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A comment on legal scholarship

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Class Bias in Higher Education, a blog authored by Univ. of Florida law professor Jeffrey Harrison, is well worth reading. A recent post regarding the costs and benefits of legal academic publishing reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about this edifying little incident:

A few months ago, a law student forwarded me a copy of a “law review article” submitted by Prof. X to Journal Y. The outgoing editorial staff of Y (a secondary journal at a semi-elite law school, run, as almost all law reviews in the US are, by law students) had accepted X’s article in the spring of 2012, for publication the following fall. My correspondent was part of the incoming staff, and he had been handed the task of editing and cite-checking X’s article. He discovered that, besides being poorly written, the article’s cited sources often failed to say what X’s article claimed they said.

In the world of law review publication, a poorly written article full of inaccurate citations constitutes a dog bites man story, but upon further review a bigger problem was discovered: X’s “article” was completely self-plagiarized. X had simply copy and pasted large sections of two of X’s previous publications, and tacked them together into a “new” 7600-word article. The only original material in the text was a single short transitional paragraph, designed to link together the C&P material.

The journal’s editors pointed out to X that X had signed a disclosure form averring that the material submitted to the journal had not been published previously, and then informed X that the journal would not be publishing the article (this all took place very late in the publication process). X was quite indignant about this, claiming that the cutting and pasting had created an original work. The journal’s faculty adviser was consulted, and after some back and forth the article was withdrawn, and nothing further came of the incident. (X’s institution was never informed about any of this).

I asked my correspondent to forward me X’s article. It was indeed word-for-word self-plagiarism, save for a couple of date and tense changes, and the 200-word transitional paragraph. Incidentally, besides being made up exclusively of already-published material, the “article” itself was something worse than worthless: a painfully amateurish and very poorly written diatribe about a couple of SCOTUS opinions, that would in all seriousness merit a C+ as a law student seminar paper, assuming our current generous standards of grade inflation. (X, btw, is a tenured full professor at a mid-tier law school).

My favorite detail of this story is that more than a year after the article was pulled, Prof. X was still listing it as a “featured publication” on X’s law school faculty web page, with a citation to the already-published volume of the journal in which the article was supposed to have appeared.

My correspondent:

The other thing to note is that our editors (including me) wasted months worth of time trying to get this in publishable form. Makes it all the more egregious that [X] would use all this free editing labor on the lark that [X] could get a third “publication” out of totally recycled ideas. [X] apparently put zero effort into this. I was publishing my own note in this same edition and editing [X] at the same time, so I spent many nights in the library past midnight working on both, and being held up by having to reread every source [X] quoted, since each source was prone to being misrepresented in [X’s] own article.

. . . see also James Powell’s comment in the Zizek! plagiarism thread infra:

A lot of people are required to write things in order to get or keep their phony baloney jobs. But writing well is very hard and very time consuming.

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