Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Plagiarism or "Naturally Given"?

H. Peter Gumm contacted me about the appendix he published in 2003 in German on Coalgebras: Th. Ihringer: Allgemeine Algebra - Mit einem Anhang über
Universelle Coalgebra von H. P. Gumm, Heldermann Verlag.  If you are not a mathematician, this is not easy reading.

It seems that K. Denecke and S. Wismath: Universal Algebra and Coalgebra, World Scientific, 2009 is pretty much a word-for-word plagiarism, but translated into English. World Scientific is a write-only publication in my eyes: Searching the ACM digital library  for
"World Scientific" -"real world" -"real-world scientific"
I get only 47 hits. At least one is indeed a review, others still include the term "real-world scientific" in them. The publisher, located in Singapore, prints a wide range of books that do not seem to be widely quoted, although they do, indeed, publish the Nobel Lectures in English. But that is not the major focus of this blog entry.

Gumm has put together a documentation that is easy to follow, with some good comments pointing out errors that point to plagiarism. For example, a simple programming error from Gumm can be found identically in Denecke/Wismath. There is also a translation of the German word "Konto" to "Bank Account" (with a blank, which is illegal in programming for an identifier). And at points where own work was included, Gumm demonstrates that a proposition is not a theorem, but false. Strangely, Gumm's own translation of "bounded functor" into "beschränkter Funktor" has become, upon re-translation, "restricted functor". Amazing, this is exactly what Google Translator spits out.

He has contacted the publishers of 2 reviews of the book, requesting that they be withdrawn. One will be investigating the matter, but Math Reviews refuses to do anything more than inform the publisher.

A letter to Denecke requesting an explanation was quickly answered with a letter stating that this is just the most natural way of explaining the subject matter as simply as possible. He does not see that this can in any way be called a plagiarism.

So I ask my readers - what do you think? Is this plagiarism or "naturally given"? And how should an author who finds himself plagiarized react to this? How is the "self-cleansing propensity of the scientific community" supposed to work, if anyone can publish anything they choose, no one looks closely at what it is, and no one is willing to retract anything?

Update: The German weekly paper Die Zeit has reported on the case.


  1. "And how should an author who finds himself plagiarized react to this?"

    Sue the plagiators, of course.

  2. While I agree that quite often a certain style of presentation of basic material (which was not new anymore even at the time of Gumm's text -- after all, both works were meant to be textbooks) is "naturally given", I think that in this case Denecke/Wismath are just too close to Gumm's presentation. Perhaps they thought along the lines "if the material is canonical anyway, we might as well just copy instead of rewriting a good presentation just for the sake of being different". The point is of course that you just have to acknowledge this (e.g. "we follow the presentation of Gumm [n]") and give a proper reference. If the Math Review is anything to go by, this is not the only lapse of reference. Quoted from MR:

    | The history of the book's topic is somewhat more extensive
    | than is indicated by the authors' choice of references.
    | To my knowledge the first paper on the topic was
    | [O. Wyler, in Proc. Conf. Categorical Algebra (La Jolla, Calif., 1965),
    | 295--316, Springer, New York, 1966; MR0204498 (34 #4337)].

    The reluctance to view this kind of copying as plagiarism may stem from the view that plagiarism only applies when original research is concerned, and hence a situation like this, where the works are textbooks is not really taken seriously. But of course, writing a good textbook is important work and requires skills, so I find
    such copying without proper credit deeply unfair, as in the case of research. And it should exposed accordingly when it occurs.

    As to World Scientific, they probably just have an editorial process which is too weak. I have seen at least one excellent book and also some rather weak ones. Looking at their prices (in Mathematics), I do not find them worse than other commercial publisher. And I was (positively)
    surprised when I found that they still keep books available which are almost 20 years old. This is much better than a lot of others who just
    produce for a short period as 5 years.

  3. Thank you for bringing the case into surface.
    I have always found your blog very helpful to my research...I will be using Prof. Gumm's case as an example in the 4th International Plagiarism Conference. (with his permission, of course)
    Looking forward to seeing you there!

  4. My guess is that Denecke and Wismath based their book on lecture notes which had grown out of ad hoc translations of Gumm and later forgot the source and considered the material to be exposition of standard folk lore. I am currently preparing a second publication of my doctoral dissertation which was first published 27 years ago and looking back on my work from then with a fresh perspective based on a new interest in the history of the development the subject as opposed to the subject itself, I am appalled that I did not include more detailed attributions of standard material and that none of the referees required me to amend the work to include such even in the case of results of which they had been the originators. I suppose one has a very different perspective depending on whether ones primary focus is the subject itself or its history. All that Denecke and Wismath needed to do is state which parts of the exposition followed Gumm's original German text and acknowledge which parts are translations having obtained permission and including Gumm as a coauthor if required.


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