Wednesday, March 14, 2012

George Mason creates copyright risks for outside publishing of work by its academics

John Mashey has a thorough and sad rendition of the whitewashing done by George Mason University to protect a tenured, climate denialist professor from the consequences of plagiarism.  After receiving complaints, GMU found plagiarism existed in one case where an outside journal had already reached that conclusion and forced retraction of an article.  In another case where no outsider had made a decision, GMU not only found no plagiarism but found "no misconduct," even though less of the same copied material was in the second case, the infamous "Wegman Report" to Congress that criticized climatologists.

Deep Climate has an update that the plagiarized material, also found in other material by GMU academics affiliated with Wegman, has been cleaned up with little explanation and no admission of error.  DC doesn't speculate much on the motive for doing it but I will - it's the copyright, stupid.

Copyright and plagiarism violations are not the same but overlap greatly.  Copyright is a legal property right, enforceable in court, to one's way of expressing ideas.  Plagiarism is an ethical concept, usually not enforceable in court, that authors' ideas must be attributed to them when others use those ideas.  Plagiarism is about the ideas, copyright is only about the way the ideas are expressed.

Plagiarism is generally a much broader concept because you can change the way of expressing the ideas and no longer violate copyright but still plagiarize if the new expression is done without attribution.  In a Venn diagram, plagiarism is a big circle, copyright is a small circle, and all of the small circle sits within the big circle except for a tiny little bit sticking out.*

The legal relevance of this is that a strong culture at a university against plagiarism also protects against copyright violations, and outside publishers will know that submissions by academics are less likely to have stolen text that will blow up at some later point in a lawsuit against the publisher.  After reviewing the color-coded material that John provides in the pdf at the bottom of the first link, I think the copyright violation is obvious (and because it's unattributed, it's obviously plagiarism) but GMU considers it to be no misconduct, i.e. an acceptable way to do scholarship.

The best that outside journals and publishing houses can hope for is that GMU is just demonstrating rank hypocrisy for one especially-favored professor and his PhD students, and that won't happen again for him, his students, or anyone else at GMU.  But can they count on that?  GMU has very publicly found that this level of copyright violation isn't misconduct in this case, so it will be much harder for it to make the contrary claim about violations by other academics and students.  Wegman and the others involved in this will find it almost impossible to enforce against plagiarism themselves - I can't imagine the level of wikipedia copying that will go in papers in his classes.

The ramification of the committee’s finding of no misconduct therefore includes the risk that GMU will not have a culture that reduces copyright violations in submissions by GMU scholars to outside journals and publishing houses.  Those outside publishers will have to weigh the increased legal risk of publishing a GMU scholar, knowing that competing authors submitting from other universities come from academic cultures that have undertaken steps to minimize copyright violations.  Not only would publishers become more vulnerable to lawsuits, they might be unable protect their publication of GMU academic work from copyright theft (because the author never owned the material while claiming otherwise).  The publishers might even mistakenly bring a copyright claim against another outside author, only to find that author, and not the publisher, owns the publisher’s material that the publisher claimed was stolen.

John speculates on page 28 of his pdf as to why GMU did this.  Here I'm speculating on legal consequences - DeepClimate has shown that others have already started to clean up material, which I think was done to limit copyright violations (it doesn't eliminate the legal harm already done, however).**  Things could turn out worse for those publishers, and the implication to publishers in general is that they assign increased legal risk to material from GMU academics.

*The theoretical exception, where you can commit copyright violation without plagiarism, is by copying extensive material from the original author while clearly attributing the copied material to the original.  As a practical matter, outside of overt piracy this is unimportant because the potential copyright violation sticks out like a sore thumb and alerts reviewers to the problem.

 **Much of the material was also copied from Wikipedia, which maintains no copyright to its work (UPDATE:  maintains limited copyright only, see comments).  This distinction makes no difference as to plagiarism however.  You can still do a thought experiment:  1. if wiki had copyrighted the material, 2. if sufficient amount was copied verbatim, and 3. if inadequate attribution, then you've established plagiarism.