Saturday, May 25

The New York Times (free registration required) has an absolutely devastating collection of articles, transcripts of phone calls, and audio reports about those trapped inside the Twin Towers on September 11. Painful as it is (and it brought tears to my eyes), it is worth exploring, lest anyone waver in their resolve or begin to forget the evil that was done that day.

Friday, May 24

Eugene Volokh has a thoughtful comment on last night's plagiarism post that brings out a particular problem with applying plagiarism rules in the law school setting. He agrees that close paraphrasing of scholarly work is inappropriate. But then he notes:

The trouble is that when one is citing cases, especially in practical legal writing, this is perfectly fine.

He's absolutely right. Lawyers citing cases and statutes follow different rules, because while originality may be prized in academic work, it is generally scorned in legal writing; where close adherence to authority is required, paraphrasing becomes inevitable. But of course that's not what my student was doing. Rather, in what was supposed to be a work of original scholarship, he was taking the language of other authors and presenting it as his own, distinct voice.

Prof. Volokh also points to the problem that legal scholars face when writing about legal authorities. When a court renders a decision or a legislature enacts a law, the precise language used makes an enormous difference (witness our prior exchange over the meaning of the Second Amendment). Writing about such language without either repeatedly quoting it or closely paraphrasing it is virtually impossible. For example, I'm currently writing a not-particularly-scholarly survey article on evidence decisions in the Indiana courts last year, focusing in particular on Rule 404(b) of the Indiana Rules of Evidence. The rule provides, in part:

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident ....

Writing an entire article, even a short one, about decisions applying this rule is an exercise in frustration, because the number of ways to paraphrase the rule without distorting its meaning is rather limited, and yet I don't particularly want to use quotation marks in every paragraph. And yet I tend to think that a close paraphrase of the rule's text, providing citation but without using direct quotes, is not particularly problematic, because reasonable readers would understand that I was not attempting to pass off another author's original expression as my own. But, needless to say, in light of the experience I've just gone through with my student, I'm proceeding with extreme caution.

Thursday, May 23

I’ve spent most of the day buried under bluebooks, engaged in the semi-annual ordeal of grading (which, as Glenn Reynolds notes today, is where we law professors earn our salaries, as it’s the only part of our job that no sane person would undertake without being paid). Exams actually ended awhile ago; I've been delinquent because the activity is so unpleasant. But I've also been distracted by a grading-related task even more distasteful than reading dozens of hurriedly-scribbled versions of the same dull essay: discovering and documenting an incident of academic misconduct, in this case on the ground of plagiarism.

A couple of weeks ago I received the final version of an advanced research paper that I had been supervising during the spring semester. The early draft of the paper had been excessively reliant on a limited number of sources, and I had asked the student to add depth to the research. The final version did cite to a substantial number of new sources; there were still, though, an excessive number of citations to four works in particular.

At roughly the same time I received the final draft, a discussion of plagiarism broke out on the faculty listserv, prompted by a paper that one of my colleagues had received from another student. Thus prompted, I decided that I should check some of my student's citations. I honestly did not expect a problem: the student in question had performed well in another class of mine and was due to graduate with honors. But the very first cite I checked sent a rush of adrenaline to my brain. The first sentence was a very close paraphrase of the original, cited text, with only a few words changed. The second sentence (which appeared in the paper without quotation marks) was lifted verbatim from the original source. A check of the entire paper yielded more than thirty instances of such problems.

When confronted, the student expressed shock and dismay: he had provided appropriate citations, so he obviously had not meant to deceive about the identity of his sources. What then was the problem?

You might think that, in a year in which the plagiarism problems of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have received careful scrutiny in the press, the question would answer itself. Alas, the student professed ignorance of those cases. Trying to remain calm, I explained that direct lifting of language from a source without quotation constituted plagiarism even if the source was cited, because the appropriation of language without the use of quotation marks deceives the reader into thinking that the language at least, if not the underlying idea, is that of the author of the paper. This, I suggested, a high school student should know.

But even those instances in which the original sources were minimally rewritten were problematic, despite the presence of citations. To illustrate, I turned to material from the undergraduate writing center at the principal campus of the university where I teach, which very clearly describes what constitutes appropriate paraphrasing and what does not. I intend to distribute this document to any student who writes a paper under my supervision in the future. Here are the key paragraphs that set forth the principle of which my student claimed ignorance:

Here's the ORIGINAL text, from page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams et al.:

The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived) which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade.

Here's an UNACCEPTABLE paraphrase that is plagiarism:

The increase of industry, the growth of cities, and the explosion of the population were three large factors of nineteenth century America. As steam-driven companies became more visible in the eastern part of the country, they changed farm hands into factory workers and provided jobs for the large wave of immigrants. With industry came the growth of large cities like Fall River where the Bordens lived which turned into centers of commerce and trade as well as production.

What makes this passage plagiarism?

The preceding passage is considered plagiarism for two reasons:

  • the writer has only changed around a few words and phrases, or changed the order of the original's sentences.
  • the writer has failed to cite a source for any of the ideas or facts.
If you do either or both of these things, you are plagiarizing.

NOTE: This paragraph is also problematic because it changes the sense of several sentences (for example, "steam-driven companies" in sentence two misses the original's emphasis on factories).

Here's an ACCEPTABLE paraphrase: Fall River, where the Borden family lived, was typical of northeastern industrial cities of the nineteenth century. Steam-powered production had shifted labor from agriculture to manufacturing, and as immigrants arrived in the US, they found work in these new factories. As a result, populations grew, and large urban areas arose. Fall River was one of these manufacturing and commercial centers (Williams 1).

By these standards, my student's paper was a dismal failure.

