Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Daily Iowan: soft on plagiarists?

Following up on an earlier questionable analysis of the Poshard plagiarism matter, the Daily Iowan was fast to "go easy" on Professor John Merrill, who earned a doctorate in journalism in 1961 at the University of Iowa and who is in the UI Journalism and Mass Communication School Hall of Fame.

In an article titled Prof: Not a cheater, the DI quoted Merrill: "This has already been blown up all out of proportion. It's already gotten too much play, and there has been no plagiarism as far as I'm concerned."

As IPBiz has noted before, plagiarism is pretty easy to prove. If someone publishes text from an earlier publication, without attribution to the earlier publication, that's plagiarism. What Merrill did, in publishing text from Anna Koeppel's article in the Maneater without attribution, was plagiarism. If Professor Merrill does not understand that, there is a real problem.


Merrill, in a Nov. 14 article titled >Carelessness is not plagiarism writes:

I was, undoubtedly, careless in not naming The Maneater, the MU student newspaper, as the news source from which I got the several direct quotes from Women’s and Gender Studies departmental spokespersons. These direct quotes I used to spin off into my column published Nov. 4. I did not lift any sentences or paragraphs from anybody else’s writing. I look on these short, directly quoted expressions from the two women in the news story as “news-facts” and see them as in the public domain. Certainly, if what I did is plagiarism, it was unintentional and could, at the most, be considered technical, not unethical.

IPBiz notes that Merrill seems to be rather foggy on key concepts here. The works of Shakespeare are in the public domain. So are the works of various 19th century authors. The 20th century work involved in the Dastar case was in the public domain. Copying words and images from the work at issue in Dastar WITH false attribution would likely be deemed plagiarism by almost everyone but the copying and false attribution were neither copyright infringement nor a Lanham Act violation according to the US Supreme Court.


Other words used by Merrill --Careless, I'll admit, but not intentional-- evoke the defense of SIU's President Glen Poshard, whose cause was backed in an earlier piece from the Daily Iowan. In the patent business, "intent" is not an element considered in patent infringement, which is a strict liability offense. If you steal someone else's work, it's a problem, whether you intended to steal or not. If you indeed were willful in stealing, damages can be multiplied, but the liability itself does NOT depend on intent. So should it be in plagiarism. Both Merrill and Poshard plagiarized. What one does about it is a different question. Whether Merrill's "punishment" is appropriate can be highly questioned as being too severe. Poshard's punishment can be questioned as being too lenient.

And, the comparison between the Patriots and Poshard made by the DI was silly, and one notes the Patriots matter has been quickly forgotten while the Poshard matter drags on. The Patriots were deemed to have violated a rule of the NFL. They were punished. There was nothing for the coach, or anybody else, to explain. President Poshard, while talking about the matter, has not explained the plagiarism on page 54 of this Ph.D. thesis.


IPBiz notes text from a third party comment to an earlier IPBiz post on the Merrill plagiarism: This would have happened already had Mr. Merrill besmirched the name of Northwestern, Columbia, Berkeley, Harvard or the University of Georgia. If the University of Missouri continues to shrug off this matter, then whenever that University is mentioned in any context within my earshot, it will not escape the most injurious opprobrium. Moreover, truth will have vindicated me against slander.

As to the specific mention of Harvard, IPBiz reminds readers that the Harvard Law School has repeatedly let demonstrated plagiarism "slide by," as for example in the matter of Laurence Tribe. The truth of the matter is that academic institutions "wink" at plagiarism without doing much of anything. Further, we have page 54 of the Ph.D. thesis of SIU President Poshard, a rather clear case of plagiarism that Poshard's defenders refuse to discuss.


In a post titled Defining plagiarism: Is there a gray area?, has some suggestions for looking at the Merrill matter:

...our dean emeritus Ralph Lowenstein recommends that you read the following, in this order, before coming to judgment:

-->A Nov. 9 column about the situation by Tom Warhover, the Columbia Missourian’s executive editor for innovation.
Missourian forced to re-affirm its standards — the hard way

-->Merrill’s column of Nov. 3, which started the controversy.

-->An Oct. 5 article by Anna Koeppel in a student newspaper, The Maneater, from which Merrill apparently copied quotes without attribution.


The Baltimore Sun covers an issue with a quote of Martin Luther King, and confuses plagiarism with copyright:

There is no suggestion of plagiarism here. Dr. King's soaring rhetoric is in the public domain, and many politicians in many parties have used his words. But it's rather odd that the two leading Democrats would use the same phrase in less than two weeks. Urgency can be rather fierce if you need a good line.

That something is in the "public domain" is a copyright issue. Failing to cite the source is a plagiarism issue, whether or not the material used is in the public domain.

The text in question was Martin Luther King's famous phrase about the "fierce urgency of now." In passing, one notes that Martin Luther King's Ph.D. thesis at Boston University involved plagiarism of text from a previous BU thesis.


A piece strongly defending Merrill appears on

Missouri j-prof John Merrill gets more support from Romenesko readers. "In this case the ethical requirement to attribute is debatable," writes Edward Wasserman. "What is not debatable, in my opinion, is the ethical requirement on the part of the Missourian's management to show respect for a professor of genuine stature and bring proportionality to responding to an exceedingly minor instance where an optional courtesy was withheld." || Bob MacDonald: "Dr. Merrill is the last person in the world to do anything unethical. He has been treated unfairly and deserves better."

Note that the issue of attribution is described as an ethical requirement. There is no "law" on this and, as noted above, plagiarism is different from copyright infringement. There is a comment on "proportionality," and IPBiz agrees that the punishment was not commensurate with the offense, and, as well, that this has been blown out of proportion. HOWEVER, given that this matter was placed under a microscope, a lot of what was found has been troubling, at least to IPBiz.

Separately, of the attribution of quotes of third parties to the source receiving the quotation, IPBiz notes the Lemley matter of "transistor only foreseen in hearing aid applications." The origin of that allegation traced back NOT to anything the inventors of the transistor (Shockley, Bardeen, Brattain) ever said, but rather to a misunderstanding by an economics professor of a short news piece in the New York Times, which separately was critically mis-dated. In doing later research, it is imperative that a scholar have access to "where" a quotation came from. Merrill's lack of attribution is wrong BOTH because it took from the "work product" of someone else without attribution AND because it created a "missing link" in ever tracking back the story. Quotes have to be understood in the context they were given.

Separately, a different post on notes:

Merrill lifted a couple of quotations from a news story there -- only the words in published statements stuck between quotation marks -- and used them as a set up in the lede for his column. I would have done it differently. But if you read it, you will find it can reasonably be seen as legitimate borrowing, though in a fashion not used much anymore. Plagiarism is something else entirely.

IPBiz: one might ask Terry Carter what plagiarism is. When Poshard lifted a "summary" section from a book into the "summary" section at page 54 of his Ph.D. thesis (without attribution) was that legitimate borrowing?

The post at also included the text:

What the editor of The Missourian did was take up his toy gun and shoot at an old lion relegated to a carnival. He hit the target and did great damage only because he runs the sideshow.


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