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.


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  

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