Zygmunt Bauman -- liquid copyright or solid plagiarism?

What a joyful era is that of postmodern society, when fixed hierarchies, old orders and classical scholarly rules of solid modernity have melted around us. What a wonderful world we live in, where a brave PhD student can catch one of the most famous sociologists alive with his hand in the cookie jar of alleged plagiarism and teach him about basic copyright (and scholarly) standards [being then enthusiastically praised on this weblog, adds Merpel]. This one of those tales that can likely make some noise, as the Professor at issue is Zygmunt Bauman, 88, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds, author of over 60 books and with an International Research Institute in his name. The brave PhD student is Mr Peter W. Walsh, right, PhD candidate in sociology at Cambridge and “huge admirer” of Professor Bauman. Here’s how it went.

'Does the attribution to
no-one benefit someone?'
In the recent book Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, Professor Bauman mentioned a study entitled Human Development Report, published annually by the UN. Although Bauman’s book was published in 2013, the report quoted in it is from 1998. This rang a bell in Mr Walsh’s mind, especially because the 2013 book at issue is about inequality getting worse in recent years —but 1998 was not exactly “recent” for an annual report. In his further investigation, Mr Walsh told to have come across an impressive number of instances in which Professor Bauman reproduced text near-verbatim from newspaper articles and webpages, failing to provide proper attributions and in some cases even reproducing mistakes in the copied material. Taking up arms against your own hero is not easy for anyone, and this is particularly true when one’s hero has a name in the field in which one wishes to establish a career. After some days of reflection, however, Mr Walsh decided to disclose what he discovered to Times Higher Education, which broke the story of this academic star allegedly breaching the basics of anti-plagiarism rules. 

“According to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources”, said Mr Walsh, “‘if you copy bits and pieces from a source (or several sources), changing a few words here and there without either adequately paraphrasing or quoting directly, the result is mosaic plagiarism.’ This is exactly the transgression Professor Bauman makes in multiple instances throughout his book.”

Contacted by Times Higher Education, Professor Bauman did not take Mr Walsh’s accusation well. After alleging to have “never once failed to acknowledge the authorship of the ideas or concepts” in 60 years of publication [there may always be a first time, sniffs Merpel], he declared:

“While admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60-odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues that Mr Walsh obviously confuses ... As Mr Walsh’s co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him” [is this an example of post-modern professorial elegance? If so, Merpel would like to go back to mediaeval times].

Pity apart, in his comments to the IPKat Mr Walsh replied that

There is nothing pedantic about asking authors to indicate when they are using the words of other authors. The Harvard guide is actually fairly conventional in its prescriptions and it is no more pedantic than the Plagiarism Guide of the University of Leeds [where Professor Bauman works].  It should be clear that appropriating text from the internet without due attribution rather detracts from scholarly excellence. And it should go without saying that correct attribution and accurate quoting are of supreme importance to good scholarship. Finally, if the author does not check the material that he copies, it most certainly can affect the reliability of their scholarship. Failure to check the facts, statistics and quotes featured in the material that one reproduces risks repeating their errors”.

After reading Professor Bauman’s reaction, this Kat became intrigued by what the acknowledged academic meant by “private ownership of knowledge”. What dangerous monopolistic drift of the always-expanding liquid copyright monopoly is the Author of Liquid Modernity warning us all about? As further investigation was in order, the IPKat asked Mr Walsh for some extracts from the comparison document he diligently drafted while reviewing Professor Bauman’s book. The IPKat is now proud to share some bits of that in exclusive with his readership.

A first example may be the part including the UN’s 1998 Report, mentioned above.  It was mentioned in an interview transcript of Asia Times Online that, according to Mr Walsh, Professor Bauman partially copied and pasted in his book, along with an erroneous reference of the same article as to where the statistics were quoted in the UN reports [please click on images to get them full screen].

Another example is at pages 3-4, this time from The Daily Telegraph:

And the final one, regarding the Wikipedia’s page on the Italian movement Slow Food:

At a first sight, the IPKat cannot really identify menaces for knowledge to be monopolised. On the other hand, one would not need to call the Infopaq decision into question to note that some copyright and right of attribution issues are triggered here [works hosted on Wikipedia also require attribution, as provided here]. This is not an issue of owning knowledge or ideas, the diffusion of which IP law and scholarly principles actually aim to promote. It is the expression of those ideas that requires the author’s consent [sometimes] and the attribution to its creator [almost always] when copied, and this is where Professor Bauman appears to have failed. As to liquid copyright expansion, one might argue that certain economic rights are going far beyond a reasonable balance between copyright and social needs, but this has not much to do with the case at stake: attributing a work is for free and should be considered as one of the basis of all human works, scholarly ones in particular -- which are all Mr Walsh cares the most.

So, all things considered, a sporting admission of a possible lack of care in drafting one of his numerous books would be preferable to the counter-accusation made against a brave, younger colleague.  Such an admission would have been more befitting to Professor Bauman’s reputation and to his role as a scholar and teacher. While looking forward for this outcome, the IPKat sends a huge katpat to the brave Mr Walsh.  Since this story is all about acknowledging intellectual debts, we certainly owe him one.

Professor Bauman on liquid society here.
Liquid things expanding more dangerously than copyright here
Liquid(o) here
Another beloved Ziggy here
Zygmunt Bauman -- liquid copyright or solid plagiarism? Zygmunt Bauman -- liquid copyright or solid plagiarism? Reviewed by Alberto Bellan on Friday, April 11, 2014 Rating: 5


  1. Isn't all academic research a form of plagiarism anyway? That's why it's called "research" and not just "search"

  2. This "mosaic plagiarism" has been the subject of several investigations into the PhDs of German politicians with significant scalps being those of the defence and education Ministers. It will be interesting to see how Prof. Bauman reacts.

