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November 27, 2007

Harvard redefines plagiarism

Last time I mentioned 02138 magazine, I made fun of it for crowning Al Gore the number 1 of the so-called "Harvard 100" most influential graduates of that tiresome institution. Ahead of George W. Bush. And gave him a softball interview, to boot.

But I have to say I found interesting and intriguing the article in the current issue of 02138 about research assistants -- a/k/a ghostwriters -- for prominent Harvard professors: "A Million Little Writers."

That image of academia [as concerned with "the provenance of an idea"] 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.
A law professor, Charles Ogletree, was somewhat embarrassed when it turned out his research assistants had included in an article published under Ogletree's name a chunk of text straight out of the work of Yale law professor Jack Balkin. But not to worry: the explanation was readily available. Here's what Ogletree said: “Material from Professor Jack Balkin’s book . . . was inserted . . . by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched, and summarized by another research assistant with proper attribution . . . . Unfortunately, the second assistant, under the pressure of meeting a deadline, inadvertently deleted this attribution and edited the text as though it had been written by me. The second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher.”

Depends on what the meaning of plagiarism is, I guess. And here's what Derek Bok, former Harvard president said about it:
“There was no deliberate wrongdoing at all . . . . He marshaled his assistants and parcelled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost” — a description that probably sounded flip to any author who has ever been plagiarized. Ogletree was “reprimanded,” but suffered no tangible consequences.
There's much more gossip in this article, and it's all worth reading.

But let's not leave without mentioning one more juicy bit the article reveals:
The Office of Faculty Development and Diversity — created in the wake of the controversy surrounding Lawrence Summers’ comments on women in science — employs a “research assistant” named Mae Clarke whose publicly available job description sounds strikingly like that of a ghostwriter. * * * Clarke is on sabbatical and couldn’t be reached for comment, and — through a spokesperson — Dr. Hammonds declined to comment. In other words, Hammonds used a ghost-speaker to avoid answering a question about her ghostwriter. It’s no wonder some students get cynical about the manner in which they research and write their own work.
Almost makes you feel glad your kids didn't get in, doesn't it?