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The Top 5 Lawprof Strategies When Busted for Plagiarism

July 28, 2011

Getting away with professorial plagiarism is by no means guaranteed. The top 5 lawprof plagiarism strategies may have come too late for you, or maybe you were a little too bold and lifted material from a scholar whose ideas were too well known to escape notice.

No worries. To help you keep on getting credit for a real scholar’s ideas, these are the top 5 lawprof strategies for when you get busted for plagiarizing.

1) Deny, deny, deny

Nobody wants to believe that a professor can be a ruthless self-promoting plagiarist. Professors are supposed to be different. Deny that you committed plagiarism and most people will believe you.

You can deny plagiarism in a few different ways. An absolute denial refuses to concede that any copying took place at all. This tactic is a favorite among plagiarists who paraphrase, since it taps into the mistaken impression that plagiarism requires copying word-for-word.

If the plagiarism is literal and extensive, like the notorious copying scandals by Harvard Law Professors Charles Ogletree and Larry Tribe, another classic tactic is to deny responsibility. A research assistant did it. Your readers don’t like footnotes. Your photographic memory remembered the passages but forgot the source. It was all just an unfortunate mistake. Excuses we wouldn’t tolerate from students are slam dunks for the plagiarizing law professor.

2) Distract them with detail

When an accusation of plagiarism comes with evidentiary examples, a denial may not be enough. If you were smart enough not to copy an entire passage word-for-word, you should think about distracting people with distinguishing detail.

It’s easy. A paraphrase can change the meaning slightly from the original. Drill down on the differences. Explain that these differences make you original and the accusation wrong. Even if the plagiarism should be evident to a neutral observer, you can make the forest of detail so thick that people will not be able to see the plagiarism for the trees.

Sometimes you come across someone so determined to bust your plagiarism that they won’t let you get away it. This is the perfect occasion for the distract them with detail strategy. Concede that a few incidental details were accidentally copied, but stand by the rest of the work. The worst that will happen is a short explanation on a webpage that few people citing your article will actually read.

3) Burnish the brand

Richard Posner, in The Little Book of Plagiarism, observes that plagiarism is a lot like trademark infringement. To continue with Posner’s analogy, copying a scholar’s work is like copying their “brand.”

A plagiarist also has a personal brand and so does the plagiarist’s law school. To defend yourself and your school, take a page from Posner’s book and find ways to burnish your brand.

Posner mentions one popular tactic among Harvard professors: get your friends and colleagues to defend your reputation. You are a good person. You wouldn’t intentionally copy anyone. You are a real scholar. The law school’s PR team can make this extra effective by scripting quotes, placing op-eds and contacting reporters on your behalf.

Another classic tactic is the sham investigation. Law schools have this down to an art form. Appoint a committee with friends and colleagues; it doesn’t hurt to include professors who have been accused of plagiarism themselves. Conduct a cursory review (by no means let the committee contact the accuser or follow up on evidence that you were aware of the plagiarized work), then announce to the world that the investigation found no basis of intentional copying.

The burnish the brand strategy is especially effective if you are accused of copying work by someone from a lower ranked school. After all, an Ivy League professor would never stoop to intentionally plagiarizing a professor from a non-Ivy, right?

4) Blame the accuser

A complementary strategy to burnishing your brand is blaming the accuser. One pro lawprof tip is to say that your accuser tacitly accepted you copying their ideas by failing to object when the article first became public. Putting your draft on SSRN after it has been accepted for publication can be really helpful here. It may also be a way to bully the professor whose own draft or abstract you copied into accepting being a footnote in your article instead of getting an article published under their own name, because most professors will not want to go through the turmoil of lodging a plagiarism complaint.

Reframing the accusation is another common tactic. The accuser is not protecting original work; the accuser is being uncollegial. The accuser is not defending scholarship; the accuser is attacking the integrity of academia.

This is an especially effective tactic when you have copied the work of an untenured colleague. Groupthink and confirmation bias are your friends when you a tenured professor. Other tenured professors will not want to concede that a tenured lawprof could have committed a firing offense, and untenured professors will not want to risk getting fired. You are in an even stronger position if you at a high ranked law school; lawprofs at lower ranked schools will not want to jeopardize their chances at getting hired at your school or published by your law review by agreeing that you have plagiarized.

Another way to distract attention from the accusation is to make yourself look like a victim. Personal narratives are a valuable currency in legal academia. Write about your painful struggle to overcome the heartwrenching experience of caught in a plagiarism scandal and you’ll get a heap of sympathy for your supposed plight.

A pro lawprof plagiarist will use the last resort of scoundrels but a favorite among lawyers: threaten to file a defamation lawsuit. This may bully the accuser into silence. It can also isolate the accuser by making others afraid to say anything that could get them sued.

5) Everyone knows that nothing is new

It’s a good time to be a lawprof plagiarist. Very few law professors nowadays are in favor of copyright, which means that most law professors will have a kneejerk response in favor of copying even when copyright is not involved. Plagiarism is broader than copyright, and scholarship, like a popular Creative Commons license [Posner, 52], requires attribution, but most law professors won’t make the connection.

This is an easy attitude to exploit. Just defend plagiarism by trotting out the arguments that we all use against copyright. No matter that one professor was associated with an idea; claim that the idea was out there, in the air, not something any one professor should have the right to claim for themselves. Say that nothing is ever really new; find a stray cite where someone else may have said something similar and argue that the professor you plagiarized was just repeating a common idea. Do this well and you pull off the plagiarism hat trick; you will get people to believe that you are an innovative academic because everything you wrote was unoriginal.

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