The last few months I've been obsessively following the evolution of a case of scientific plagiarism. It feels like the whole affair is a confluence of topics almost cosmically bound to occupy my thoughts for weeks and months on end.
It is at the same time a question of academic integrity (how does plagiarism hurt scientific work?), institutional setup (how does plagiarism manage to exist within an institutional system built around critical scrutiny, and for many, organized skepticism?), politicization of facts (what are facts, what are alternative facts, and does the fact that facts are produced mean they are untrustworthy?), my own personal projections (why are you not doing your work in Croatia? Will you ever do your work there, and is that even something you should be asking yourself?), and a general anti-authority stance I try to sublimate into something constructive.
I. called the above things levels - like layers of consciousness engaging with something complicated, trying to make sense out of it.
This whole state of (a layered) mind has found its way into many a private discussions with friends and colleagues, two texts (here and here, both in Croatian), and it was also simmering in the back of my mind for the past week while I was reading Micheal Gordin's book on the history of scientific languages - Scientific Babel. Gordin's book painted a string of strange thoughts on the canvas framed by the alleged plagiarism of an unknown philosopher in a scientifically (and otherwise) peripheral European country. The canvas, obviously, was my mind.
There's one more relevant attitude I should mention. A property of the canvas, if you will, for the sake of keeping up with my previous metaphor. I overthink language. I'm not good with languages, but I think a lot about how I speak, write; and even more so, how other people handle language. Especially those who are masterful at it.
So, what's Gordin's book about and what does it have to do with the plagiarism of the science minister in Croatia? This text is an attempt to make sense out of those layers - it's neither on plagiarism, peripheral academic communities, or a review of Gordin's book: it's on all three.
How Science Was Done Before and After Global English
The heading above is the subtitle of Gordin's book. The book is an attempt to follow the languages which housed science through time - basically, the history of "the set of languages by means of which scientific knowledge has been produced and communicated" (p. 1). It follows European science (with a focus on chemistry) through the 19th and 20th century with the language glasses on - what language did the scientists use, why, how, and how did that serve their goals? In that, the story can be surmised in three large periods - Latin, the triumvirate of German/French/English, and the newest episode of the monoglot domination of English, or how Gordin calls it in the last chapter of his book: Anglophonia.
The history he writes is fascinating - how different a beast had international science been when there was no dominant language! - when scientists wrote and communicated in at least the three most prestigious languages, and other upstarts were also trying to enter the scene and make themselves relevant enough to be understood. The Mertonian ideal would tell us that science is universal and communal by definition. In modern Anglophonia, that might seem self-evident. But Gordin's historicist analysis points us in the other direction, as he writes: "No language - not Latin, not German, not English - 'naturally' holds scientific concepts. There are many features of a language that have to be adapted to contain science..." (p. 81) The story of Russian chemists in the 19th century, who read and wrote in German and French, and had to put quite a lot of work into their language for Russian to be able to "hold" arcane compound names, and other jargon of chemists, is a great example. The history of how Russian was made into a receptacle suitable for chemistry also makes evident the catch-22 involved in the relationship between the language of science and its international relevance. You could invest effort into creating the linguistic infrastructure for your language to hold science, but that doesn't make it by definition relevant enough for foreign scholars to put effort into learning your language to read it. What raises exposure is writing in the languages they understand, but that doesn't help your native language to "hold" the science. If this was a struggle for peripheral languages (the size of Russian!) in the time of the triumvirate of French/English/German, the problem is even more exacerbated for peripheral languages in the current Anglophonia.
This is a continuous theme in Gordin's analysis - he calls it the tension between identity and communication:
Every time you utter something, you need to balance between two competing demands. On the one hand, you would like to express your internal notions, to say exactly what you are thinking or feeling. Of course, this is an ideal; we have all experienced the disconnect between what's in our minds and the clumsiness by which we can formulate it. Yet, for most of us, we get closest to this ideal in our native language or in the language we use most fluently; it is, fundamentally, a speaker-centric choice. I call this identity, and it surely possible for a particular speaker to have multiple distinct identities, speaking to children in her role as a parent most easily in one language, to a spouse in her role as a wife in another, at work as a lawyer in a third. Nonetheless, in this kind of speech, the speaker focuses on the capacity to express herself or himself in that particular role. But what about the audience? With most utterances, you have some particular recipients in mind, real or imagined, present or absent. You want your interlocutor to understand what you say, and this is easiest to achieve by using the language your listener (or reader) understands best, or at least the strongest language you have in common - that is, using what is called by linguists a vehicular language. The choice is audience-centric, and I describe it as communication. (p. 4-5)
Is modern scientific Anglophonia unfair?