What ultimately troubles me, as I decide on an appropriate course of action, is a question that may simply turn out to be unanswerable: Are we failing to provide appropriate instruction about what is and is not plagiarism? Or (the worse alternative) did the student know exactly what s/he was doing and simply assume that no one would check?

Wednesday, May 22

BusinessWeek, that famously liberal rag, features a column that castigates the Bush White House for its demagoguery on Social Security and on what was known before 9/11.

Link via Ted Barlow, who has his own notable post on the need for an independent commission to look into the failures of the intelligence agencies prior to 9/11.


I've been reluctant to write about the Middle East, even though thinking about it has kept me up more nights than Noah has in the last couple of months. In part, that's because there's already so much commentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in blogworld that, really, it would be difficult to make an original contribution. And in part it's because the problems in that part of the world seem so intractable.

In the last week or so, however, there had been some reason to hope. First, the Netanyahu-led declaration by the Likud Central Committee that it would never accept a Palestinian state (a declaration that, if anything, was likely to bolster Palestinian extremists by making an acceptable resolution impossible to achieve through negotiation) was greeted by the Israeli public with the derision that it fully deserved. Then, Arafat was pressed by Arab leaders to rein in terrorism at the same time that internal pressure to restructure the PA led him to call for elections (a call that he quickly qualified).

In recent days, however, the suicide bombings have resumed, suggesting that the post-Defensive Shield lull in the violence may be ending. And, just as discouragingly, Palestinian attitudes toward resolution of the dispute with Israel remain unrealistic in important ways. Tal G. reports from Jerusalem that even moderate Palestinians continue to regard the right of return as a necessary component of any final peace with Israel. If that remains the case, a deal is impossible, because Israel will never accept a deal that would result, in a few decades, in an Arab-majority Israeli population. So once again hope fades.

Michael Lewis's latest "dispatch from the diaper station" at Slate has its disturbing moments, but I find it reassuring.

My son Noah will turn six months old next week. There were times, in the early days, when I was convinced neither of us would last that long. Noah had colic, and from two weeks to nine weeks there were long stretches of time when he would do nothing but scream inconsolably. Sometimes this would last from four o'clock until midnight or so.

Needless to say, the experience of living with Noah at that stage did not leave me with warm feelings about fatherhood. Night after night, I would find myself in a darkened room rocking my howling son, with my jaw set and my teeth clenched, bemoaning my lost sleep, lost time, and lost freedom, glaring resentfully at the unhappy creature I held, muttering internally that I would never go through this with another child. And then I would catch myself, remind myself that Noah (who of course was unable to do anything to relieve or even understand his discomfort) was blameless. Rather than assuaging my anger, however, these thoughts only turned it inward, and I filled with self-loathing for my resentment of this helpless little thing, for my inadequacies as a father and a human being.

We're past that now, thank goodness. Noah's colic faded, then disappeared; he became alert, responsive, and playful; he began to laugh, an absolutely irresistable sound. And I grow to understand that being a father can be a fairly spectacular thing, and that maybe I'm not so terrible at the job after all. We still have our moments, to be sure--the arrival of the first two teeth did not make for a happy baby. But on the whole we're all doing great.

I'm still not sure I can do this again, though.

Tuesday, May 21

It figures, doesn't it, that on the day I started publicizing this page to friends and family, Blogspot would go all glitchy.

Further proof that you get what you pay for.

Monday, May 20

Stephen Jay Gould has died.

A Harvard paleontologist and popular author whose column, "This View of Life," ran for more than a quarter century in Natural History, Prof. Gould was a controversial figure, to some for his deep opposition to the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution and to others for his championing of punctuated equilibria as a distinct hypothesis about how evolution proceeds. For me, though, he was a towering figure at the center of my college career.

In 1982, when I was a freshman, Prof. Gould was gravely ill with abdominal mesothelioma, a disease that was generally regarded as fatal. Prodded by my father, who admired Gould's Natural History essays, I registered for Science B-16, "History of Life," Prof. Gould's large lecture course in Harvard's core curriculum. I was not accepted into the course. Few if any freshmen were--the course had always been popular, and it was generally believed that this would be the last time Prof. Gould would offer it.

But it wasn't. The following year, Prof. Gould offered the course again, and this time I was accepted. There is no question that Prof. Gould was still suffering the effects of his illness--he was uncharacteristically thin, and the one time that I dared to venture to his office hours (to ask him to sign a book for my father, a request to which he graciously acceded), he was plainly tired and unwell. Yet within the classroom he was powerful, lively, an almost impossibly dynamic blend of intellect and personality whose lectures seemed to span the full range of human endeavor, from history to philosophy to science to baseball to popular culture and on and on, always in pursuit of a finely wrought point. By comparison, my other classes were mostly pallid exercises.

To me, Prof. Gould seemed to personify the ideal of the modern intellectual. I treasured those hours in his lectures, sought to absorb them into the core of my being, to preserve in my mind some of the light from the intellectual sparks that flew around the classroom. There was a certain desperation to the endeavor, because it was still widely assumed that Prof. Gould soon would succumb to his illness. It never occurred to me that he would survive into the new millennium (a temporal landmark the significance of which Prof. Gould himself questioned).

After my sophomore year, I proceeded with my history studies; following graduation, I enrolled in graduate school in history and in law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and from there I followed a twisting path for several years that ultimately led to my present teaching job. Somewhere along the way, I stopped reading Prof. Gould's columns in Natural History. But when I think back on my college days, I cannot recall any moments of greater intellectual excitement than when I sat spellbound in a giant Science Center classroom, listening to a small, sickly man hold forth enthusiastically on pandas' thumbs, comet impacts, the disappearance of the .400 hitter, the central implausibility of "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman," life, the universe, and everything.

(Update: Prof. Gould is remembered in an editorial in today's New York Times (free registration required).