Wednesday, December 12, 2007

'A Million Little Writers:'

Welcome to the world of celebrity academics–and the behind-the-scenes scribes who help make their fame and fortune possible.

By Jacob Hale Russell

In September 2004, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, found himself having to admit that his latest book, All Deliberate Speed, contained six paragraphs lifted verbatim from a book by Yale professor Jack Balkin, What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said. Equally surprising was the fact that Ogletree hadn’t known about the plagiarism, which occurred in a passage about the history of desegregation efforts, until he was told of it by Balkin himself.

“I accept full responsibility for this error,” Ogletree said in a statement. But some readers of that statement might have gotten a different impression: Ogletree attributed the plagiarism to two research assistants: “Material from Professor Jack Balkin’s book … was inserted … by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched, and summarized by another research assistant with proper attribution … Unfortunately, the second assistant, under the pressure of meeting a deadline, inadvertently deleted this attribution and edited the text as though it had been written by me. The second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher.”

It was a curious admission. In other words, at least some of Ogletree’s manuscript was sent to his publisher without having been read by the person supposed to have written it. Yet to Ogletree, the crime was not that someone else had written the material, just that it wasn’t the person Ogletree expected to write it.

But check the title page of All Deliberate Speed and the Library of Congress catalog information, and Ogletree’s name stands alone. An impressive total of nine students are listed in the acknowledgements as a “deeply committed group of researchers,” but there’s not a hint that their words appear verbatim in the book—or, at least, there wasn’t until something went wrong.

Derek Bok, one of the two professors appointed by the law school to review the episode, barely raised an eyebrow over the apparent use of uncredited ghostwriters. As he told the Boston Globe at the time, “There was no deliberate wrongdoing at all … He marshaled his assistants and parcelled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost”—a description that probably sounded flip to any author who has ever been plagiarized. Ogletree was “reprimanded,” but suffered no tangible consequences.

Which is probably why little seems to have changed with the way Ogletree creates the written work to which he assigns his name; a student familiar with Ogletree’s writing process on a current book, as well as op-eds and briefs for law cases, says that, three years after the plagiarism scandal, Ogletree still parcels out the work to a group of about 10 students on his payroll. The distinguished professor of law will review, but generally leave untouched, the writing of his most trusted researchers. He then puts his name on top of it.
And, to be fair, Ogletree is hardly alone: A growing number of books attributed to Harvard professors are composed in exactly this manner.

When we buy books off best seller lists these days, we almost expect to read the work of more than the named author: his backstage researchers, editors, and agents, maybe even a ghostwriter. Professional athletes admit that they haven’t read the “autobiographies” that carry their names; thriller writer James Patterson has six books coming out this year, thanks to the little-known co-authors who work with him; some popular authors, such as Robert Ludlum and V.C. Andrews, even continue writing books after they’re dead, thanks to the help of hired ghosts.

One might think that the ivory tower should and could resist such commercialism. If nowhere else, the provenance of an idea ought still to matter in academia; the authenticity of authorship should remain a truism. After all, one of the reasons scholars are granted tenure is so they can write free of the commercial pressures of the publishing world, taking as long as they need to get things right. And, whether in the sciences or the humanities, the world of scholarship has always prioritized the proper crediting of sources and co-contributors.

That image of academia may be idealistic, but most scholars still profess allegiance to it, and it is held up to undergraduate and graduate students as the proper way to conduct their own research and writing, reinforced by strict regulations regarding student plagiarism. As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Student Handbook states, “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.”

Students—but not professors. Because, in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between “author” and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors “write” books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what can only be called ghostwriting.

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