Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Controversy of Fang Zhouzi's Essay Debated among American Professors

Back in 1995, when the Internet was still at its infancy, Fang Zhouzi, then a graduate student at Michigan State University, wrote an essay in a newsgroup (online forum of the day) during a heated discussion. In it he introduced and paraphrased an interpretation of science first proposed by Professor Robert Root-Bernstein in the same school (although the two never met in person). The essay was later revised and published in a couple of books as part of Fang Zhouzi's collective essays.

More than 15 years later, the essay was frequently used by Fang Zhouzi's detractors as evidence of an act of plagiarism. In April of this year, a Chinese newspaper carried the same accusation for which a legal battle is still underway.

More recently, the issue has been brought in front of Professor Root-Bernstein himself, who concluded that Fang Zhouzi did commit plagiarism and issued a lengthy open letter to a semi-public mailing list of concerned members and therefore ignited a heated debate among learned scholars and others interested parties. Parts of the discussion have been selectively made public in various online forums by both sides.

Following is a collection of the leaked exchanges, with a few narratives of my own to provide some connection and perspective.

The first is Professor Root-Bernstein's open letter itself. It is quite long, but included here in its entirety for the fairness to both parties.
An Open Letter to Shi-Min Fang from Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph. D., Professor of Physiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824 USA; rootbern@msu.edu. Dated 3 August 2011.

A number of people, including myself, have accused you of plagiarizing my work. You and your followers have denied it. Let’s use this difference of opinion to educate ourselves about what constitutes plagiarism in and see if we can reach an accord.

Let me begin by stating that I am basing my arguments on The Universal Copyright Convention, to which the People’s Republic of China and the United States both adhere.

1) You admit that you used my article “On Defining a Scientific Theory” as the basis for an essay that you published online in your blog in 1995 and subsequently in a book. The full bibliographic reference for my article is: Root Bernstein, R. S. "On Defining a Scientific Theory: Creationism Considered," in Evolution and Creationism, Ashley Montagu, ed. (Oxford: The University Press, 1984), pp 64 94.) It is copyrighted by the Oxford University Press.

2) You and four of your Chinese colleagues have sent me various English translations of your essay. Although there are some differences in the specific wording of each translation, all display exactly the same development of the argument in the same order using the same examples.

3) According to copyright law, a person may plagiarize another person’s work in several ways. The first is to copy their words without attribution. The second is to use more than a certain percentage of a work without explicit permission from the copyright holder. For example, in the U. S. one may not quote more than 250 words from a single source, even with attribution, without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder. I am told that in China, an essayist must not copy more than 3% of a text and that a student who copies more than 25% may be denied his or her degree. A third form of plagiarism consists of lifting another author’s arguments and examples without explicit permission. Accordingly, one may plagiarize a work even in the absence of copying its language and even with attribution, especially if the arguments and examples are unique and constitute a substantial portion of the work plagiarized.

4) Others claim, and I concur, that you have plagiarized my work in all three ways. Let’s take a look at each, one at a time. You claim that you have not plagiarized me because you have not copied my words. Translations of words and ideas from one language to another pose a special problem in plagiarism cases, since differing grammars and cultural idioms will necessarily create alterations from the original text. Re-translations back into the original language cause further distortions. While it is always difficult to prove copying of words when using translations, many of your sentences have the identical structures and occur in the same order as mine and this is highly suggestive of copying. Therefore, in considering plagiarism in translation one must look beyond exact verbal duplication.

5) Beyond exact verbal duplication, it is necessary to ask how much of the original text has been used in formulating the second-language text and whether the second language text copies the verbal logic, the development of the argument, and the specific examples of the first language text. With regard to your essay, the answer is that you plagiarized me all of these ways. Many of your sentences (retranslated into English) have the same logical structure and occur in the same order as mine. This is highly suggestive of copying. Moreover, this identity of logic and sequence certainly exceeds 250 words and you certainly did not obtain my permission to do so. Finally, whether or not it can be proven that your essay simply translates mine, it can certainly be proven that the argument and the order of the points that you make are identical to those in my article, and the majority of examples are also identical. Since these arguments and examples constitute virtually the whole of my article and they also constitute the whole of your essay, I must conclude that your essay is a copy of mine. In verbal logic, development of argument and choice of example, your essay replicates my article.

6) You and your followers respond that you have incorporated several of your own examples in the place of mine. This does not alter the fact that the development of the entire argument, the exact order of the points, and the majority of the examples are still drawn from my own text.

