December 19, 2007
You're Not Gonna Believe This, but Academics Sometimes Use Research Assistants
Posted by David Zaring

Somewhat late to the party, I'll point our good readership to 02138's takedown of Harvard professors with predilections for research assistants.  (02138 is the glossy magazine on all things Harvard; it is slick and fun and showed up in the mail one day.)  It names the professors you expect to be named - you'll have to click through to see who - describes how they leverage student work into finished publications, and in the end comes out against the practice - although it is not clear whether 02138 is annoyed by professors passing the academic work of students off as their own, or celebrity professors ceasing to care much about academic work at all.  The piece ends with a paean to John Rawls and Michael Walzer, who wrote their big think books on their own.

I've never been as obsessed with this sort "plagiarism" as some, at least as it is practiced today.  It's a terribly underdefined gotcha claim, often made by untrustworthy axe-grinders or naive goody-goodies, and, as best as I can tell, designed to suppress speech.  Richard Posner thinks it is overblown.  And the market doesn't care: popular writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose still sell fine, and economists, the best paid of the social scientists, probably aren't transcribing all those million points of data, writing the computer program necessary to turn the data into something useable, and running the regressions themselves, at least not in every case.  Moreover, I'm a lawyer, and since Ted Olson doesn't draft his briefs, nor, I assume, Stephen Breyer his opinions, I don't know if I'm bothered about who wrote what sentence of which article.  From the 02138 piece: "The law school itself is particularly known for this practice, probably because lawyers are used to having paralegals and clerks who do significant research and writing."

I will say that the team production model of academia must, in the end, benefit the haves over the have-nots.  Every school, I assume, has bright, capable, and responsible researchers.  But only a very few offer the combination of researchers who are gunning for academic positions themselves and the resources to hire teams of coders, supervisors, and experts along the way - an insight I attribute to Kate Litvak.  So please, please, please, don't accuse me of lifting it.

UPDATE: Here's Inside Higher Ed on a survey of economists and economics journal editors on plagiarism; the journal editors are less bothered by hypothetical failures to attribute than are rank and file economists.  HT: Marginal Revolution.


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