Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Plagiarism Accusation Retraction

    I received an email from James Scott ('Seeing Like a State', 'The Art of Not Being Governed') yesterday, asking me to back up an allegation of plagiarism against him which I had made almost two years ago in a comment on the anthropology blog Savage Minds. I implied that Scott had copied a section of Wikipedia in writing part of a review of Jared Diamond's last book, which doesn't seem to be the case.

   Specifically, I said:
Borneo was indeed settled ‘more than a millennium ago’, in the same way that I was born more than a second ago. In fact, archaeological evidence of human occupation goes back at least 45,000 years, and its original occupants certainly didn’t speak an Austronesian language. Trade with China was probably not high on the indigenous Bornean to-do list. Austronesian migration to Borneo would also have had very little to do with trade with China, or with any state, for that matter – there isn’t any indication of states in China until the mid-second millennium BCE, a little after Austronesian settlement of Borneo, and no evidence of trade between Borneo and any state until considerably later than that. And yet there is archaeological evidence of weaponry and plenty of comparative linguistic and cultural evidence for non-state warfare.
Also: Scott’s words bear a remarkable likeness to this section of the Wikipedia article on Borneo, which is a bit strange.
     It's not a straight-up accusation of plagiarism, but it definitely implies that Scott copied Wikipedia rather than the other way around, and that's not fair or accurate as far as I can tell.

    I later said:
The wiki article is fine – it just felt a little like Scott had used it as his only source on pre-colonial Borneo. I’m sure he didn’t, but there’s still an odd resemblance between his words and the article.
 The reason it struck me as odd is that the same error or omission is repeated in both - that Borneo was settled for trade in fairly recent times, rather than having a human history stretching back to the Pleistocene. There's no reason to believe that Scott stole from Wiki, and according to his account he got the information from Anna Tsing, and I see no reason not to trust him.

   Plagiarism is obviously a serious accusation in academia, and I certainly wouldn't want anyone to have their reputation damaged by my careless words, so I'm happy to retract the implication/accusation here.


  1. That is very generous of you! Such things are really hard to prove.

    Most scholars don't refer to Wikipedia, but it is possible that he read something written on this topic that did include this specific language and he may have had it in his mind.

    Did Anna Tsing contribute to the Wiki article?

    1. I doubt she did - she tends to write more esoteric works popular with certain kinds of anthropologists (I'm not among them, I don't think). I suppose prehistory isn't her focus and she had a slightly mistaken view of these things, or it got garbled in transmission. Who knows? Anyway, plagiarism is serious stuff, so I don't think it's 'generous' to correct the record exactly.

    2. Two more things:

      Trade may indeed have been important in the Austronesian settlement of Borneo - obsidian from the Bismarcks (east of New Guinea) has been found in Sabah, in strata dated circa 1200 BCE if memory serves, which would represent some kind of very early trans-archipelagic trade involving Austronesian-speaking groups from Near Oceania to the SE Asian mainland. Which is very cool, but I don't think any states were involved.

      Also, Roger Blench believes Borneo may have been settled by Austroasiatic speakers before Austronesian speakers got there. His reasoning is, again if I remember correctly, largely based on plant exploitation in Borneo and mainland SE Asia. Either way, Borneo didn't have a simple history of settlement in prehistory.


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