7) You and your followers also argue that you did cite my name in publishing your article, but the only evidence you have provided to me is a photograph of a page in Chinese from an undated book on which my name appears. This evidence is inadequate for two reasons. First, the issue is not whether you cited me in your book, but whether you cited me in your original blog post in 1995. I have been presented with evidence that your original blog post did not cite me, and that you subsequently altered your post to incorporate my name only after you were accused of having plagiarized my article. Even if you did cite me in your original blog post, and even though you cite my name and even the source of my article in your essay as it now appears in book form, the claim of plagiarism still stands. Because you use the same logic, the same development of argument and very largely the same choice of examples as my original article, and because you draw on no other sources, your essay is a representation of my work and you are still under the obligation to obtain my explicit written permission to publish your essay in any form.

8) In addition, you and your followers have argued that my own essay “On Defining a Scientific Theory” is itself a popularization or “summary” of other people’s scholarship and therefore not protected by the same copyright laws as scholarly works. I gather that you believe that because you think you could have found the ideas in my article expressed elsewhere, my work is derivative and not therefore a copyrightable work. This is simply untrue on two counts. In the first place, Oxford University Press did copyright my essay. It is protected under law. Indeed, popularizations of all kinds are protected by copyright. Secondly, my article was not a popularization. It is a scholarly work published by a major university press. Moreover, you cannot find any other author arguing that a scientific theory must satisfy four sets of criteria simultaneously: logical, evidential, sociological and historical. You may find other scholars who have argued one or two of these together, but I know of no one who has argued any three of them together, and I am quite certain that I am the first scholar to argue that there are historical criteria that must also be part of the mix (see also my book Discovering [Harvard University Press, 1989]). Thus, my essay represents a unique and important scholarly contribution to the study of science. In plagiarizing my work, you have therefore stolen a scholarly synthesis of intellectual ideas that is unique to me, and which occurs in no one else’s scholarly or popular work. In other words, you could not have found these ideas anywhere else, nor could you have invented them yourself.

9) You and your followers have also argued that same criteria for citations do not pertain to popularizations as to scholarly essays and books. This argument is simply irrelevant. A popularizer may not plagiarize any individuals work whether they cite it or not.

In short, I maintain that whether you have used my exact words or not, you have certainly plagiarized my work by copying my unique scholarly argument, the logic and the points I use to substantiate it, and most of the examples I laboriously found to support it. I further maintain that because of the extent of this plagiarism, which consists of your entire article, you have plagiarized me in both your blog post and in your written essay. This plagiarism stands whether or not you cite my name in your blog post or in your written essay because of the extent of the material borrowed. Stated another way, your essay is an unacceptable copy of my work both because of the extent of the material borrowed and because you drew upon no other source or sources but mine in writing it. Due to this replication, you were obligated to obtain my explicit written permission before posting your blog or publishing your essay.

Now, what do I want from you? The answer is simply an apology. I am a teacher and I welcome this opportunity to teach about the complexities and subtleties surrounding the protection of intellectual property. We all make mistakes. What is important are the lessons we learn from our mistakes. The lesson here is that all you needed to do was to ask permission if you could popularize my essay and I would have said “yes!”. I was, after all, in the building right next to yours at MSU when you wrote your essay in 1995! And, like most scholars, I am always very pleased to have my work used by other people – as long as I get credit for having done that work! So my advice to you and all other scholars is something I learned very early in my career: it never hurts you to credit everyone who might have contributed to your own ideas; it always hurts you to leave anyone out. It never hurts to obtain copyright permission, even if you may not need it; but it always hurts to try to get away without obtaining that permission.

I look forward to your reply!

Sincerely,
Bob Root-Bernstein, Ph. D., Professor of Physiology, Michigan State University
Although Professor Root-Bernstein claims that he intends "to teach about the complexities and subtleties surrounding the protection of intellectual property," his own open letter seems to have confused the distinction between "plagiarism" and "copyright infringement," a point he had to clarify to some extend in the list. He also invoked the mythical "250 words" criteria as copyright threshold.

Fang Zhouzi responded with a concise statement disputing the plagiarism or copyright charges, but included an apology for lack of explicit crediting in the original version of the essay:
Dear Dr. Root-Bernstein,

In 1995 when I was a graduate student at MSU, I posted a short writing to an online forum called alt.chinese.text when there was a debate about pseudoscience among oversea Chinese students. It was an informal, casual follow-up to a discussion thread, not an academic paper or assignment. Part of it paraphrased the criteria of science from your article. I presented the criteria of science as "consensus in philosophy of science" and give my own examples to explain it. This writing was revised and formally published in one of my books in 1999, and it cited the source as "According to the summary by Root-Bernstein", and when the criteria were mentioned again in another book of mine in 2007, it gave reference as "On Defining a Scientific Theory: Creationism Considered, Robert Root-Bernstein, Science and Creationism, Oxford University Press, 1984".(Without this reference, I don't believe the supporters of Xiao Chuanguo, the surgeon who hired assailants to attack me using pepper spray and hammer after I exposed his malpractice, could track down the source and report the "plagiarism" to you and MSU administration 16 years later. I have deleted email addresses of four Xiao's supporters in this reply)

I never presented the criteria as my own original idea, nor did I copy your wordings. And when it's formally published, the source had been credited and cited. Therefore I don't think it consists of plagiarism or copyright infringement according to the common accepted definitions with which you disagree. But it's inappropriate not to explicitly credit you in my original posting, and I apologize for it.

