The Politics of Plagiarism
A tempest is brewing at the Harvard Law School, but before I consign this tempest to the proverbial teapot, I'd like to point out that it's actually a bit more complicated than that. In a fairly nasty article, Weekly Standard writer Joseph Bottum excoriates Lawrence Tribe for relying on Henry Abraham's Justices and Presidents for language, including some very similar sentences and using some of the same words to describe certain situations. As a consequence, Tribe apologized in the Harvard Crimson.
Plagiarism is a serious charge against an academic, and the issue of appropriating the words or ideas of another seems to have special significance to scholars (for the sake of completeness and variety, I'll be using “academic” and “scholar” interchangeably to indicate professionals who teach and produce research, although they are far from completely overlapping.) It’s a different issue than illegal copying of movies and music, since the college kids still know who make the materials they bootleg or download; Metallica isn’t upset that kids are taking their music and attributing it to someone else. To an academic, plagiarism is failure and hypocrisy. Failure, because academic scholars are supposed to earn their income and status by producing original work, be it creative, analytic, scientific, or whatever. Stealing someone else’s words or ideas suggests you can’t, or at least won’t, produce your own, but more importantly it means stealing credit for someone else’s work. Hypocrisy, because an uncomfortable number of the students academics teach think nothing of turning in papers they’ve cobbled together from website texts or bought from online sources and most teachers at least talk a tough game on plagiarism. This explains the responses of Harvard students to previous charges against faculty for overreliance on source materials.
Allegations of plagiarism against an academic scholar are, thus, difficult to mitigate or minimize. The Weekly Standard article establishes that Tribe used short passages of text directly taken from Justices and Presidents and substantially paraphrased portions as well. On the basis of the article, the reliance on Abraham’s book does not seem too substantial, but is clearly wrong and Tribe quite properly issued an apology for his use of Abraham’s language.
So, the question is, what does the WS story mean? Although there isn’t a particular domain outside of which magazines of news and opinion like the WS shouldn’t stray, the subjects and stories that magazines choose to cover reveal their sense of purpose and importance, if we assume that editors, journalists and commentators prefer to write about important things. Is the Tribe story important to the WS? Important enough, it seems to devote space in the magazine and attention from one of their reporters. Now, scholarly ethics are not a typical subject matter for journals of opinion, but this is Lawrence Tribe, Harvard Law School professor and, perhaps more importantly, one of the leading liberal constitutional scholars in the United States.
From the responses of constitutional scholars that I’ve read, this incident is an embarrassment for Tribe and another telling example of the problems “celebrity” scholars have relying on the work of graduate assistants and using other shortcuts, especially with their work for popular audiences. It is not, however, perceived as a serious transgression calling into question Tribe’s reputation as a leading legal scholar. If it were, it would certainly be a major story, but the people whose opinions of Tribe and his scholarship are pertinent do not, in large part, think this is a career-shattering problem. One can see evidence of this in Bottum's article, where his expert on plagiarism, "pushed to decide" (presumably by Bottum) states: "Constant paraphrasing without at least semi-regular attribution constitutes a form of plagiarism." The MLA Guidelines, which he describes as "a little sterner," isn't, saying basically the same thing (note the italicized "unacknowledged" in the previous sentence, which certainly applies to the subsequent sentence.) Also, note that the examples intended to demonstrate substantial, thorough reliance on Abraham get thinner and weaker as the piece goes on, suggesting that this is about as tough a case as can be made, and as the examples get weaker the condemnations get, oddly, stronger.
Does the WS sincerely believe this is a world-changing revelation? I doubt it; the article does not convey the impression that this journalist or the magazine editor really think that this will substantially change Tribe’s standing or reputation among those who can judge Tribe's work on their own. Certainly, the article is not pitched to an audience who is at all familiar with either Tribe or Abraham’s work. Of course, law professors are naturally inclined to think that their assessments are the most important responses to any current event, but they’re usually not. In this instance, the purpose of the story is to suggest a connection between Tribe’s misdemeanor and his political positions. Put another way, the story is intended to imply that just as Tribe’s practice as a scholar is unprincipled, his constitutional scholarship is unprincipled and the policies he favors as a constitutional scholar are unprincipled. As evidence, consider the awkward effort Bottum makes mid-article to tie the book to the Bork nomination defeat. Even if the relationship between God Save this Honorable Court and the transformation in federal court nominations could be established, what possible relevance does this have to whether or not Tribe's reliance on Abraham is or is not serious plagiarism?
Again, just because the Weekly Standard’s interest in this story is predicated more on the opportunity it provides to attack a liberal legal scholar and impugn by association the positions he favors, that doesn’t mean that Tribe didn’t do anything wrong. What it does mean, however, is that the academic community cannot accept the monitoring of journalists and opinion-writers uncritically. What is particularly troubling about plagiarism scandals like those that have affected Harvard Law School and other Ivy League institutions recently is that they have focused inordinately on the scholars and scholarly commitments of the perpetrators and less on the more general scholarly practices that lead to them. Journalists, and other scholars, have been using plagiarism and other infractions of academic standards to tar scholars who achieve fame, wealth, or influence. For other scholars, a lot of the animus is based on jealousy or personal animosity, but for people in the opinion-mills, it’s all about politics. Legal scholars tend to be especially reluctant or unable to recognize and acknowledge the politics that surrounds them and their objects of study. Unfortunately, failing to acknowledge politics in law doesn’t make it impossible for legal scholars to practice politics; in fact, it can make it easier, much as the refusal of judges to comprehend the political nature of their outputs permits so much politics to saturate the legal system.
There’s a more immediate and practical consequence of the focus of stories like this for the academic community. The informally common practices that lead to scandals like Tribe’s need address in a more sober light. Scholars, particularly highly regarded, prolific, “celebrity” scholars like Tribe, have come to rely on graduate students to do at least some of the work that permits their extensive production. An irony central to journalists and opinion-writers busting scholars for infractions like this is that they are also the voices criticizing academic scholars for their lack of contributions to the public discourse on subjects of importance. If leading academics are expected to produce high-quality scholarship for a specialized audience while maintaining an engaged, practical career providing service or advise to public officials, and possibly writing books for a general audience as well, something is going to give. One of the consequences has been the over reliance on graduate assistants and other laborsaving technologies that make these kinds of things more likely. We’d be better off with a careful examination of what leads to these problems, rather than more opportunistic sniping at scholars for low ideological purposes, especially when the scholarly community doesn’t even recognize the stakes. Rather than the subject of "the problem of borrowed scholarship" promised by Bottum's subtitle, the focus throughout remains on demonstrating that the infractions Bottum strains to make damning are a function of Tribe's psychology, "The Big Mahatma" syndrome.
Incidentally, I've never read God Save This Honorable Court, but I have read Justices, Presidents, and Senators, the recent reissue of Abraham's book. While Abraham's book is a standard text in Supreme Court appointment history, it's not without source material itself. Presidential biographies note many of the same relationships and facts, especially regarding the FDR and Truman appointments, in language similar to Abraham's. As no one is concerned with discrediting Henry Abraham, I'm sure no one will put forth the effort to demonstrate that Abraham himself is a "plagiarist" and I'm sure that such an effort would not be worth it anyway, since you would end up, at best, with the kind of weak reliances and suggestive language Bottum collects (although better sourced, I'd wager.) But, another consequence of substituting ideological bloodsport for reasonable accounting of the problems with high-profile scholarship is that serious problems become more difficult to distinguish from political gamesmanship.