  3. This is really bad. Promoting some self-obsessed PhD-student working on immigration for pointing out that the 88-year-old writer of a classic called Modernity and the Holocaust is not providing references that his readers will not want to make use of. Most of the "plagiarism" is just plainly uncontroversial among thinkers of the left. Why would he waste time on rewriting parts as to escape allegations of copyright infringement (for encyclopedic knowledge for crying out loud!)?

    Apart from among copyright lawyers, I know this didn't win this PhD student a popularity poll. A career ruining move.

  4. Anonymous @10:19,

    What does popularity have to do with what is normally considered unethical (albeit lazy) behavior?

    It is NOT a matter of "wasting time," as much as it is a matter of proper attribution.

  5. Anonymous @ 10:19:

    Having written amazing classics in the past does not relief the author from respecting the basic rules of (not copyright, but) fair writing in the present. It's not about copyright: it's about respecting your readers - who want to buy original thoughts - and the people who wrote the things you copied -attribution is simply just: is this something only a copyright lawyer can understand?

    Mr Walsh was aware that exposing this story could have led to significant problems for a young scholar, like becoming not exactly popular among Professor Bauman's disciples and being considered "self-obsessed" by some pointless commentator.

    However, "self-obsession" does not seem to be a point here. He did that because he believes in a certain way of making science, and contesting his detailed objections with an argument like "shot up young boy, you will have troubles now" is as despicable as doing it anonymously.

  6. Alberto,

    As we obviously agree in response to Anonymous @10:19, I will disagree wholeheartedly with your implicit criticism of anonymous commenting.

    There is nothing despicable with anonymous commenting, nor should there be any weight given to a non-anonymous comment. The content of the comment stands on its own.


  7. @Anonymous 14:17

    Hi Anonymous, if I may, I think that Alberto was not criticising anonymous commenting per se at all, but rather highlighting how calling someone "self-obsessed" while refusing to disclose their own identity may not be as brave as doing a "career ruining move".

  8. "Having written amazing classics in the past does not relief the author from respecting the basic rules of (not copyright, but) fair writing in the present. It's not about copyright: it's about respecting your readers - who want to buy original thoughts - and the people who wrote the things you copied -attribution is simply just: is this something only a copyright lawyer can understand?"

    Spot on, it should be about respecting your readers who want original thoughts . Since the verbatim copies aren't "original thoughts" but common ideas among the cultured left, i.e. readers of his books, this is not worth the fuss that is generated by the PhD-student. To quote Foucault (referenced indeed):

    “I often quote concepts, texts and phrases from Marx, but without feeling obliged to add the authenticating label of a footnote with a laudatory phrase to accompany the quotation. As long as one does that, one is regarded as someone who knows and reveres Marx, and will be suitably honoured in the so-called Marxist journals. But I quote Marx without saying so, without quotation marks, and because people are incapable of recognising Marx’s texts I am thought to be someone who doesn’t quote Marx. When a physicist writes a work of physics, does he feel it necessary to quote Newton and Einstein?” (P/K p. 52).

    As far as referencing as much as possible, that's all very well and should in my opinion be encouraged. Yet, I feel this attempt to discredit a great sociologist by accusing him of plagiarism is cheap. Especially as it is implicitly made clear that Bauman provides references in his text for two of the examples given, and that the third example is an open source encyclopedia.

    I am well aware that this goes against your copyright intuitions, and even against the current within copyright law (providing more and more protection not to important ideas, or texts, but to pretty much every big dump people take).

  9. Dear Eleonora,

    You come close yet still miss.

    The imputation of "bravery" is one that is being challenged.

    The history of anonymous (and pseudonymous) posting should make it abundantly clear that "bravery" is not the only consideration when it comes to the acceptability of such types of posting.

    The implication by Alberto (and to a certain degree - yourself) is simply errant.

    Bravery, honesty, or any other attribute so attached should be nipped in the bud for what the implication attempts to carry.

    Point blank: read the comment for its own content.


  10. Anonymous @14.17 and 16:52, I wrote: "contesting his detailed objections with an argument like "shot up young boy, you will have troubles now" is as despicable as DOING IT anonymously".

    It was about the content, and maybe my misleading English didn't allow me to express properly. Anonymity is ok, I know the story and I agree with you on everything BUT the final "period". Like the "shot up, you young boy", it sounds as impolite as doing it anonymously.

    (just kidding)

    Anonymous @ 15:51:

    Do you really think that the examples shown in the post comply with the attribution rules provided by University of Leeds (not the same than copyright law, but equally fair, free and reasonable)?

    Further: do you think that accusing a great professor is cheap for a PhD student?

    Just to know, because I don't.

    And I don't get your point on "original thoughts". Bauman should feel allowed to copy without attribution because it is likely that those who wrote the copied work had been in turn influenced by Bauman's books?

    Once again, copyright is not the main thing, here. But, the good academic practice to which Bauman belongs takes from (c) some good rules that make research more reliable, more easy to access and more straight forward to delve further. In a word: better. There is NO REASON WHY one should not respect such rules, even if that one is Professor Bauman.

  11. Bauman participate in the extermination of the members of the Polish Underground. Taking down Bauman on plagiarism charges is like taking Capone out on tax evasion.


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