Sincerely,

Shi-min Fang
Professor Root-Bernstein was not satisfied with the response and apology as he still insists on his "plagiarism" charge, but now he added the phrase "copyright infringement" to go along with it, seemingly still mixing up the two distinct concepts:
Dear Shi-min Fang,

Thank you for admitting your error in failing to cite my article in your initial online essay, and for the apology regarding it. I do not, however, believe that your response adequately addresses the points I made in my open letter. The issue is not a matter of a missing citation, which, since you have corrected it, would be a minor matter indeed. The issue is that you have appropriated my entire argument and most of the examples that I use to support it. Whether we want to label this "plagiarism" or "copyright infringement" or some combination of the two is irrelevant. The fact is that you did not alter my argument in any way; you did not mix it or modify it with other peoples's arguments; and you presented it in exactly the same order and (and here I must insist on this) using the same language. Now you add the additional insult in arguing that I am mis-using the concepts of plagiarism and copyright infringement in making my accusations. And you do so without justifying this attack upon my supposed ignorance. So how, exactly, do you define plagiarism and copyright infringement? At what point did you inquire of me or of Oxford University Press the right to use a large portion of my article, or even to popularize it?

Please note that I am sending this to all of the people who have expressed interest in this issue. As I said in my open letter to you, I want to use this as an educational forum. Your attempt to prevent those who you consider your "enemies" from having a voice in this discussion undermines the openness with which I approached you and is counter-productive.

Sincerely,

Bob Root-Bernstein
At about this point, it appears that the discussion on the mailing list has taken a bad turn with personal attacks and other accusations, including that Fang Zhouzi had committed academic fraud in his thesis work. Fang Zhouzi's thesis adviser, Professor Zachary Burton, was compelled to rise in defense of his formal student:
To the list,

As Dr. Shi-min Fang’s former graduate school mentor, I would like to re-iterate my support for Dr. Fang’s prominent position in Chinese society.

I have no interest in the efforts of Dr. Fang’s political opponents to try to discredit him.

Dr. Fang completed a good quality thesis in my laboratory, awarded in 1996. He published a high quality research paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry based on his thesis work. So far as I know, his thesis work has passed the test of time, and Transcription Factor for RNA polymerase II (TFII)F still interacts with TFIIB.

If there is merit in Dr. Root-Bernstein’s accusations, I fail to see it. Dr. Fang has responded to Dr. Root-Bernstein in a reasonable and measured way.

With best regards and sincerity,

Zachary Burton, Ph.D.
Professor
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Michigan State University
E. Lansing, MI 48824-1319
But apparently the attacks continued and included Professor Burton as targets, so much so that Professor Root-Bernstein himself had to issue a desperate call to "stop attacking Dr. Fang's and Dr. Burton's Characters":
To All,

I want to say that I am very displeased with the direction that the conversation about Dr. Fang has taken. I am not Dr. Fang's enemy. I am not attacking Dr. Fang's character. I am offended by those people who are doing so. I am even more offended that my colleague and friend Zach Burton should be attacked as well. This is a complicated issue and Dr. Burton is entitled to his opinion, and to air it freely. The issue we are debating is whether Dr. Fang made an error in using more of my work than is considered appropriate under academic and legal definitions of plagiarism and copyright infringement. Whether or not Dr. Fang is guilty of such an error should be the focus of our discussions as we try to work out how different cultures using different languages assess these issues. The outcome of our deliberations should have nothing to do with whether Dr. Fang is a good person, a bad person, a prominent member of Chinese society, or any other aspect of his character. Nor should the characters of any other individual involved in this controversy be an aspect of our deliberations. If such personal attacks on Dr. Fang and/or Dr. Burton continue, I shall withdraw my allegations and consider the matter closed. Deal with the facts, not the people or their personalities, or this ends now!

Sincerely, Bob Root-Bernstein
Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph. D.
Professor of Physiology
2174 Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824 USA
It is hard to predict where this discussion could lead to from here, if anywhere. What is clear is that Professor Root-Bernstein's efforts "to teach about the complexities and subtleties" of plagiarism and copyright infringement in that forum has been ineffective to say the least. Part of the problem may well be with the teacher himself.


1 comment:

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