When a “no entries were found” search result is a relief

Pseudonymous author Avicenna Last of the blog “A Million Gods” at FreeThought Blogs (FTB) has been discovered to be a serial plagiarist, and removed from the FTB network as a result. I did a search to check on whether I’d ever referenced one of his posts here on Hoyden, in case I needed to triple-check it for proper source attribution.

Like many others, I am sad and disappointed and angry about this. Avicenna has shown that he knows how to blockquote and attribute properly in many posts over the years, and the lack of attribution on others seems to have happened far too often for simple laziness, or power cuts(!) to explain why all those blockquotes and links to original sources are missing. It’s clearly an habitual elision of some types of source material. He owed his readers, his colleagues and his sources better, and his notpology is especially disappointing.

For the time being I reserve judgement on claims that Avicenna has also invented some biographical details and achievements: one can be a plagiarist without being a comprehensive fraud, because sadly way too many people believe that plagiarism isn’t/shouldn’t be a big deal, especially if they’re convinced that they are not intending to plagiarise, or that some sources (eg news reports) don’t count as requiring acknowledgement, so they just don’t take the requisite care about getting attribution right in the rush to publish. It’s a major error in judgement that matters far more than they realise, but it’s far from unbelievable that someone whose discipline is medicine might not have ever been taught, let alone independently realised, that citations and attributions should matter in opinion pieces just as much as they do in papers submitted to academic journals.

[A]ccurate assessment of data and sources matters well beyond the walls of academia. It’s one of the core skills that I, a historian, claim to impart to my students. I tell them that they will live in a world with nearly infinite data accessible to them. And I tell them that I won’t just impart historical content; I will also try to teach them to assess accuracy, to assemble information in a clear and concise way, and to document their work so others can replicate their research.

So I am troubled by Walsh’s plagiarism. I don’t care whether our military elites know the intricacies of Chicago Manual of Style citation, but we cite in order to be transparent about the sources of our information. We cite to show how our ideas relate to the work of others. We cite to show that the evidence supports our conclusions.

(emphasis added) – See more at: Why John Walsh’s Plagiarism Does—and Doesn’t—Matter | David Perry at Vitae

A genuine misunderstanding of the importance of being rigorously transparent about *all* the sources of one’s information could be forgiven, especially if his habits change in his writing from now on. Systematic misrepresentation of others’ work as one’s own is a far more serious breach of ethics, and the accusers have not yet made their case for it. Right now we just don’t know for sure whether Avicenna’s failure to attribute was a lack of appreciation for why it mattered or a more deliberate misappropriation. Either is unacceptable in a paid writer, but one is a matter more of inadequate professional standards than of fundamentally flawed personal ethics, and that is a distinction that ought to be kept in mind, especially when discussing an untrained writer.

Complicating the emotions swirling around this is that the evidence of Avicenna’s plagiarism was compiled by members of the Slymepit forum, who have a vociferously antagonistic history with the FreeThought Blogs network (among others), and who are now bragging that being right on this one claim about Avicenna proves that they are correct about their other accusations against him (and by extension also correct about their condemnation of “social justice warriors” generally and PZ Myers and FTB in particular).

I admit to my own biases here – I really do want to be able to conclude that Avicenna has been merely shoddy rather than fraudulent, because I’ve liked his writing in the past and I hope he can learn from his mistakes and rise above them. I’m willing to own that I might be proven wrong, however. It’s one of those situations that makes my inner misanthrope remind me of the attractions of desert islands.

Update – Further Reading:
Justin Jason Thibeault on Lousy Canuck
Ophelia Benson on Butterflies and Wheels
PZ Myers at Pharyngula

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, social justice

Tags: , ,

6 replies

  1. Trying to avoid sealioning here, so if this is one of those 101 questions that I should already know the answer to please feel free to ignore and delete and I will do my part by going and doing some actual research instead of sitting here and letting you spoonfeed me…
    I read the apology you linked to, and I’m unclear on why it’s a notpology (or fauxpology as I prefer, for the sonorousness of it). He did say “I know the reasons this happened but they don’t matter. What matters is the issue and for this I am sorry. I am a much better writer than this. And there are no excuses.” Which contains a certain degree of arse-covering (“I know the reasons” = [translation] “I have good reasons but I’m far too polite to waste your time/reveal confidences/confuse your poor brains with them”) and some crucial omission of subject nouns (“There are no excuses”).
    Am I right to say that a good rule of thumb is that good apologies are short in length and short of mitigating explanations, and that the probability of notpology increases exponentially with the length of the text?

  2. I appreciate the link as always, tigtog… but… *ahem*
    I’ve never known a Justin I didn’t end up finding to be a bit of a jerk. 🙂

    • Jason, my most fulsome apologies. I know quite a few perfectly lovely Justins, but I understand entirely why you don’t like being mis-nymmed with that name in particular.

  3. That pendulum can swing too far into “if anyone was offended by my words, I apologise”, which is such a boilerplate fauxpology that it should be engraved on the inside of every fedora at point of manufacture. But I see what you mean. The usual blogger’s edict — write what you know, write from the heart about your feelings and perspective — doesn’t apply when you’re writing about how your actions have affected other people. Good point.

  4. I am another frequent reader of Avicenna, extremely disappointed by this and by the tone of his apology. Even as a lowly science graduate I didn’t get through university without having the direness of plagiarism drilled into me. There’s also the frustration of ‘dammit, you gave the jerks a point’. I think it is very much to the credit of FTB that they acted as promptly as they did in what was undoubtedly a very unpleasant decision to have to make.

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