27 September 2004

Not for Attribution

There has been a relatively recent groundswell of criticism concerning "plagiarism in academic-oriented work" that reflects some serious disjunctures between academic standards and intellectual property law. The recent controversies over law professors are merely blips on the radar; the real problems have been in history (think Stephen Ambrose) and the social sciences.

Frankly, this is largely the fault of the academy. It doesn't set—or teach—scholarly attribution standards in any coherent fashion. Consider, for example, a groundbreaking study on voting habits among women in Boston, including substantial statistical analysis and tabular data summaries. Another scholar takes that data and restates it without attribution. On the one hand, this is perfectly valid, particularly if limited to the data summaries, because it restates facts. Under the Copyright Act, this is not infringement. Whether it might violate some database-protection bill is beside the point; because the real issue here—and it is not an easy one—is potential trademark infringement. Has Author B improperly and falsely presented Author A's work as B's in a commercial context? That "commercial context" is a stumbling block. On the one hand, academic material seldom shows much of a profit for the author, particularly on an hourly basis. On the other hand, those academic publications are a necessary prerequisite to promotion, to tenure, and even these days to getting hired in the first place. At best, the academy teaches certain mechanical methods for citation to existing material.

Then, too, we have the academy's abject failure to define what "original scholarship" means, even field by field. In law, for example, originality is highly discouraged, particularly in practice (which goes a loooooooong way toward explaining why so many hard-core practitioners disdain the legal academy… and vice versa). If one cannot come up with multiple citations for propositions of all kinds, one's work simply isn't viewed as rigorous. Some branches of historical scholarship, though, emphasize bringing previously unknown factual material into the domain of academia. Given that this material often starts as fragments of larger documents and items that may no longer exist, the problems with applying the legal academic approach should be pretty obvious. Now draw in experiment- and observation-based fields, and this headache becomes a blinding migraine.

We won't go into "peer review" as a problem here, except to note that there is a disturbingly large proportion of disaffected young academics (or at least young at the time the incidents took place) whose work was rejected by referees for its substantive defects, only to see that work parroted shortly thereafter by those very same referees as their own. The subject matter has even spawned a multi-film Hollywood franchise in one instance. (Disclosure: For unrelated reasons, I represent the "young academic" in that fiasco.) It is no better in book-length works.

As a modest proposal, I suggest that publication be allowed to count for no more than one third of hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions in academia. The remainder of the decision should be based equally upon recent teaching evaluations and service to the university and community. If nothing else, that should get some of the dinosaurs who disdain teaching back into the classroom, not to mention reduce class sizes. This isn't going to happen, though; too many professors forget that they're more likely to learn something in responding to both "stupid" and "probing" questions in class than in parsing individual phonemes in illegible ancient documents.