. You are expected to published your research, and you will not have a successful career unless it is widely read and cited. That gives lots of opportunities to get caught, and the penalties for plagiarism are a huge deterrent.
"To the extent you find plagiarism, it's generally people who do not want a research career, but instead view the PhD simply as an obstacle on the road to a teaching (or other) career. Probably the community should scrutinize these sorts of theses more carefully, but it can be hard to work up the energy to do so when most of them are OK, and when these theses really don't matter much for the research world.
"The German politicians are pretty much the worst case scenario. In the US, the stereotypical case is educational administrators. Typically, you have a distinguished person who starts to feel the need for a PhD. Perhaps it's because they associate with academics and feel looked down upon, or perhaps it's because an academic endorsement would make the public value their expertise more. This student is very smart and accomplished, and nobody suspects them of any dishonesty. However, they are also very busy, often working on a PhD while pursuing other projects as well, and academic research is not a priority. At some point, they succumb to pressure and start taking shortcuts. Probably it starts with small things, but the shortcuts gradually grow larger. They rationalize that the thesis doesn't really matter anyway, because they have no intention of following an academic career track. After all, they have the knowledge and experience, and they deserve the PhD title, so what difference does one document make anyway? Meanwhile, the advisor probably doesn't spend that much time working with the student, and has no reason to suspect anything. The advisor really ought to be extra careful in cases like this, but that would seem like an insult to the student, so it's easiest just to trust them.
"So my take on this is that plagiarism is not as widespread as news stories might suggest. It's just particularly likely to happen in cases where it would attract media attention." shareimprove this answer

3. My university's guidance for graduate students