September 27, 2004
HARVARD PLAGIARISM SCANDALS: People have been emailing me about this stuff, and it’s even inspired a blog of its own with links to various news treatments, etc., but I haven’t taken a position. That’s because identifying plagiarism requires more than just pointing out some parallel passages (see this post quoting Alexander Lindey on why that is) — it also requires knowledge of context, an analysis of the work as a whole, and, in short, more time and attention than I’m willing to give this subject. That said, there’s certainly nothing here for the people in question to be proud of. Peter Morgan and I had a chapter on this in The Appearance of Impropriety, which you can read for free online here.
Many readers might be interested to read what Mark Tushnet has to say about the use of research assistants. His use of them sounds more extensive than mine, but that’s partly a function of the differences in our kinds of work, I think. It’s certainly far less than what we’re hearing about at Harvard.
There’s another issue, though, beyond questions of plagiarism. 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 — but it isn’t scholarship, either. I’ve never used research assistants that way, and it seems obvious that doing so isn’t a very good idea. 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. . . .