What’s an Academic Fraud?

I recently discovered I am an academic fraud. Now, I am sure there must be people out there whose immediate response is “of course you are”, “knew it” or “I am not surprised”, but I was. 

Admittedly, what amounts to fraud when publishing as an academic isn’t always entirely clear to me – which, to some,will probably suffice to consider me suspect already (if not guilty-till-proven-innocent). I do get the extremes: If one writes up a truly new academic study giving the full account of the research underlying it, it ain’t fraud. If you make up the data – emulating the now infamous Diederik Stapel – it is. But sometimes in between, I am not always sure… Let me give you a few potential examples.

  • Earlier this month, at the Editorial Board Meeting of the Academy of Management Journal, the editor reported that the journal would now start screening every submitted article for plagiarism. The software turns up whether parts of the text have been copied from earlier publications, including articles by the same author (in a case of self-plagiarism). After this, a fellow board member asked “can we access the same software to pre-screen our own articles before submitting them?” There wasn’t a murmur or hint of discontent in the room following this question, but I found it strange and uneasy. If you copy a piece of text, then pre-screen it and the software tells you you would be found out, you rewrite it a bit plugging in a few synonyms here and there and then it is ok and no longer considered fraud and plagiarism?!
  • Geert Hofstede, one of the most highly cited social scientists ever (citations are considered a signal of “impact” in our academic world, and I seem to remember him once telling me that he had more citations than Karl Marx…), became famous for developing dimensions of national cultural differences. He published these dimensions left-right-and-centre – in academic journals, magazines and books – which greatly contributed to their and his exposure. He nowadays would be covered in tar and feathers and chased out of the ivory tower for self-plagiarism?
  • Situation A: PhD student A copies a paragraph leading up to one of his hypotheses from a working paper by someone else he found on the web, without citation. Situation B: PhD student B copies a summary of a previously published academic article from a third, published paper that summarised the same article. Situation C: likewise, but with a citation to that third article, but no quotation marks. Situation D: likewise, but with citation and quotation marks. Who should get kicked out of the programme? At London Business School we have already dealt with situations A and B (the students were chased out), and D of course, but I am left wondering what we’d do in situation C.
  • An academic – and an obvious fan of the Matthew Effect – buys 20,000 followers on Twitter. Yes, if you didn’t know, buying (fake) twitter followers is possible and easy. In fact, yesterday, I learned it is as cheap as chips. Yesterday, the Sunday Times covered the tale of an aspiring English celebrity who bought about 20,000 followers on Twitter to boost her profile. It just cost her a few hundred pounds/dollars. And, in fact, it sort of worked; she did raise her profile. But when she was found out – which isn’t actually that easy – she was ridiculed and quickly chased back to the dubious and crowded ranks of the British B-celebrities. But what would we do? How would we react to an academic buying 20,000 “followers”? Tar and feathers or applause for bringing the Matthew Effect to practice?

I am – apparently – a shameless self-plagiarising fraud because I sometimes get approached by business magazines who say “we read your blog post X and would like to republish it in our magazine”. And if they’re half decent (even by business magazine standards), I tend to say “yes”… In fact, I sometimes make the suggestion myself; when some magazine asks me “would you like to write an article on X for our wonderful magazine?” I usually say “no (way), but chapter X from my book would suit you well. Feel free to republish that”. Some acknowledge it was previously published; some don’t.

And, frankly, I don’t really care, and I will probably do it again. If it is my work, my copy-right, the magazine is fully aware of it, and it doesn’t harm the reader (they will know if they’ve seen it before, and otherwise they probably didn’t, or they might suffer from an enviable dose of business magazine amnesia), I won’t fear or dodge the tar and feathers. In fact, who knows, you may have read this very same post before!


