Monday, February 20, 2006

Notre Dame's WNDU on plagiarism: forgetting the past?

WNDU quotes Brother Tim Erdel, an Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Bethel College: "Senior professors at Harvard have been dismissed on similar allegations in the past. In an academic setting, that's about the worse crime a person can commit."

The whole point of recent plagiarism episodes at Harvard was that senior professors were NOT dismissed (or seriously reprimanded) for acts of plagiarism which would have landed students in a great deal of trouble. Although plagiarism in an academic setting sounds bad, nothing really happens when it occurs. Brother Erdel needs to study recent history, and even perhaps to look at the Supreme Court's Dastar decision.

As noted elsewhere on IPBiz, worse than plagiarism is the publication of false statements which go uncorrected. If you believe what you read in the Stanford Law Review, Gary Boone is the inventor of the integrated circuit. But don't try that one with people who have heard of Noyce and Kilby.

Note discussion in IPBiz from April 2005 on plagiarism at Harvard.

**Of the story actually being discussed by WNDU

Joseph Bottom wrote on First Things:

Fr. Richard McBrien—the Notre Dame theology professor and long-time lefty Catholic columnist—is being tagged with the charge of plagiarism. The Boston Herald has picked up the story, which involves its Beantown competitor, the Boston Globe, and seems to run like this:

On December 11, 2005 the Globe ran a column by Eileen McNamara about the Catholic Charities’ dinner on December 9 that was headlined by Boston’s pro-abortion mayor, Thomas Menino. On January 6, The Tidings ran a column by Richard McBrien about, um, the Catholic Charities’ dinner on December 9 that was headlined by Boston’s pro-abortion mayor, Thomas Menino.

The blogger Diogenes notes:

Here’s a snippet from the original McNamara column: “They are a tiny band of antiabortion zealots….These folks do not just miss the Latin Mass; they miss Cardinal Bernard Law….There’s Bill Cotter, pining for the good old days when Law would allow Operation Rescue to use Catholic churches as staging areas for illegal blockades of abortion clinics.”

Now from Father McBrien’s column, which wasn’t quite so original: “These ultra-conservative activists, for whom abortion is the only moral and political issue that counts, not only miss the Latin Mass but also the former archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, who allowed Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion organization, to use Catholic churches as staging areas of illegal blockades of abortion clinics.”

The Herald reports that McBrien has denied the charge: “‘Plagiarism is when you steal someone’s ideas,’ said the 69-year-old priest, who taught at Boston College in the 1970s and whose column once ran in the Boston Pilot. ‘I was using the (Globe’s) facts (because) I’m not a reporter; I wasn’t at Menino’s talk.’ McBrien added that his critics ‘are not concerned about plagiarism, it’s that they disagree strongly with the point of the column.’ The January piece did attribute one sentence to the Globe.”

The facts that McBrien got from the Globe are curiously wrong. For instance, the dinner was not at the Seaport Hotel but the Harbor Hotel (a point the Globe later corrected). More significantly, Cardinal Law actually prohibited rather than allowed Operation Rescue to use the parish churches. Is it too much to ask a Catholic commentator to have better facts about Catholicism than the Boston Globe?

Apparently so. Still, I think Fr. McBrien is innocent of the charge of plagiarism. There’s no doubt that he was writing in the wake of Eileen McNamara, which is typically a sign of tiredness in a columnist: an indication that the man’s story ideas are running thin. But he did actually mention the Globe, and the weaker newspaper columnists have always fed off the chum left from the bigger sharks’ attacks. Within the ethics (so to speak) of the profession, that’s not plagiarism. So Richard McBrien behaves no better than other columnists in the bottom tier of American newspapers. Why is this news?


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