Allegations of Erasure

Scholar says a new book on China’s “leftover women” fails to acknowledge her years of research in the area -- and the fact that both authors have corresponded on the topic since 2011.

February 21, 2018
 

Leta Hong Fincher, a well-known independent scholar of China, has been researching and writing about the country’s unmarried, educated, urban female population for years. The topic doesn’t belong to Hong Fincher alone, and Chinese even has a special term for this group of women over about 25: “leftover," or sheng nu. But Hong Fincher is something of a pioneer in the area, and many colleagues consider her 2014 book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed Books), required reading.

So Hong Fincher was surprised to find that a major new book, Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower (W. W. Norton & Company), doesn’t acknowledge her at all in its extensive bibliography. And it’s more than a matter of ego: Hong Fincher says the book’s author, Roseann Lake, a journalist who now writes about Cuba for The Economist, has been following her work since 2011.

Back then, Lake reached out to Hong Fincher saying she admired a recent article Hong Fincher wrote about sheng nu for Ms. magazine. Lake said she was in the early stages of writing a book about China’s leftover women and she wanted to interview Hong Fincher. Busy with graduate school at the time, Hong Fincher declined. But she said she eventually shared an unpublished conference paper and asked Lake to cite her if she used any of her ideas. Lake also attended talks and conferences where Hong Fincher was speaking when they both lived in Beijing, Hong Fincher said.

That’s where things get a bit tricky. Hong Fincher, who argues that the Chinese government has launched an aggressive singles-shaming campaign to get sheng nu married and has otherwise rolled back women's rights, isn’t alleging that Lake plagiarized her outright -- at least not based on a quick first read of the book. But she is alleging that Lake, in failing to credit her for any of the work she’s done on leftover women, has in effect “erased” her from the scholarly record. That’s a concern scholars in other venues have expressed of late, saying the erasure phenomenon disproportionately affects women and scholars of color.

“There’s a long history here,” Hong Fincher said. “Now she has this powerful publisher, which has given her this platform, and she’s out there presenting all of these ideas as her own and pretending my work doesn’t exist. I’m very angry about it … It’s calculated erasure.”

Lake has denied any allegations of intellectual misconduct, saying in a statement that she purposely did not read Hong Fincher’s 2014 book as she was preparing her own manuscript.

“I am grateful for Leta Hong Fincher’s work on the subject and have cited it in articles that I wrote for Salon and Foreign Policy in 2012, after she and I had corresponded over the phone and email,” Lake’s statement says.

Since 2010, she added, “I have researched and written on the topic and have also raised awareness of it through creative means, including the Chaoji Shengnu cartoon series that was published starting in 2013, and a stage play called ‘The Leftover Monologues’ that debuted in Beijing in 2014. When Leta’s book was released, I decided not to read it because I was working on the manuscript for my own book, and I chose to stay focused on the stories of the women whose lives I feature in it.”

Lake did not respond to a follow-up question about why she avoided Hong Fincher’s book, namely how it would have interfered with her own writing.

In any case, Lake’s is an unusual defense for allegations of intellectual theft: claiming ignorance about a book's content by virtue of admitting you avoided it. And it’s done nothing to appease Hong Fincher, who has aired her concerns on social media.

“I find that excuse completely indefensible,” Hong Fincher said. “Taking that claim at face value, it doesn’t even make any sense.”

It’s true that Lake has previously cited Hong Fincher’s work: Hong Fincher said she also had concerns about the extent to which Lake’s 2012 Salon article on sheng nu echoed her own 2011 Ms. magazine article about them. But she didn’t pursue anything at that time because Lake had at least mentioned her in the piece. Here’s a side-by-side comparison Hong Fincher recently posted to Twitter of those two articles.

This time, Hong Fincher decided to speak out, and publicly. She initiated a previous, internal complaint against another scholar who wrote about leftover women with another publisher but said that process went nowhere because the onus fell on her to prove misconduct, distracting her from her own work. (The author of that second book did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Hong Fincher's allegations.) Now, she said, people can read the two books and judge for themselves.

Hong Fincher has gathered much public support on social media. Some of her fans have made the leap from erasure to plagiarism on their own, accusing Lake of intellectual theft.

Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of history at New York University, also published a note in the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture website saying that Lake "appears to nowhere acknowledge in print how much her work and her text are indebted to Leta Hong Fincher, whose 2014 book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Lake’s work closely parallels. Lake seems to poach upon the latter’s research, thematics, and acumen, while never citing Hong Fincher as either source or inspiration."

Such conversations prompted ChinaFile, an online news source, to remove an interview with Lake. Announcing the move on Twitter, its editors said, "We invite authors to promote books on our site on the assumption their work respects basic scholarly and journalistic principles. At present, we don't feel confident of that assumption in the case of Leftover in China."

But is erasure a scholarly misdeed on par with plagiarism? Charles Lipson, a professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Chicago who has written about plagiarism, said Tuesday that the issue of citing "borrowed ideas" is a disputed one.

Of course, he said, “the best practice -- and the honest one -- is to openly acknowledge all sources, including those that prompted your concepts and language.”

But in more complicated cases, he said, “Everything rests on the second author's intentions, and those can only be determined by circumstantial evidence and guesswork.”

And second authors can make honest mistakes, Lipson added, saying that he recently came up with an ancillary idea and included it in a manuscript he’s writing. Before publication, a reader told him the idea was well-known, if not to him.

“If I had published the earlier version, I would have stolen an idea without knowing it,” he said.

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