Saturday, January 20, 2007

Comparing patent examiners to academic reviewers

Looking the "patent quality" issue in the face

IPBiz has discussed some of the plagiarism charges leveled against the author of the book “Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison” published by the University of Tennessee Press. One commenter suggested the readers were to blame for not recognizing the copying. Of greater relevance to the "patent quality" debate is commentary concerning the responsibility of the reviewers.

The following comments are from civilwarmemory about the responsibility of the reviewers.

-->We reviewers read a manuscript for its merits, and we do our best, but we don't have the months necessary to read every book and article on a topic, or the years that would be required to track down every cited source. Nor does an academic press have the resources to hire fact checkers to do the same thing. UT did its best--blame the author.<--

-->All presses and reviewers operate from the assumption that they are reviewing original manuscripts (I can't imagine how one checks for plagiarism when reviewing a manuscript. Unless you happen to be familiar with a book (like Marvel was with his own study of Andersonville) it is not realistic to expect a press or a reviewer to catch plagiarism. Let's keep the responsibility on the authors. Moreover, the review process at UT and other academic presses works 99% of the time. The system is sound and it almost always produces high quality scholarship. Let's not overreact to this unfortunate incident <--

It probably can also be said that patent examiners don't have "the months necessary to read every book and article on a topic, or the years that would be required to track down every cited source." On average, they have about 18 hours to process each application, from start to finish. Academic reviewers, as well as patent examiners, are selected based on their general familiarity with the topic they are reviewing/examining. If they can't spot attempts to republish prior work, we are in trouble.

Reviewers of history or of science probably start with the proposition that they are reviewing original (and non-fraudulent) manuscripts. However, patent examiners don't start with such a proposition. They routinely reject applications over prior art and they reject applications for non-enablement. The patent examiner has a tougher job.

**comment to civilwarmemory**

I have enjoyed the comments but disagree slightly on some points.

Of the comment --we don't have the months necessary to read every book and article on a topic, or the years that would be required to track down every cited source--, reviewers who have some familiarity with the topic will not require months or years to determine if something is amiss. For example, it took a matter of minutes to demonstrate that the gist of "Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg—and Why it Failed" had been previously published, in among other places, The Cavalry Battle that Saved the Union: Custer vs. Stuart at Gettysburg. Other people, such as D. Scott Hartwig, reached similar conclusions merely by utilizing their own individual knowledge. [The Gettysburg point is about priority, not about plagiarism, but does illustrate that a reviewer need not spend great amounts of time to evaluate a situation.]

Of the point about not enough time to --track down every cited source--, cite checkers at law reviews are supposed to verify the accuracy of every cited source. Of course, cite checkers at the Stanford Law Review allowed through an assertion that Gary Boone invented the integrated circuit (rather than Bob Noyce and Nobel Laureate Jack Kilby).

As a different point, having the person "most familiar with the work" review the work (as here with William Marvel reviewing the work of Fred Ruhlmann) is not always the best course, as there can be conflicts of interest. [this is a general observation; Marvel behaved admirably here] The issue was illustrated in an early episode of "Law and Order" entitled "Big Bang," wherein the reviewer gave an unfavorable review and stole the work of the submitter.

As an additional point, many academics are not familiar with the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. As the Dastar case illustrated, it is NOT a violation of federal law to claim authorship of a public domain work. Thus, one is free to claim authorship of Hamlet, or "It's a Wonderful Life."


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