Monday, September 13, 2004

Harvard Law Plagiarism

Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree is guilty of plagiarism, although the offense seems to have been inadvertent:
Harvard Law School (HLS) professor admitted that six paragraphs in his newest book came almost verbatim from another professor’s work, in a mistake he attributes to two assistants.
Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree Jr. apologized for what he calls “serious errors” in his book All Deliberate Speed in a Sept. 3 statement, following an investigation by former Harvard President Derek C. Bok and former HLS Dean Robert C. Clark.

Clark and Bok reported their findings that the passage was lifted from Yale Professor Jack M. Balkin’s 2001 collection of essays, What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said . . . .

* * *

Ogletree accepts “full responsibility” for the errors, he said in his statement, which was posted on the HLS website.

“I made a serious mistake during the editorial process of completing this book, and delegated too much responsibility to others during the final editing process,” he said. “I was negligent in not overseeing more carefully the final product that carries my name.”

Ogletree said in the interview that he first learned of the issue when Balkin, tipped off by an anonymous letter, called him. Kagan also received an anonymous letter reporting the issue, Ogletree said.

But 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.
But as Joseph Bottum argues:
[Ogletree's assistants] got caught because they missed a passage, but what's wrong isn't the part they missed. It's the whole procedure.
* * *
The only result so far is Ogletree's public explanation on the Harvard website. In the end, Bok told the Boston Globe, the investigators decided that though there was "a serious scholarly transgression," they found "no deliberate wrongdoing at all." Ogletree merely "marshaled his assistants and parceled out the work," Bok explained, "and in the process some quotation marks got lost."

But that ought to be the definition of "deliberate wrongdoing." Oh, the actual reproduction of Balkin's words was certainly inadvertent. But by every explanation, Ogletree conceived much of the book as a kind of double plagiarism: He set out to put his name on work done by his assistants, who, he knew, were merely rephrasing work written by other people.

That is not a book. It is, at the least, tenure-revoking ghostwriting.
Now I've recently defended the practice of "astroturf," whereby ordinary citizens sign their names to letters to the editor that were actually written by someone else. I said that since businessmen, members of Congress, Presidents, etc., all deliver words that were written by someone else, what could be wrong when a ordinary citizen does the same thing?

But here, I think, the problem that Bottum identifies is real, quite apart from the plagiarism involved. Scholars should be held to a higher standard here. When a Senator delivers a speech written by someone else, no one blinks, because the Senator's main job, after all, is not to deliver completely original speeches. But for scholars, the act of producing their own scholarly work is one of the two main responsibilities of their jobs (the other being teaching).

When a scholar at a university puts his name to a book or article, no one thinks (or ought to be justified in thinking), "Well, he's awfully busy, and he's probably just putting out words that someone else wrote; but at least he agrees with what other people have written for him." Instead, the scholarly norm should be that a book or article represents the scholar's own research and deliberation. Genuine scholars should have put enough work and thought into an article/book that it would be totally inconceivable for them to mistake another professor's work for their own.


Blogger Tim McNabb said...

I think you are spot-on if the bulk of the prof's work is in fact the work of others. Writing a book is completely different from editing a book, and that sounds like what the guy did. Why he did not read the galleys before publishing (surely he would have noticed a passage he did not write!) is beyond me.

On the other hand, if you steal from one, it's plagerism. If you steal from many, it's research.

Tim McNabb

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another case where accepting full responsibility carries no consequences.
The False Claims Act standard seems apropos in this circumstance, under which proof of "willful ignorance" or "reckless disregard" is sufficient to find liability.
Bill H.

6:26 PM  
Blogger QD said...

I think you're right to say that what Ogletree did was wrong (and deserving of some greater punishment), but what sort of line should we draw here? It's a common practice for faculty at research universities to employ graduate students to do a lot of their grunt work on projects - doing literature reviews, collecting and sifting data, getting books out of the library, etc. Are there any well-established guidelines for when professors *should* give co-author credit to research assistants?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Dcon said...

Plagiarism: What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander

As a Harvard alumnus, it seems clear to me that Prof. Charles Ogletree's reported "plagiarism" should be dealt with at least as seriously as the same offense would be treated if the offending party were a student. Harvard has the obligation to ensure that the same standards applicable to students in regard to academic honesty also are applied to (especially are applied to) the professors who would enforce those same standards against their students.

Unfortunately for Prof. Ogletree, the standards provide that plagiarism by students -- which specifically includes undue and unacknowledged "collaboration" -- "will be subject to disciplinary action, and [the offender] ordinarily required to withdraw from the College." Applying the same standard to Prof. Ogletree would indicate that he should be forced to withdraw from the Faculty.

See how simple the truth and a single standard are? Does anyone honestly believe that a student's protestation that he made a mistake in that his (unacknowledged) friends helping him write a paper forgot to credit the source of 6 almost verbatim paragraphs would be enough to avoid disciplinary action? Of course not. Prof. Ogletree's apology (when confronted) and acceptance of responsibility are refreshing, however, and could warrant the lesser sanction of suspension (unpaid leave) if and only if the Administration can cite precedent for similar leniency in the case of student discipline.

For the information of readers, the Harvard College (FAS) Student Handbook (sections entitled Standards of Conduct in the Harvard Community and Academic Performance) contains the following pertinent provisions (as copied and pasted from the webpage and imbedded link):


The College expects that all students will be honest and forthcoming in their dealings with the members of this community. Further, the College expects that students will answer truthfully questions put to them by a properly identified officer of the University. Failure to do so ordinarily will result in disciplinary action, including but not limited to requirement to withdraw from the College.

All students are required to respect private and public ownership; instances of theft, misappropriation, or unauthorized use of or damage to property or materials not one’s own will ordinarily result in disciplinary action, including but not limited to requirement to withdraw from the College.

Preparation of Papers and Other Work: Plagiarism and Collaboration

All homework assignments, projects, lab reports, papers and examinations submitted to a course are expected to be the student’s own work. Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term “sources” includes not only published primary and secondary material, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people.

The responsibility for learning the proper forms of citation lies with the individual student. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated. (See also Submission of the Same Work to More Than One Course below.)

A computer program written to satisfy a course requirement is, like a paper, expected to be the original work of the student submitting it. Copying a program from another student or any other source is a form of academic dishonesty; so is deriving a program substantially from the work of another.

The amount of collaboration with others that is permitted in the completion of assignments can vary, depending upon the policy set by the head of the course. Students must assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless e xplicitly permitted by the instructor. Students must acknowledge any collaboration and its extent in all submitted work.

Students are expected to be familiar with the booklet entitled Writing with Sources, available in the office of the Allston Burr Senior Tutor or Assistant Dean of Freshmen. Students who are in any doubt about the preparation of academic work should consult their instructor and Allston Burr Senior Tutor or Assistant Dean of Freshmen before the work is prepared or submitted.

Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.

3:36 PM  

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