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Monday, September 27, 2004
Tales of Intellectual Laziness and Theft (With Maybe a Little Hubris Thrown in for Fun)

By Steven Taylor @ 7:24 am

E-mailer Paul notes the following tale from the Weekly Standard: The Big Mahatma which details an incidence of plagiarism by Laurence Tribe. The piece details parallels between a Tribe book on the SC and one by another scholar, and goes on to draw comparisons to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s own foray in the world of “creative citation":

But even Goodwin’s discredited book, by Tribe’s own account, contained “something like 3,500 footnotes” citing “300 or so” other works; God Save This Honorable Court, by unflattering contrast, contains no footnotes at all-nor any other sort of “meticulous attribution.” Instead, at the end of God Save This Honorable Court, we find a two-page “Mini-Guide to the Background Literature,” which lists Henry Abraham’s Justices and Presidents as merely the twelfth of fifteen books (including two of Tribe’s own previous works) that “an interested reader might wish to consult.”

And against even this tiny hint of Tribe’s use-the only appearance of Abraham in the book-one must set Tribe’s preface, which explains the lack of footnotes by claiming: “much of what this book contains represents the culmination of more years of research and reflection about the Supreme Court and its role than I care to confess. Thus I cannot hope to trace here all the roots of the ideas that appear in these chapters-or to allocate credit or blame among the many who share indirect responsibility for the thoughts I have expressed.”

Such practices would have garnered a “zero” from me, had I been grading it.

And I am with the MLA on this one:

BUT THERE SEEMS more to the production of Tribe’s book than its public purpose. We enter here into what the novelist (and sometime WEEKLY STANDARD contributor) Thomas Mallon calls the “peculiar psychology” of famous people who want also to be authors.

Mallon has written, in addition to his novels, the 1989 Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, declared “the definitive book on the subject” by the New York Times. And so I telephoned him to ask what he thought of the kind of systematic paraphrasing that God Save This Honorable Court uses.

But he seemed interestingly unwilling to subsume the practice entirely under the genus of plagiarism. Of Tribe’s particular case, Mallon rightly said he didn’t know the details. But even of the general form, he thought a distinction might need to be made in some cases. Still, Mallon concluded, “authors do not have a license to paraphrase forever.” And pushed to decide, he offered this formulation as a good rule: “Constant paraphrasing without at least semi-regular attribution constitutes a form of plagiarism.”

THE MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION’S Guidelines for Documentation proves a little sterner, condemning the practice as “plagiaphrasing” and likening it to the dishonesty of plagiarism: “Plagiarism (the unacknowledged borrowing of words or ideas) is a serious violation of academic honesty. So is ‘plagiaphrasing’: rewording a quote without putting the idea in your ‘voice.’”

Mallon’s gentler definition might conceivably let off Doris Kearns Goodwin. But not Tribe, whose noteless text provides nothing resembling “semi-regular attribution.” So perhaps the MLA’s ugly coinage “plagiaphrase” is the best term to describe what Tribe and his assistants did with God Save This Honorable Court.

The historical sections of the book typically consist of a long passage from Abraham crunched down by rephrasing and the elimination of detail-as one might expect when Abraham’s 298 pages of material are made to provide the facts around which Tribe builds his own thesis in 143 pages of text. The repetition of “Taft publicly pronounced Pitney to be a ‘weak member’ of the Court to whom he could ‘not assign cases’” (Tribe, p. 83; Abraham, p. 164) is straightforward copying. But more often, the reader will find the kind of plagiaphrasing that the MLA condemns.

Such action are both lying and thievery on the intellectual level, if you ask me.

Filed under: Academia
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  1. It is fascinating to read Tribe’s previous commentary on the Goodwin and other plagarism incidents in which his collegues have been involved.

    His basic position was that such illustrious individuals are so busy and so immersed in their work that the usual standards should not be applied to their musings.

    In other words a graduate student has the time to be circumspect with respect to the stealing of other people’s ideas but someone as important as me does not.

    Comment by Earl Sutherland — Monday, September 27, 2004 @ 9:31 am

  2. He is a lawyer, after all. :-) But seriously, law schools are more anal about citations than humanities (my little Blue Book attests to that fact).

    Tribe is whistling past the graveyard.

    Comment by bryan — Monday, September 27, 2004 @ 12:41 pm

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