Gordin's book ends in "ruminations over where this all might lead" (p. 315). These ruminations and speculations are expanded on in the penultimate and ultimate chapter of the book. I found Gordin's thoughts on the present and future of scientific language truly fascinating - precisely because they were the culmination of his story about the twists and turns of scientific languages for the past two centuries. Everything from the strange relationship between Latin, Greek, and Arabic (reinforcing the odd - but essential - point that the bedrock of European thought of Greek thinking survived because of Islamic scholarship), to the German/French/English triumvirate and the rise of language nationalism and (to us) bizarre notions of solving the problem of communication through artificial means like Esperanto. In the end of his story, one of the questions he raises is that of fairness of the current dominance of English:
Lingering behind objections to scientific Anglophonia lies a nagging sense of the unfairness of it all. German scientists, to take a prominent example, have to make the difficult choice between identity and communication, between supporting journals and educational institutions in their native language or disseminating cutting-edge research to the broadest-possible readership. Anglophones don't; there is no dilemma, because identity and communication are the same. (p. 312)
This is one of the issues for one of the old triumvirate languages - German - which "housed"much scholarship almost naturally, at least from the perspective of 19th century Russian chemists. For me, the high status of German as a scholarly language was hemmed in by my high school philosophy professor. She made it clear - in front of her teenage audience struggling with syllogisms - that there was no better language to hold philosophy than German. She would exclaim: "For some words used by Kant you needed whole paragraphs in Croatian!" Even in the early 21st century, the spell of high-status German did not lose its grip on the old Hapsburg frontier of Central Europe, for a Zagrebian (or should I say Agramer) gymnasium philosophy professor.
Gordin, though, unravels even German: "One could not, however, just abandon Latin and use German," he says when discussing the fall of Latin in Chapter Six.
Many scholars in the German states were gifted classicists and knew that the German they used every day did not posses the vocabulary or the flexibility to reproduce the richness of the universal language of scholarship. This widespread dissatisfaction with German's quality - voiced by leading natural philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz - proved instrumental in motivating German academics to improve their native tongue. During the first half of the eighteenth century, Christian Wolff at Halle worked harder than anyone to develop a lexical storehouse to enable German's capacity to 'hold' science, much as we saw the Russians labor in the nineteenth century. (p. 166)
The point echoes again - no language holds science more naturally than others. The naturalness is a consequence of hard work of scholars enabling the language to "hold" the science; it disappears from sight when enough time passes, so it is taken for granted.
Science in peripheral languages
I come from Croatia. I am doing my PhD in the Netherlands. My research is firmly within social sciences and the humanities - fields decisively less affected by contemporary Anglophonia, but they are getting there too. In Croatian humanities and social sciences, there is huge institutional inertia that leads to resistance to Anglophonia. In a bibliometric study of the publishing behavior of Croatian scholars from 1991 to 2005 Maja Jokic, Krešimir Zauder, and Srebrenka Letina have concluded (translation mine):
The pronounced national orientation of academic production in SSHA [social sciences, humanities, and arts] is confirmed by our research. The comparison of the number of scholars who have published at least one research item in the fifteen year period in Croatian journals (57,5%) versus international journals indexed in the Web of Science database (4,2%) proves this claim. All kinds of monograph-like publications, books, textbooks, handbooks and reference literature were published in Croatian in more than 95% cases. A large proportion of Croatian journals publishes literature exclusively in Croatian. (p. 332-333) original in Croatian
In other words, Croatian social scientists and humanists publish in Croatian journals, and with that, usually in Croatian (even when the journals are indexed internationally). This publishing practice is used to maintain a particular kind of academic ecology - one that is mostly isolated and inward looking. The above cited comprehensive bibliometirc analysis included 272 journals in Croatia. In a country of about 4 million people, one has 272 internally maintained journals for the community of scholars in the social sciences and the humanities. Connecting it to Gordin's analysis, this is a true little island in the usual sea of Anglophonia - a scientific enclave crewed by academics at Croatian institutions who maintain their borders through language.
I'm not so sure if that is a positive thing, although I wholeheartedly agree with Gordin's point about unfairness. But there's more to it than just identity and communication. There's also evaluation. I don't mean the evaluation in the sense of corporate Western universities with their impact factors, H-indexes, and societal impact. What I mean are the internal standards of good scholarship, enforced and internalized by the scientists themselves.
I turn to that - internal community standards of good scholarship and their relationship to language - explained on a case of high profile plagiarism.
Looking at standards of scholarship through the looking-glass of plagiarism
Nature published a news article on the plagiarism of the Croatian minister:
Pavo Barišić, a philosopher at the University of Split, became Croatia’s science minister in October 2016. Soon after that, Croatian media began reporting allegations that Barišić had reproduced text without attributing other scholars in a review article that first appeared in 2008 in a local journal, Synthesis Philosophica. The charges were old — they had been raised by four other philosophers in 2011 — but Croatia’s parliament-appointed Committee for Ethics in Science and Higher Education (CESHE) said it would investigate.
