The Top 5 Lawprof Plagiarism Strategies
Law professors continue to struggle with the rising tide of student plagiarism. As this recent anonymous law review article aptly notes, penalizing a student for plagiarism can cause some serious problems for the conscientious professor, especially if said professor does not have tenure at the institution where the plagiarism occurred.
Silence or compromise are the usual alternatives to soldiering on with a plagiarism complaint, but in this post I want to offer a third option for the professor who wants to avoid unwanted hassle: teaching law students how law professors steal ideas without getting called out.
The following are my candidates for the top five lawprof strategies for getting credit for someone else’s ideas. Use of these strategies does not exonerate one from a charge of plagiarism, but you just may be able to plagiarize your way to tenure in the Ivy League.
1) Look outside law reviews
The cleverest plagiarists look for material to steal that can’t be found in the Lexis and Westlaw law journal databases. Every law professor knows that the biggest risk of discovery comes from these databases. Law students check them in source cites, and other professors will check them when doing similar research. If you’re the first person to express the idea in a law journal, you can fool people into thinking you came up with it yourself.
That’s why professors who cannot think up their own ideas mine other sources for their law review articles. One popular tactic is to repurpose ideas from other disciplines, such as the thesis of a little read scholarly monograph, article or dissertation. Another popular tactic is to expand on ideas, outlines and abstracts from another law professor’s work in progress; academic norms about respecting another scholar’s drafts mean nothing to the unscrupulous professor who wants to grab the brass ring. Material plagiarized from a blog, a book chapter, congressional testimony, a peer-reviewed or foreign article, an amicus brief, or an unaccepted draft article on SSRN is also not likely to be caught, provided you get it between the covers of a law journal first.
2) Name it and claim it
OK, so you’ve found someone else’s idea that you’d like to copy. What do you do next? Call it yours.
The original starts with a particular theoretical perspective? Start by implying you are the first to use that perspective. It’s an easy trick: just preface the point with, “I [or we] explain that ….” This gives the impression that the idea originated with you (and, if applicable, your co-author).
The same goes for the rest of your article. The original offers a two-pronged model for analyzing its subject? Offer a similar-sounding two-prong model and imply that you came up with the prongs yourself. Having trouble filling the blank page? Take the outline from someone else’s abstract and use it as the framework for your article.
Yes, according to traditional academic standards this is plagiarism of another scholar’s original work, but your chances of getting caught are slim. It’s hard to search for a perspective or an outline on Lexis and Westlaw.
When copying someone else’s work, never underestimate the power of the paraphrase. Not only does this make your copying harder to notice; it also gives you an easy way to protest that the material you stole is your own.
4) Borrowed citations and parallel research
Amateur plagiarists copy citations from someone else’s footnotes instead of crediting the original researcher over and over again. Sometimes you can get away with this, but it’s really easy to get caught. Pro lawprof plagiarists take the extra step of getting their research assistants to conduct research that parallels the research in the work that is being copied. You don’t always quote the exact same sources used by the original professor; you find other sources that support the same point.
5) Selectively citing the author you plagiarized
Here’s the coup de grace of the clever plagiarist: strategically citing the person you’ve ripped off. Put that person’s name in the acknowledgments, which gives the impression that you’ve credited their inspiration and they’ve signed off on your appropriation of their ideas. Cite their work in a couple footnotes for minor supporting examples, but do not cite them for the central ideas, examples and outline. For the extra twist, add citations from other people in the same footnote, to give the impression that your source is just a minor tangential supporter to your work.
Like everything else in this post, this too is plagiarism, but it’s a trick that law student editors and nonspecialist lawprofs are not likely to catch. If you get caught, don’t fret; the next post gives the top 5 lawprof strategies for defending yourself when busted for copying.