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Plagiarism at Berkshire, and in American academia

I’m in China now and one of the topics that comes up often is IPR–intellectual property rights. This mainly refers to pirating, large-scale and blatant commercial copying of books ranging from Harry Potter to textbooks. It’s an extraordinary problem in publishing, as I found at the Beijing Book Fair last year. Men with huge cameras prowled the halls, taking photos of Western book covers. (The business rational for this still eludes me, since covers can be found at and the designs are generally not very complex. I guess with these powerful professional cameras they can get images good enough for use–but on what?) I decided to turn the tables one day and stalked one of the photographers, getting a nice clear photograph of his face, and camera. My colleagues followed me following him, so it’s just too bad no one took a photo of the whole parade.

But old-fashioned plagiarism is also an IP issue. At Berkshire, we’ve dealt with a few cases of plagiarism over the years, but recent case is especially worrisome because the perpetrator was a respected, well-published academic. I asked our senior copy editor how she caught it.

In this case “the deadly guano fields” caught my eye–I had heard of guano islands, but not guano fields, and nothing about their being deadly, so I searched for guano fields to see if I could find more information, and then discovered the plagiarism by chance–and then once you find one instance of plagiarism, there’s often more.

In general, I don’t look for plagiarism or assume there is any, but if an article is at a certain (usually not very high) level of English and then all of a sudden I see a really well-turned phrase, I get suspicious and check it out. Nine times out of ten, in such a case, it’s plagiarized.

Sadly, the commercialization of U.S. academic writing seems to be the cause of what looks like a plague of plagiarism by respected scholars. This article, “A Million Little Writers” from the magazine 01238, tells the story. I’m quoting a couple of paragraphs below, but it’s a long article and well worth reading right the way through.

One might think that the ivory tower should and could resist such commercialism. If nowhere else, the provenance of an idea ought still to matter in academia; the authenticity of authorship should remain a truism. After all, one of the reasons scholars are granted tenure is so they can write free of the commercial pressures of the publishing world, taking as long as they need to get things right. And, whether in the sciences or the humanities, the world of scholarship has always prioritized the proper crediting of sources and co-contributors.

That image of academia may be idealistic, but most scholars still profess allegiance to it, and it is held up to undergraduate and graduate students as the proper way to conduct their own research and writing, reinforced by strict regulations regarding student plagiarism. As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Student Handbook states, “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.”

Students—but not professors. Because, in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between “author” and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors “write” books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what can only be called ghostwriting.

While there are unquestionably serious IPR issues in China, it strikes that we might do better not to sound quite so self-righteous in our efforts to improve the situation.

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