Since this was published, the whole plagiarism accusation has exploded. A prominent Croatian scientist with a German (and Californian) address, Ivan Dikic, got involved by sending multiple open letters to the Croatian Prime Minister, giving arguments why Barisic was indeed a plagiarizer. These accusations were widely spread by the media in the country and divided the academic community - with hundreds of professors and some rectors signing letters of support for the minister, while others rallied behind Dikic and the parliamentary ethics committee which issued the decision that Barisic's was indeed a case of plagiarism.
The affair culminated a few days ago in a motion to impeach the compromised minister in the Croatian parliament. A nine hour-long discussion among the Croatian MPs ensued - where the ruling party representatives argued for the minister's innocence and the deeply troubling division in the Croatian academic community signifying that this was a political witch hunt, and not an easily adjudicated issue of academic integrity. Interests were involved, they argued, and these interests clouded judgment.
The fact that such a division in the Croatian academic community is possible is troubling. Of course academic communities - like any other groups of people - have their differences and interests group that are in conflict. But the bedrock underlying that community is a minimal agreement on the standards of good practice. Such minimal criteria clearly define what constitutes plagiarism. When a member of the community copies parts of somebody else's text without reference, this is a straightforward case of plagiarism. If this is brought before an appointed committee of academics and they issue an opinion on it, it becomes fact.
The Croatian academic community, though, cannot reach a consensus on this. My argument is that this is the case because it is inbred - institutionally and scientifically. It consists of close-connected groups of people who maintain their relationship - they sit on editorial and review boards of journals, committees of funding agencies, ethics committees and all the other evaluative mechanisms which allow for the perpetuation of such a state. In their small ecology, minimal standards are impossible on the community level because the members of the community are too self-interested.
And one of the crucial elements in this is language. The inbred academic system is possible because they are inaccessible by definition, because nobody else can read what they write. Their insularity is not even a matter of individual choice, but linguistic inertia of the whole community.
This might seem like a very harsh judgment. A preposterous one even. I am accusing a whole academic community for bad practices - even more so, a community that provided me with formative education. I finished both my undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Zagreb.
So, let's put it down a notch - from speculative generalizations to an actual example.
The editor of the newly founded magazine of the University of Zagreb - seen by some in Croatia as the "establishment newspaper" of the academics who control large parts of Croatian academia; the ones that form this network of interests - articulated this inertia in his article in defense of Pavo Barisic:
I have understanding for the honorable individuals who think that the minister cannot be allowed to make even inane omissions. But I do not understand when many of them officialy request the National Council to stop the discrimination of English in Croatia?!? This kind of political correctness can have stronger intellectual consequences than the criminal privatization. I am of the opinion that Minister Barisic and all of us supporting him need to agree that in all - and I mean all! - educational programs we need to institute obligatory Croatian (with STEM students being our priority), and that all research necessary for institutional advancement needs to be written in Croatian as well. Those who do not agree with this, and support Barisic, need to change their mind as penance.
Ja razumijem časne pojedince koji smatraju da ministru nisu dopušteni ni bezinteresni propusti. Ali ne razumijem kada mnogi od njih službeno apeliraju pred Nacionalnim vijećem da se u današnjoj Hrvatskoj onemogući diskriminaciju engleskog jezika?!? Taj oblik političke korektnosti može imati teže duhovne posljedice nego sva privatizacijska pljačka. Smatram da bi se ministar Barišić i svi koji mu pružaju podršku morali založiti za to da se u sve – u ama baš sve! – studijske programe uvede obvezan hrvatski jezik (studentima STEM područja na prvom mjestu), a da se svi radovi nužni za znanstvenonastavno napredovanje moraju priložiti i na hrvatskom jeziku. Oni koji se s tim ne slažu, a Barišića podržavaju, tome se trebaju pridružiti za pokoru.
I include the original below and a link to the Croatian text, because I'm not sure about some of the translations. For example, why would the supporters of Barisic need to join as penance? I translated the words there, but I didn't exactly understand what the author meant. The criminal privatization he mentions is a national trauma of many post-communist countries; the crony sellout of public companies and assets in the transition to free market economy, where corruption led to the impoverishment of the state and the rise of local tycoons. So, English in academia is compared to what is probably perceived as one of the biggest post-war traumas in the country.
And indeed it is - the spread of English is potentially devastating for the functioning of Croatian science. I wonder though - would that be so bad?
Disclaimer: I do not think that all Croatian scientists are unethical or that all science in Croatia is by definition bad. If you read that in my text, read it again. I do think it is institutionally hobbled because of the dominance of interest cartels who sabotage any attempt of reform. One of the elements of this is language, especially in the humanities and the social sciences.