Where Plagiarism and Ghostwriting Intersect

October 08, 2007

For those keeping score at home, the tally of plagiarism scandals at Harvard and Yale law schools stands as follows: Harvard 3, Yale 1. That is according to the Columbia law professor Michael Dorf.

The most recent addition to the club is the Yale law professor Ian Ayres, who has acknowledged that several passages in his 2007 book Super Crunchers contain unattributed reproductions or nearly identical paraphrases of other sources. (The Yale Daily News found nine such instances.) In a statement to the Yale Daily News, Ayres says that his citations are proper for a book intended for a popular audience but that he will make changes in future printings of the book.

But Dorf is puzzled by this explanation because it suggests that "we have prominent faculty who think that it's acceptable to change another author's words ever so slightly to avoid having to give attribution." And he finds it very unlikely that Ayres or the other authors would risk their reputations merely to avoid attribution.

What is going on here? Dorf has a theory: These are not plagiarism scandals, they are ghostwriting scandals. "For it's easier to believe that a research assistant whose own reputation is not on the line and who may not be as familiar with the norms of attribution (even if he or she should be) would ever so slightly change the prose of another author as a means of cutting corners on a project that has been delegated to him or her."