The SanityPrompt

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Introducing Gary Becker and Richard Posner - Post Modernists

A while back I wrote a post entitled "When Professors Steal", mentioning the cases of famous Harvard plagiarists Laurence Tribe, Charles Ogletree, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Now comes Richard Posner, conservative/libertarian jurist extraordinaire to opine -- "well plagiarism is kind of a fuzzy concept." Hmmmm. They never taught that to me in college. Or grad school.

The Becker-Posner Blog: Plagiarism--Posner Post: "When unauthorized copying is not disapproved, it isn't called plagiarism. Which means that the word, rather than denoting a definite, well-recognized category of conduct, is a label attached to instances of unauthorized copying of which the society, or some influential group within it, disapproves."

Then it gets really interesting. Catch this interesting line of jurisprudence:

In general, disapproval of such copying, and therefore of “plagiarism,” is reserved for cases of fraud. The clearest example is a student’s buying an essay that he then submits for course credit. By doing this he commits a fraud that harms competing students and prospective employers. Another clear example is the professor, or other professional writer, who steals ideas or expression from another professor or writer, and by doing so obtains royalties or tenure or some other benefit that he would not have gotten were the truth known—again, a case of fraud. It is less serious than the student fraud, however, because it is more likely to be caught.

Ahah! So if I murder someone in broad daylight in Times Square, that's less serious than say, lifting a pack of gum surreptitiously at the grocers since I am more likely to get caught. Hmmmmmm.

It gets even more interesting:

Moreover, whereas a student plagiarism has absolutely no social value, plagiarism in a published work may have such value. If what is plagiarized is a good idea, the plagiarism creates value by disseminating it further than the original author may have done. Moreover, the plagiarist may add his own input to the plagiarized idea and as a result produce a superior work.

Posner's is nothing if not an interesting mind, perhaps (no scratch that) one of the most interesting minds of our times. His line of reasoning in many instances is superb and even in this case, he makes some compelling arguments why student and professorial plagiarism might be treated differently -- arguments of the sort you would expect from a law & economics pioneer. We can judge whether copying the work of a professional writer or popular historian is more or less grievous than copying the work of an academic by looking at the harm done to the person whose work is copied -- harm measured in economic terms.

In the end, Posnoer comes down against the managed book -- the book of a famous person that is written by many unacknowledge co-authors, research assistants, writers, students, etc... In the instances of Goodwin, Ambrose, Tribe and Ogletree these texts were most certainly managed books. Ambrose was far too prodigious an author, even by Posner's standards, to have done all that work by himself. And Ogletree has admitted that this is how he got in trouble, by incorporating the plagiarism of a research assistant. But the point is not that these authors wrote managed books and didn't admit it to the world. The point is that these authors wrote managed books that had large sections in them that were plagiarized from another's work. So I guess that makes their work doubly disingenuous.

But the bottom line in all of this comes down to recalling the social context. Recall that the student learns from the professor. But you cannot expect the student to learn about plagiarism if, at the same time, he or she is told that there are different rules for professors, for professional writers, and for students, and students are the ones who have to abide by the strictest code. Plagiarism is unlikely to be taught well if students are told, "this only counts here. There are other rules out in the real world." There is after all something about leading by example, about teaching by one's actions which is important here. There is also something about having a universal standard or an equal standard for all people. Crime may get judged by incorporating mitigating circumstances, but it ought not be judged (even if it is) by different standards for different classes of defendants.

Schools such as Harvard rightly do not make (much) distinction between intentional and unintentional cheating/plagiarism for students. Because it is the principle that is at stake -- the idea that careful scholarship requires checking your facts, checking your ideas, not just to see if you are copying someone, but to make sure you give fair credit to those who have come before you and developed important ideas in your field and that you are in honest communion with your reader, whoever that reader is. If we cannot expect academics to abide by this principle, how can we expect students, who will go out into the broader world to take what we teach them about honesty with them?


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