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Sep 27, 2004 1:55 pm

Harvard Writhing ...

There have now been plagiarism charges made against four Harvard scholars in the last two years. As they include Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alan Dershowitz, Charles Ogletree, and Laurence Tribe, the charges have concentrated on the Law School faculty. A website, the Harvard Plagiarism Archive, is now devoted to these stories. Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit points out that reducing the investigation of plagiarism charges to laying out parallel passages is highly problematic. He points to these observations by Mark Tushnet and warns against academic empire as"scholarship.""Getting together a bunch of research assistants and outsourcing a book to them, with the product of their work appearing under one's own name, isn't exactly immoral," says Reynolds,

but it isn't scholarship, either. ... Whether it results in plagiarism, or simply a shoddy product, you're not getting the work product of the person whose name is on the cover. With celebrity autobiographies and the like, that's okay, since everyone knows it, and most celebrities couldn't turn out a book on their own. I don't think that either of those considerations holds true where academics are concerned. Or, if it does, then our problems are even bigger. . . .

It's become increasingly obvious that plagiarism is commonly a function of an academic star's abstraction from work published in his or her own name. It can happen when a busy person signs off on a manuscript produced by other hands. That may be an explanation, but it seems pathetically inadequate as an excuse.

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Ralph E. Luker - 9/30/2004

Thanks for telling us all of this, Clayton. Your project is not so large as would necessarily require a staff, however; and I can't imagine who you are addressing the last sentence to. Has Richard been justifying plagiarism again? For shame, Richard!

Clayton Earl Cramer - 9/30/2004

There are indeed projects that large--but in that case, perhaps you are better off summarizing the secondary work in that area. My current project involves an examination of militias in the Revolutionary period. I simply don't have the time to do much primary research on this. I have to rely on the work of others.

I cite these secondary works. I use a variety of sources to look for flaws or alternative explanations. I check some of the primary sources to verify that they aren't suffering from Bellesilesism, and sometimes find some interesting stuff that I also use. But it would never justify plagiarism.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/28/2004

I have a certain sympathy for cases of "musical ear". Composers hear things, and then years later "compose" much the same piece. That kind of ear can extend to literature. John Gardner had a musical ear, and ended up writing what had already been written -- there is such a thing as unconscious plagiarism.

But we do know the real thing (wholesale palgiarism) when we see it, even if there are borderline cases. It would be unfair to visit draconian punishment on the uninformed, but at the schools I mentioned, its my understanding that they beat the distinctions into them with pre-freshmen seminars, featuring examples, and they have the expulsion cases reported in detail in the student newspapers. Where institutions go the extra mile to inform their students of the problem, and its consequences, I have no problem dropping the hammer. In other cases, it would seem to present a teachable moment. I wonder how many institutions have policies written in stone? In any case, professors (like Gardner) can make mistakes, though here too we know the real McCoy when we see it. What I find troubling is the laying off of blame (causality, if not responsibility) on assistants. When an Amati came out of the workshop in Cremona it carried the Amati label, and Amati's reputation was in the dock, not his assistants.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/28/2004

One whole class of projects in the humanities which need a staff of researchers/writers would be those which publish multi-volume collections of documents, particularly in critical editions.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/28/2004

You're right, Ralph, but offhand I can't think of such an instance in the humanities (having said that, I'm sure to now be inundated with examples).

The "collaboration" problem seems more a problem in the sciences -- witness a typical high energy elementary particle physics paper with 50 or more co-authors. There you have team leaders, and a project boss, and post-docs whose work is checked and supervised. Even so, personal characteristics make a difference. Compare the results withrawal rate of such physics Nobel laureates as Sam Ting and Carlo Rubbia.

But we might be close to splitting hairs, when making a real distinction, between collaboration among peers, or even the use of post-docs (on the one hand), and the use (and abuse?) of grad student research assistants. I can imagine (in the humanities) asking a grad assistant to do a Lexis/Nexis search, or even a Humanities Index database search, but would want a printout and the search terms. I can even imagine using a grad assistant for database entry -- say for a computer program-based style comparison between known examples of an author's writings, and problematic examples (say, from the point of view of style, paragraph construction, word choice, etc.). These seem instances where a grad assistant is used to help with drudge work, and the findings don't rely oh his judgment or expertise (a simple prefatory thankyou seems sufficient). But genuine collaboration would seem to call for co-authorship.

