Managed Books in Academia – The Harvard Cases

Managed Books in Academia – The Harvard Cases

Two cases of alleged plagiarism by reputable professors at Harvard have led to some published statements about the matters, the core of which must be corrected.

The Instapundit Posting

Glenn Reynolds has posting about “managed books” in academia at:

“IT’S NOT PLAGIARISM — they’re ‘managed books:

‘Managed books,’ Professor [Howard] Gardner [of Harvard] said, ‘are a recent phenomenon in which some academics rely on assistants to help them produce books, in some cases allowing the assistants to write first drafts.’

I don’t think that’s good.”

Managed Books – A Good Thing?

Sorry, Glenn, but in the opinion of LawPundit, you are wrong on this point.

“Managed books” are nothing new. The label may be new but otherwise students have been helping professors to write books without authorial attribution for quite some time. There is in my view nothing wrong with this long-standing practice as long as the authoring professor or professors retain and fulfill their responsibility for the content and accuracy of the final manuscript.

Managed Books are Nothing New

As a law student at Stanford Law School between 1968-1971 – over 30 years ago – I worked for a total of five professors as a student assistant. Let me say that this was one of the great experiences of my life, adding a quality to my law school education shared by very few students and being immensely useful to me personally in the ensuing years. I am thankful to all of these men for having given me such a great opportunity.

One of those professors, the late Professor John Kaplan (obituary November 27, 1989 in the New York Times), was an extraordinarily brilliant man and good friend. Obviously, John Kaplan did not need me to help him write his books in any way, but in the course of my assistantship he offered me the opportunity to help with the creation of two of his books. It was an opportunity which I gladly accepted and fulfilled. Any law student of promise would have jumped at the chance.

Kaplan knew precisely what he wanted in his books. He just needed someone to help him do some of the time-consuming footwork.

Managed Books and the Role of Assistants

It was quite clear that my contributions as a “researcher” and “editor” were being made without any attribution as an author, which would have been absurd. After all, Kaplan was at that time a leading authority in his field and I had not yet even graduated from law school. Still, there were numerous ways in which I was able to save him a lot of valuable time, and that is one reason why student assistants are hired. I wrote and selected a minimal amount of “draft material” on which Kaplan always had the final word and on which he did the final editing. From my point of view, I was thrilled: I was being paid for work which I was enjoying immensely, and from which I was learning a great deal.

I would write MY books…later.

After all, it was HIS book, not mine. It was HIS reputation that was on the line when his authored books were published, not mine. It was HIS responsibility that all materials be properly selected, and accurately written, cited, and footnoted. It was HIS intellect that was the guiding force behind what was being produced: in fact, Criminal Justice (which John co-authored with a professorial friend), one of the books that I initially helped to edit and put together, became a leading college textbook bestseller which at its peak was used in more than 300 colleges and universities.

Even though my actual role may have been only something like 5%, I like to think that not only did I play my small part in making that book appropriate in style and content to the requirements of the ultimate users, but I really think that my contribution was useful in making the book popular – and John was smart enough to see that. We were constantly asking – what ideas are we trying to get across and what material will get those ideas across in the most interesting manner to the young people John was trying to reach. The result was that we threw out a lot of boring material and put in things which were fresh and exciting.

John knew what he was doing. Indeed, I would imagine many professors could use a second or third voice in the selection of text and materials for textbooks and other publications. Allowing young people to help put educational books together puts a dynamics into the equation that might otherwise be missing.

In any case, many written documents in our modern society are “team” efforts, often worked on by many people who do not get “authorial” attribution. Major law firms are full of law associates who do tremendous amounts of quality work, all supervised or “managed” by junior or senior partners, who ultimately put their John Henrys or law firm seals of approval on documents. This is neither unusual nor undesirable.

The New York Times spends time on a Simple Oversight

In the case of the November 24, 2004 New York Times article by Sara Rimer, “When Plagiarism’s Shadow Falls on Admired Scholars“, this is the kind of journalism that should ordinarily be criticized for making mountains out of molehills.

Obviously, in the cases of Professors Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Laurence H. Tribe, one has accidentaly left out the proper citations to TWO paragraphs in Ogletree’s book and one 19-word sentence in Tribe’s book. No one would intentionally plagiarize such small amounts of material in books running to nearly 400 pages. It was obviously a scholarly oversight and as the New York Times article writes: “The two professors said their errors were accidental, and no scholar has suggested otherwise….”

Teaching – not Scholarship – is the Core Activity of a University

What Professor Howard Gardner writes, that “Scholarship – the core activity of the university – cannot be delegated to assistants,” is completely at odds with the realities in the academic world where e.g. teams of laboratory assistants do the work, supervised by a major guru. Why should it not be the same in law? It is simply more efficient, and efficiency is economically desirable.

Moreover, Professor Gardner is greatly in error in stating that “scholarship” is the core activity of the university. Scholarship is the core activity of tenured professors and those wishing to get there. The major job at a university is passing on knowledge – i.e. TEACHING – and that too is done increasingly by assistants in the form of “assistant” professors, lecturers, fellows, adjuncts, etc. So why should research and ultimate publication be any different?

Was This Plagiarism? – Hardly

In a profession where precedent and stare decisis rule, we are bound by what has been written before us and are in fact obligated to use it. We just have to cite it properly. The instant alleged “cases” of plagiarism are insubstantial as compared to the corpus of the entire book materials. It was obviously not intentional.

Much too much noise is being made about these cases, it is all a bit of the sound and the fury signifying nothing. When students turn in entire papers as their own, but which in fact are copied from the internet, THAT is plagiarism, but that is an entirely different problem, and one should not mix that situation up with what has happened in these two “managed books”.

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