7 Comments on “What’s an Academic Fraud?”

  1. Great post! I’m a starting doctoral student, and I’m still trying to figure this stuff out. I’ve seen articles listed on people’s CVs stating that a specific paper had been presented (published?) at multiple conferences, and is in the process of submission to a journal. It seems like that’s the very definition of self-plagiarism, but it seems to be a norm. Would publishing a paper at a conference prevent you from submitting that paper to a journal later, in modified form? What you describe in terms of taking blogs posts and turning them into articles sounds fine, but would it violate the norms to start bouncing around an idea in a blog post, and then later turn it into an academic article? Do you cite everyone who commented on it, or just that you published the idea earlier and received feedback that you’re grateful for? I’m sure I’ll get a lot of training on these issues (I’ve already received some, but it was all pretty cut and dry – don’t submit the same paper to multiple classes).

  2. profvermeulen says:

    So, someone asked me “how can you tell if someone’s twitter followers are fake?” My first inclination was to say “heck, how do I know; who made me the expert?!” but, on second thought, it seemed a question worth thinking about. I am thinking there are two validity tests (both based on common sense):

    First, can you see a reason why someone has 20,000 followers? There must be something why so many people are interested in this person. For example, the Sunday Times article reported on someone who was a candidate for the post of Lincolnshire police and crime commissioner who had 17,014 followers. There is really no discernible reason why 17,000 people would be interested in the musings of a candidate for the post of Lincolnshire police and crime commissioner, however fascinating that may be to the person himself. Mayor Boris Johnson – yes; Prince Harry – definitely; the Chief of Police for the City of London – maybe; a candidate for the post of Lincolnshire police and crime commissioner – I don’t think so.

    Second, when you browse through the 20,000 followers, does it make sense? Does the profile of the person’s followers match his or her profession and type of tweets? For example, the candidate for the post of Lincolnshire police and crime commissioner appeared to have an especially strong following amongst people from Latin America, with a particular interest from Brazilian porn stars and Justin Bieber fans. Few of them tweeted in english. It seems unlikely that thousands of Spanish-speaking Justin Bieber fans would develop a sudden interest in crime in Lincolnshire (or management academia for that matter).

    These are just two common sense litmus tests: is there a reason so many people would be following this person? Does their profile match his/her tweets? If s/he fails both, I am accepting bets its a fake.

    • This site claims to be able to calculate the faker percentage (or the good percentage – they don’t count “inactive” accounts as fake, but they could be old/spammer accounts or something – you often end up with inactive accounts when you buy followers): http://fakers.statuspeople.com/

      That police candidate has 9% “good” followers, for example, where I have 83% “good” followers. You have 80% “good” followers. It’s not foolproof, because celebrities (such as yourself) are more likely to have inactive followers that follow famous/interesting people, but don’t tweet. I think more active users are more likely to be followed by spam bots as well. The lower the good follower % the more fishy it is though.

    • Tim Kastelle says:

      Excellent post – thanks!

      I’ve run into the republishing from my blog question as well, and my policy is very similar to yours. Well, identical, really, except that I’m getting asked by smaller profile business magazines.

      The easiest way to tell that the twitter followers are fake is that the holder of the account will be following as many or more people as are following him (or her). I’d bet that the Lincolnshire candidate was following 17,200 or so. The buying followers scam is based on peoples’ propensity to refollow those that follow them, so they just follow a bunch of people on your behalf to pump up your follower numbers.

      Some people follow this strategy on their own, so it’s not a fool-proof detection method. But in general, if the twitter account isn’t new, and the number of people followed is close to or greater than the number of followers, it’s a good sign that someone is using this approach.

      • profvermeulen says:

        Hi Tim: Although undoubtedly you are right and some “companies” do offer that service, that is not what the Sunday Times article is about; that’s really about buying fake followers. For example, apparently FanMeNow.com really sells them; it is not that they follow other people on your behalf. I noticed that buytwitterfollowers.com even advertises that it sells “real followers” (although, of course, real people does not equate real followers). You really buy “followers”, without the need to follow them.


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