February 14, 2023, #29
On 7 February 2023 Jonathan Bailey wrote an entertaining article called Falsifying Attribution for a Bad Pun. The issue is in fact serious: “A 2013 survey by iThenticate found that Misleading Attribution to be one of the most serious plagiarism and attribution problems in research, just behind verbatim plagiarism and complete plagiarism.”¹ The story in the article shows how easily even serious scholars can make mistakes.
The person who falsified the attribution was George Gamow, a noted physicist who wrote Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) as a means of explaining laws of physics by presenting a world in which basic facts like the speed of light were significantly lower to make it easier to perceive the effects of approaching the speed of light. Gamow did not think he was committing an integrity violation when “before publishing the paper in the April 1949 journal Physical Review, Gamow decided to add the name of his friend and fellow physicist Hans Bethe. This made the authorship of the paper read 'Alpher, Bethe, Gamow', a play on the Greek letters alpha, beta and gamma.”¹
Gamow’s excuse is that Bethe got the pun and accepted the change, even though he had not contributed to the actual paper. Today with the pressure on scholars to increase their publication count as much as possible, wrong attributions have become serious issues, and can lead to situations where innocent errors can have complex consequences. Authorship, as Bailey writes, “is also very fuzzy. Determining who has earned an authorship credit on a paper can be difficult and, because of the importance of publishing papers, there’s a great deal of pressure to include as many names as possible.”¹ Commissions trying to decide whether a scholar has committed malpractice often prefer to err by making rules too simplistic, which makes their lives easier, even when reality is more complex.
As to Gamow’s integrity error, Bailey adds: “no real harm was done as the truth both was and is widely known. But, that being said, I wouldn’t recommend trying this again in the 2020s. I doubt this joke would be nearly as funny the second time…”¹
1: Bailey, Jonathan. 2023. ‘Falsifying Attribution for a Bad Pun’. Plagiarism Today (blog). 7 February 2023. https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2023/02/07/falsifying-attribution-for-a-bad-pun/.