And this is where it really bites my butt. I don't think it counts as "peer review" to put your name to a no-publish recommendation when you actually passed it off to a post-doc for his views. Nor even is it peer review to ask a grad assistant to check the footnotes. A lot less crap would be published if more people took it more seriously when they put their name to it, and when putting one's name to it means one did the heavy lifting.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/27/2004

Ralph: Dershowitz suggested as much, from the press reports, and is also making a case, familiar to me from plagiarism cases I handled at Harvard, that varying disciplinary practices can seem like plagiarism when viewed with a uniform standard. "I'm an econ major, and we never cite anything...."

Richard: I know, and there's a piece of me that thinks that faculty should be held to that standard. But I've never had the privilege of teaching in that kind of environment. I have toyed with the idea of a draconian personal policy, but the level of training in source use of students that come to me suggests that my efforts, to use punishment as a tool for learning instead of for weeding out, are justified.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2004

One of the problems, Richard, is that there are some research projects that are simply so large that they are necessarily collaborative and no single person, even the primary researcher, can possibly review all the background to particular findings.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/27/2004

There are some places, like Virginia, Vanderbilt, and Sewanee, where there is just one punishment for plagiarism -- expulsion.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2004

I wonder if someone has been doing a systematic check on Harvard law school faculty. A disgruntled person, perhaps ...

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/27/2004

Some years back the science writer for the NY Times, William Broad, wrote an interesting book called Betrayers of the Truth. I prefigured some of the problems with outsourcing work to research assistants.

One case in particular comes to mind. A female researcher at NIH did a study on sucrose binding in anorexia suffers, to include some formulae she developed. She sent it to the New England Journal of Medicine, who sent it out for peer review. One of those who was to perform the peer review was a professor of bioschemistry at Yale, who shopped it out to a post doc. The post doc gave it a thumbs down, cadged the material, and then published his own work on the subject (under the supervision of the professor). The professor had since accepted an endowed chair at Columbia.

The female researcher, understandably, was upset, but her boss was an old grad school classmate of the Yale professor, and he ordered her not to pursue the matter on NIH stationery. Eventually an auditor from Harvard was appointed, who asked the post doc for his lab notes -- the post doc immediately confessed, and the Yale prof was stripped of his forthcoming endowed chair at Columbia. Interestingly, while the Yale prof had been willing to affix his name to everything that came out of his lab, he pled that he wasn't responsible for the fraud.

Fast forward to the not too distant Washington conference on the Second Amendment sponsored by the ABA and a gun control group. The historians there had great fun with the notion that law reviews don't have peer review (though they assiduously check the notes). Don Higginbotham even added that history professors had their grad assistants check the notes when they engage in peer review. One of the conference participants was Bellesiles, who also supplied some sarcastic comments.

How things change with time, don't they? Any prof who puts his name to research he hasn't done, or who relies on assistants (in the humanities) to do anything more than photocopy sources, is asking for trouble, and deserves it when it comes.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/27/2004

Honestly, for some of the plagiarism I saw, no. And I never saw a case of a student being suspended for plagiarism. Sexual assault, yes; plagiarism, no.

It is interesting that the lawyers are being hit; it's a nice change....

Ralph E. Luker - 9/27/2004

I admit to not being familiar with all the details of the Tribe situation, but wouldn't you consider an automatic failure of a course or suspension/probation for a semester a fairly severe penalty?
It is interesting that the accusations at Harvard have centered in the law faculty. Goodwin, as I understand it, had no faculty appointment.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/27/2004

I'm very disappointed to see Laurence Tribe's name on the list. One of the highlights of my undergraduate career was Anthony Arend's course "Constitutional Law of US Foreign Policy" (all Arend's hypotheticals used the names of 1970s rock stars for characters) in which "Larry" Tribe and his arguments were a powerful presence. It was not my first introduction to the joys of Con-Law (that was in HS, with my retired cop Social Studies teacher), but it left an impression. Because of my tendency to argue against presidential absolutism, my nickname among the class was, I was later told, "the Congressionalist". My roommate, ironically enough, was known as "the Presidentialist" though "monarchist" might have been closer to the mark.....

I do want to take issue, though, with the Harvard Plagiarism Archive's description of Tribe's poor paraphrasing (which is mostly what it is, from their description, with one unparaphrased sentence, and no direct citation) as "a clear violation" which could result in harsh penalties under Harvard's undergraduate code.

The potential for penalties up to and including expulsion exists, but in the 1990s, when I had the displeasure of handling several undergraduate plagiarism cases, penalties for much more direct and egregious cases never exceeded failure for a class and/or a semester's probation, and most cases were handled by instructors resulting in failure (or revision with penalty) for an assignment.

In other words, Tribe's apology to the author whose work was uncited, if properly followed up with a revision of the work in question to reflect the sources used, and some increased scrutiny on his next work, would be about par for the course at Harvard as I knew it.

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