Academic Plagiarism or Academic Bureaucracy?

 Posted by on 21 September 2004 at 6:34 am  Academia
Sep 212004

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Juan Non-Volokh posted some comments on a rather strange case of plagiarism by a Harvard law professor. A passage from a book by Yale law professor Jack Balkin was printed in a book by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree as if it were his own. Juan quotes a bit of the Harvard Crimson article which explains how that happened:

Ogletree told The Crimson that he had not read the passage of Balkin’s book that appears in his own work. An assistant inserted the material into a manuscript and intended for another assistant to summarize the passage, according to Ogletree’s statement. The first assistant inadvertently dropped the end quote, and the second assistant accidentally deleted the attribution to Balkin before sending a draft to the publisher.

When the draft returned, Ogletree did not realize that it was not his material, he said in the statement.

As Juan notes, that means “Professor Ogletree did plan to publish the work of others — in this case, his student research assistants — under his own name.” Juan opines:

Of course it is common for prominent figures to use ghostwriters in preparing manuscripts, and many authors include material prepared by — and perhaps even drafted by — research assistants and others. In this Professor Ogletree would hardly be alone. But is this the appropriate standard of scholarship for a tenured law professor? At Harvard? Perhaps I have an old fashioned perspective on these sorts of things, but I am disturbed by the idea of tenured professors at prestigious institutions using research assistants to draft portions of their scholarly work. It this a reasonable view? Or do I have an outmoted view of legal scholarship? After all, attorneys regularly sign documents draftd by others, so why shouldn’t law professors do the same?

I think that Juan is quite right to be disturbed. And the semi-justification offered by one of his readers, Fabio Rojas, quoted in this post, offers no comfort:

During grad school, I discovered there were two modes of “legitimate” academic work: craftsman and bureaucrat. The craftsman worked alone, or with one or two colleagues, to carefully write papers and books. This is the “classic” scholar approach. When you think of a philosopher mulling over every turn of phrase or a historian carefully citing ancience documents, you are thinking “craftsman.”

Much to my surprise, I also learned that a lot of scholars are “Bureaucrats”: they have grants, research assistants and a large network of co-authors. This kind of scholar is more like an architect – he designs the overall project, but an army of helpers puts together the final project.

At first I was horrified, but I came to realize that some research has to be conducted in this fashion. You simply can’t conduct national surveys all by yourself. At the Chicago Soc dept (where I got my Ph.D.) you had a lot of both. Sociology (and political science as well) produces research that requires huge team efforts as well finely crafted individual work. Lot of mass surveys/experiments as well as carefully argued social/political theory.

I also realized that big name scholars get their reputation by being brilliant craftsmen or by being extremely competent academic entrepreneurs. I grew up worshipping the craftsmen – Ron Coase is a great example – infrequent, but outstanding publications. But now I realize a lot of famous names only produce their quantity because they rely to heavily on assistants.

I was shocked to find out that a legal scholar whose work I respect writes a fairly small amount of his later work. He often hires brilliant grad/law students to do most of the leg work and then he assembles the products into his larger manuscripts. It’s simply impossible to write a book every other year, fly around the world, teach classes, be a consultant and satisfy your university service requirements without a lot of help.

Given that’s a path to success, I’m not surprised that the work becomes sloppy very quickly. Scholars barley have time to closely monitor every product they produce. Not every highly productive scholar is that way, but more of them operate that way than we’d admit.

All of that is well and good: Some academic projects require the help of a small army of research assistants and assistant writers, while others are best done solo. Some professors excel as bureaucrats, while others are better suited for the role of the craftsman.

Yet the question remains: Should professors present the work of their students as their own? Surely not. Students who write portions of a text richly deserve the credit of co-authorship. Students who substantially contribute to the research behind a text deserve at least a footnote or two of credit. Part of the job of a professor is to help along the careers of his students. To take credit for their work subverts that purpose, as the open recognition of work done through co-authorship adds substantial weight to a CV. Such attribution is also directly in the interest of the professor. Students will likely be more careful with a text (such as in proper attribution of sources) if their own name is on the line. And the blame for mistakes can be more easily spread to the culpable party if co-authors are openly acknowledged.

In academic medicine, co-authorship of articles is standard when attending physicians and residents collaborate — which is why articles in medical journals often have three, four, or five authors. Less substantial contributions are also appropriately noted in footnotes. As far as I understand, such acknowledgement of the contributions of graduate students is also fairly standard in collaborative works in sociology, psychology, economics, and the like. If academic lawyers are going to be bureaucrats rather than craftsmen, then they need to honestly acknowledge that by giving due credit to those under their management.

The fact that court decisions are often substantially written by law clerks and that books by politicians are often ghostwritten by professional writers not relevant. That is work-for-hire, which is a whole different animal. Without a work-for-hire agreement, no professor should (either in a legal or moral sense) take credit for the work of his students. More importantly, no reputable academic institution ought to allow professor to make use of work-for-hire. What is forbidden to students as plagiarism — buying work to pass off as one’s own — ought to be forbidden to professors. In the context of academia, I can’t think of enough unpleasant words for such a practice, although dishonest, unprofessional, hypocritical, and abusive come to mind.

Professors can be bureaucrats without being plagiarists — and their colleagues ought to insist upon it.

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