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The Harvard Brand of Plagiarism

July 30, 2011

Tribe. Ogletree. Dershowitz. Suk. Why has Harvard spawned enough credible cases of professorial plagiarism to warrant an entire blog? The usual excuses (research assistant; faulty memory; unintentional mistake) may be enough to satisfy an indulgent dean and complicit colleagues, but they gloss over the phenomenon’s deeper significance.

Plagiarism by Harvard professors is not just an unfortunate accident. It is a sign of how Harvard has become the archetype of the branded university.

As Richard Posner explains in The Little Book of Plagiarism, an author’s name “establishes a brand identity . . . in the market for expressive goods.” [69]. The traditional norms of plagiarism arose as a way to protect the author’s identity much like the law of “trademark infringement in the market for ordinary goods.” However, in academia today, innovative research is not just associated with the professor’s identity; professors are marketing icons, and their reputation for producing innovative research is a leading component of the university’s brand identity.

In this context plagiarism is more than just an unfortunate accident among overworked overachievers. The norms of scholarly attribution give way to whatever serves the university’s brand. Although professors may become famous for work that is truly their own, there’s an equally strong incentive for a university to cultivate professors with a facility for garnering publicity at any cost, just like the movie and TV celebrities who become fronts for eponymous products they do not actually create. In law, a highly profitable field that has long operated outside the academic mainstream, the substantial rewards for producing PR-friendly product with a quick turnaround create a market highly favorable for careerist status-seekers with a knack for knocking off.

It’s a problem we’ve seen too many times before, especially in the prominent Harvard plagiarism scandals that have been well documented in the press. For example, Harvard bought Larry Tribe’s excuse that he left out the requisite footnotes because he was writing a popular book, but the fact that he was merely rebranding someone else’s work did not give the University pause. After all, when a university becomes a promotional machine for its professors (and the grad students who serve them), having an eye for ideas to appropriate is just part of the job.

The fashion copyright article by Jeannie Suk and Scott Hemphill is a paradigmatic example of the trainwreck that can result from PR driving productivity. For all her misguided appeals on behalf of emerging designers and flawed defense of allegedly narrow protection, Susan Scafidi’s crusade for fashion copyright was a prime candidate for copying by an opportunistic professor. Scafidi had garnered a considerable amount of press attention, and she had produced a lot of material in a range of media outside law reviews. All that Suk and Hemphill had to do was repackage that product into a journal article and sell it as their own. The result was a blatantly derivative rehash that played to the proven market for fashion news but failed to rise above the obvious limits of their source.

The Suk and Hemphill article is also instructive in the way it illustrates another problem: a knack for quickly culling trumps studied expertise. Consider: neither Suk nor Hemphill had done any writing on fashion before; Hemphill wrote on generic drugs, and Suk wrote on criminal law and privacy. Nonetheless, out of the blue they were suddenly expert fashionistas, touting a fully formed analysis of the fashion industry that just happened to share the same outline, theory, assessment of harm, phrasing and practical recommendations as fashion copyright’s most infamous defender.phrasing and practical recommendations as fashion copyright’s most infamous defender.

Treating scholarship like fast fashion may make for a quick sale, but it is precisely the sort of shallow research that longstanding norms of plagiarism were designed to stop. To the extent these norms remain on paper, they too serve to reinforce the school’s brand; even the vaunted internal investigation can become a promotional tool. Because plagiarist professors would be inconsistent with the university’s brand identity, the university does whatever it takes not to concede the existence of plagiarism in its ranks. The problem, you see, is not Harvard, but those who dare to challenge it.

In this, we see what those who embrace this model would have academia become. Everything serves the goal of promoting the professor as an icon of revolutionary insight. Should there be a critical mass of plagiarism buzz, the image will be maintained through self-maintaining groupthink and attempts to shift the blame. Most ironically, we will also be schooled on the nature of scholarship itself as a fundamentally conservative and deliberate enterprise. The pathbreakers of the press release become mere incremental scholars making use of language and ideas that were in the air, just part of the academic landscape, never mind the fact that the language and ideas in question were plagiarized from someone else’s work.

At a time when concern for the state of legal academia has led Yale Law School to establish a legal Ph.D. to train scholars to produce truly original research, Harvard has cast its lot with those who would subvert academic standards to serve whatever burnishes the brand. In so doing Harvard has become education’s own lux version of Forever 21, knocking off others’ research and claiming it as their own while purporting to serve a higher cause. It’s a cynical and exploitive trick to be sure, albeit one that has proven somewhat effective from a marketing angle; one might even say it’s “narrowly tailored” to suit Harvard’s institutional culture of derivative self-promotion.

Just don’t call it scholarship.

Have another story about academic plagiarism? I’d be interested to hear it. Let me know via the comments below.

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