By Henry Clare
Palatinate Investigation: Iranian philosophy professor accused of plagiarising his Durham PhD thesis.
Professor Mahmoud Khatami, a widely celebrated philosopher at the University of Tehran, has been accused of “academic fraud”.
The allegations surfaced in a guest post on Daily Nous, a philosophy blog that engages some of the world’s most prominent philosophers.
The post claims that Professor Khatami’s reputation has been built on plagiarised books and articles, including a dissertation that he completed for his Durham PhD in 1996, entitled ‘The unitary consciousness: toward a solution for the ontological crisis in modern theories of the self’.
In response to the allegations, the University of Tehran released a statement claiming that a special committee will investigate the professor’s texts “quickly, seriously and thoroughly” in order to establish whether or not they were plagiarised.
The statement also revealed that the University would take action against Professor Khatami if the accusations were proved correct, but would maintain its “obligation to defend its faculty members” if the allegations are shown to be false.
An anonymous source claimed that the extent of alleged plagiarism goes “well beyond one or two paragraphs” and that almost the whole of Professor Khatami’s dissertation is taken from other texts, which were not referenced in its bibliography.
For example, 21 pages of Professor Khatami’s dissertation appear to be almost verbatim copies of pages from The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy by Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi.
A paragraph from page 28 of Ha’iri Yazdi’s text reads: “In the analysis of the theory of reflective knowledge the term ‘subject’ signifies the mind that performs the act of knowledge by knowing something, just as the term ‘object’ refers the thing or the proposition known by that subject.
“However, since in a proposition known there is always something involved, be it particular or universal, it is consequently true then to say that the object of knowledge is always what we call the thing known. It is also observed that the relation called knowing is constituted by the mind as the subject associated with the thing as the object, both of which are knitted into one complex whole, the subject and the objectare to be called the constituents of the unity of knowledge.”
Although a few words are altered, the majority of this paragraph is used on page 140 of Professor Khatami’s PhD thesis, which says: “In the analysis of the theory of reflective knowledge the term ‘subject’, Sadra says, signifies the mind that performs the act of reflective knowledge by knowing something, just as the term ‘object’ means the thing or the proposition known by that subject.
“But, since in a proposition known there is always something involved, particular or universal, it is true then to say that the object of reflective knowledge is always what we call the thing known. It is also observed that the relation called “knowing” is constituted by the mind (as the subject) associated with the thing (as the object); the subject and the object, then, can be called the constituents of the unity of reflective knowledge.”
Furthermore, several pages of the dissertation are alleged to be taken from Sami Hawi’s ‘Islamic Naturalism and Mysticism: A Philosophical Study of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Bin Yaqsan’
A passage from the 94th page of Hawi’s book reads: “It appears as though any mind will reach the same truths that Hayy reached if it took as its point of departure the unsophisticated given of experience and followed the canons of consistency. Thus, Alfred North Whitehead’s well-known dictum that….”
Meanwhile, the 29th page of Professor Khatami’s dissertation has an almost identical paragraph: “It appears as though any mind will reach the same truths if it took as its point of departure the unsophisticated given of experience and followed the canons of consistency. Thus, Alfred North Whitehead’s well-known dictum that….”
The dissertation is said to be the earliest example of plagiarism in the professor’s work, and the author of the post on Daily Nous, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed that the later instances of plagiarism could have been prevented had Durham University not “failed to fulfill its duty”.
The author also told Palatinate that the discrepancy between the quality of Professor Khatami’s writing and lecture notes initially prompted him to investigate the issue further.
“Khatami was a big name in Iran. He was the biggest name at the University of Tehran, a major academic institution in Iran.
“I knew all along that something was fishy. His lecture notes looked naive to me, and a very general and preliminary knowledge of contemporary philosophy says that he is not an important philosopher in the world in any respect.
“Seeing many Iranian students deceived by such an appearance finally gave me the motivation to dig into the issue. With the help of a friend, we investigated.
“Though, I knew for many years that Khatami’s quality of work was poor and his reputation in Iran illusionary, we were simply amazed by the extent of academic fraud we discovered after our investigation.
“I knew that he was not intellectually honest, but the reality of his deception went well beyond my imagination”.
After making the discovery, the author and a friend felt compelled to broadcast the allegations against the professor.
Since the allegations came to the surface, a number of philosophy professors have pointed out further cases where Professor Khatami’s work appears to be very similar to that of other academics.
Yasser Pouresmail, a PhD student at the University of Tehran, was asked in 2008 to translate one of Professor Khatami’s unpublished manuscripts, which he later found to be very similar to another text.
“The manuscript was allegedly about Islamic psychology”, Pouresmail told Palatinate. “I did the translation and it was published in Iran by Elm publications under ‘philosophical psychology’.
“After Daily Nous published a post on Khatami’s allegations of extensive plagiarism I checked what Khatami had suggested to me to translate, and what I found was astonishing. It was a verbatim copy of a chapter of A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy [by Cardinal Mercier]
“Khatami had just made slight changes to make it seem that the work was one concerning Islamic psychology. For example, in some cases he replaced ‘Aristotle’ with ‘Sadra’ – a well-known Islamic philosopher of 16 century – and ‘scholastic’ with ‘Sadraean’, and replaced some Greeck terminologies with Arabic ones”.
An anonymous PhD instructor at the University of Tehran went as far as saying that the professor has “made his whole reputation on the basis of plagiarized papers”.
As a result of the allegations, several of Professor Khatami’s articles have since been removed from online journals.
Organon F, for example, removed a paper from their international journal of analytic philosophy, and issued an apology for publishing what appeared to be a verbatim copy of another text.
Fabio Paglieri, the editor in chief of major philosophy journal ‘Topoi’, wants an article written by the professor to be removed from its archives, but told Palatinate that the allegations of plagiarism need to be proved before he can do so.
“While the fact that large parts of Professor Khatami’s article on Topoi are copied almost literally from Mikel Dufrenne’s 1973 book is beyond doubt, whether or not this constitutes a case of plagiarism in legal terms is an issue currently under discussion between the publisher and Professor Khatami himself.
“My personal position is that the article should be removed from the journal archives as soon as possible, but this action is of course up to the publisher, and they will not act until after hearing Professor Khatami out, which I consider to be a sound policy.
Paglieri also commented that the allegations against the professor reflect issues within the academic community as a whole.
“Besides Professor Khatami’s conduct, there is a larger issue at stake here: how the academic community should react to unfair practices by one of its members
“Peer evaluation in academia is a public good and necessarily requires a minimum of trust among peers, if it is to function adequately. This makes it vulnerable to cheaters, and cheater-detection is inevitably imperfect.
“The message we want to convey is very simple: rigging the system is relatively easy, but if you are caught once in the act you shall be ruined for life.
“It’s a harsh rule, and this is why it is better to err on the side of caution and guarantee a ‘fair trial’ even to those who seem blatantly culpable. But it is also the only rule that can keep the system honest, while at the same time preserving a necessary level of trust among academics.”
The extent of the allegations against Professor Khatami has shocked the philosophy community, as has the fact that so many seemingly plagiarised works were published.
When asked for comment on the evidence of plagiarism in Professor Khatami’s dissertation and other works, the Durham Philosophy Department claimed, “University policy is not to comment on individual cases. Any allegations of this nature made to the University would be investigated and relevant authorities and individuals informed of the outcome”