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The wages of theft; Steamboat Willie freed; sex in Iowa schoolbooks: Newsletter 3 January 2024

Newsletter 24: Why Claudine Gay had to go, a Mickey Mouse horror film, Tolkien’s victorious ghost, plus three people to follow, three books to read, and how to successfully write your book in 2024.

Reflections on the plagiarism that brought down Harvard president Claudine Gay

Harvard president Claudine Gay has now resigned. She made the right decision. The plagiarism is the only reason that matters.

The previously released examples of unattributed passages in her work that were similar to the work of others were borderline. But the most recent accusations by the Washington Free Beacon were a lot worse. From the Washington Examiner:

David Canon, in a 1999 book: “The VRA [Voting Rights Act] is often cited as one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in our nation’s history.”

Gay, in a 2001 article: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is often cited as one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in our nation’s history.”

Gary King, Gay’s thesis advisor: “The posterior distribution of each of the precinct parameters within the bounds indicated by its tomography line is derived by the slice it cuts out of the bivariate distribution of all lines.”

Gay, in her dissertation: “The posterior distribution of each of the precinct parameters for precinct i is derived by the slice it’s tomography line cuts out of this bivariate distribution.”

There are many other examples similar to these.

The leader of an academic institution must be held to the highest possible standard for academic honesty. Gay failed that obligation. It needs to be clear to everyone at Harvard, and throughout academia, that if you copy without attribution, you suffer the consequences, whether you are a student, a professor, or the president of the university.

Let’s clear the air here. The only thing that matters here is the plagiarism.

Whether it was malicious or just sloppy doesn’t matter.

The fact that much of it happened decades ago is irrelevant.

The fact that the accusation was raised by conservatives is irrelevant.

The fact that Gay is a Black woman is irrelevant.

Her leadership of the specific institution of Harvard is irrelevant.

Her recent clumsy failure to denounce antisemitic activity on her campus is irrelevant.

Republican representative Elise Stefanik’s celebration of her resignation as a trophy is irrelevant.

Every writer reading this needs to know that as a writer, you are part of a community of thinkers sharing ideas. If you don’t live up to the rules about attribution for copied material — including sharing others’ ideas — then you deserve to be drummed out of the community.

Of course, you won’t steal on purpose. Here’s how not to steal by accident.

Keep your source material in separate files from your work in progress.

Include links (or book page references) in that source material.

When you write it up, ask yourself this question.

Is what you want to say the same as what’s in the source material? Then quote it, mention the author’s name, and include a footnote or link. Citing the work of others makes you more authoritative, not less.

If your idea is different, but related, then write it in your own words and cite the original source of the facts or content with a footnote or link.

If you work with researchers, insist that they follow the same rules.

It’s a little more work to do this. But the downfall of Claudine Gay is a perfect example of the consequences of failing to do it.

News for authors and other people who think

The copyright on “Steamboat Willie,” Walt Disney’s earliest animated incarnation of Mickey Mouse, has finally lapsed. As a result, anyone can distribute or build on this original cartoon. (The later versions, including the iconic current version of Mickey Mouse, remain protected, and by trademark law you’ll get in hot water if you imply any connection to Disney in your derivative work.) A horror film featuring a sadistic version of Steamboat Willie is already in production.

The Tolkien estate blocked the release of an unauthorized sequel to Lord of the Rings. The lesson here: if you create fanfiction of copyrighted work, be sure to disguise it well. (Did you know Fifty Shades of Grey originated as Twilight fan fiction?)

A judge blocked Iowa’s law banning books featuring any depiction of sex or discussion of gender identity from school libraries (gift link). The judge write that the law “has resulted in the removal of hundreds of books from school libraries, including, among others, nonfiction history books, classic works of fiction, Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary novels, books that regularly appear on Advanced Placement exams, and even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault. . . . the Court has been unable to locate a single case upholding the constitutionality of a school library restriction even remotely similar to Senate File 496.”

Three people to follow

David C. Baker, expert on expertise itself.

Josh Walker, CEO of Sports Innovation Lab and seer on the topic of technology’s impact on sports.

Christian J. Ward, guru on the value of corporate data.

Three books to read

Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work by Phil Simon (Motion, 2021). A blueprint for collaborative work in the hybrid era.

Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back by Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin (Beacon Press, 2023). How tech monopolies make everything suck.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House, 2020). The most entertainingly smartassy style guide you’ll ever read.

Happy New Plug

Resolving to write a new book in 2024? If you want to get it done with minumum waste and maximum impact, I’d like to help. Tell me more.

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  1. You say that the plagiarism is what matters. But no, it’s the fact that the CRT agitator sees this as the first step to purge academic institutions of DEI. If Justice Kavanaugh has to resign over HIS plagiarism, then I will grant you your point.

  2. What are the types of jobs that you should be disqualified from for having committed the types of plagiarism that Claudine Gay has committed?

    Can you be president of other universities that aren’t so research-focused?
    Can you be a university provost?
    Can you be in a university’s office of admissions? or financial aid?
    Can you be a high school teacher?
    Can you be mayor? governor? senator?
    Can you be an author? Or would your cancellation be a righteous cause?
    Can you be hired by a university as a motivational speaker? how about by a large software company?
    Can you be a plumber?
    Can you be a lawyer? Or should you be disbarred?
    Can you be a medical doctor?

    And are there any other jobs where we should be similarly punishing people?
    Should a top surgeon be fired for cheating on a couple of tests in medical school? Or college? Or high school?

    How important is it to remove these people from their jobs/posts?
    Do we need to create a new governmental agency to root these people out? Or would it be a profitable business? Should newspapers hire more staff to take this on?

    1. I see you are a Tufts alumni. So it is surprising that you don’t realize how colleges work.

      There is typically an office of academic integrity that investigates any allegations of plagiarism. This applies to all university academic staff, from the president on down to deans, professors, and instructors. Repeated violations result in penalties including expulsion. And of course, students who get caught plagiarizing are punished and may be expelled.

      Anyone can be an author. But publishers require you to agree that you are not plagiarizing. If you get caught, they may withdraw your book from publication, and you’ll have trouble getting another publishing contract.

      The mechanism that you imagine already exists in these fields. In other fields, like being a politician, the penalty is generally embarrassment.