April 26, 2004
The op-ed that dare not speak its name
Along the lines of "you can't make this stuff up," there comes--via Ralph Luker--this WaPo piece about university professors who have been signing their names to op-eds they did not write but that a PR firm employed by the nuclear energy industry did:
The March 4 op-ed by Sheldon Landsberger, a University of Texas professor of nuclear engineering, argued trenchantly that the government is fleecing electric-power ratepayers, who for more than two decades have been contributing mandatory fees for the development of a proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Landsberger charged that a portion of the fees earmarked for the Nuclear Waste Fund is diverted to the U.S. Treasury. "Denying the Yucca Mountain project an adequate level of funding," he wrote, "is stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Strong words. Familiar ones, too. So familiar that I was sure they were entombed in the towering file of articles on nuclear waste that I, ahem, maintain. I knew I could excavate the words eventually. Or I could Google them. I typed in "Yucca Mountain" and "stealing money"; 0.11 seconds later, I had my cite: A Dec. 9, 2003, op-ed column in the State, the Columbia, S.C., daily. It appeared under the byline of Abdel E. Bayoumi, chairman of the department of mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina. Wrote Prof. Bayoumi: "Denying the repository project an adequate amount of funding is essentially stealing money from the taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project."
Other sentences were identical, as was the entire last paragraph, but this was no case of garden-variety plagiarism; Landsberger had not appropriated the words of Bayoumi. Instead, as I was about to learn, Landsberger and other engineering professors at universities great and small had been sent op-eds over the past decade or more and asked to sign, seal and deliver them as their own to their local newspapers. The opinion pieces were written not by the academic experts, but originally by a PR agency in Washington, D.C., working on behalf of the nuclear energy industry.
William Adler, the author of the article, outlines his investigation of how this ugly illicit brokering takes place, devoting particular attention to his discussion with the two academics (who were offended not by their own actions but by discovering that the editorial they signed had also been signed by others) and with the PR firm (which assured him that this sort of thing goes on all the time and cannot be stopped). The piece concludes with some recommendations for editors:
I was upset to learn that the "by" in a scholar's byline may well be a ruse, a duplicitous means of inducing a lobby-authored, lobby-funded piece into print and onto the public agenda. And sure, I recognize that many politicians don't utter a word that a ghost didn't write and a focus group didn't approve, but academic rules require that scholars' research and writing be original. (And isn't that why PR firms recruit scholars to sign the op-eds -- precisely because of their status as independent experts?)
I hereby propose that the nation's editorial page editors ask at least these two questions of outside contributors: 1) Did you write this piece? 2) Are you a consultant, paid or not, to an organization or interest group with a vested interest in your column? I'm not advocating that editors bar from publication those who answer affirmatively, only that their connection and/or interests be disclosed in the author's bio.
That would address the journalistic side of the ethical problem, but leaves the academic side untouched. It goes without saying that in so doing, the piece rather begs the largest questions--about scholarly integrity, professional ethics, and so on--that it raises. If they value their reputations, and if they value the principle of disinterested inquiry that underwrites academic research (however precariously, in this age of corporate grants), colleges and universities should have strict policies forbidding the sort of intellectual prostitution outlined here, and strict penalties for those who prostitute themselves in violation of said policies. It's dishonest, it further cheapens academics' already compromised authority and credibility, and it lends credence to the frequently levelled charge that professors are more likely to be ideological mouthpieces than fair and disinterested scholars and teachers.
Adler notes that profs who sign their names to op-eds authored by others arguably fall afoul of university policies forbidding plagiarism. Treating such behavior as plagiarism would in turn be one way to approach it. But I wonder how good a fit that really is--the act of signing one's name to an op-ed in exchange for payment (whether monetary or reputational) is not the same as stealing someone's ideas or words without their knowledge, and to describe the one as the other is potentially to fail to address what looks to be a distinctly different--though related--category of academic dishonesty. Thoughts are welcome.
UPDATE: Editorial writer Linda Seebach wrote a piece on the "astroturf" problem last year.
There's something to be said here about the non-humanities practice of "co-authorship," also known as appending your name to things you really didn't have much to do with. Professors in the sciences are USED to this behavior.
In a graduate seminar on 'what are the liberal arts' we had an assignment one time to come up with a way for us to coauthor articles with our famous professors the way our colleagues in the sciences in social sciences do so frequently. We all failed. Coauthorship in the humanities tends to be actual co-writing.
Your question at the end about whether this can be taken as plagiarism is well put. It is, I think, more properly understood as "work for hire," which is how we have laundered ghost-writing into higher education in the past. The difference here is that an academic is offered a packaged piece, asked if he or she wishes to buy or hire it, and then signs off on it as if it were his or her own. As this story suggests, however, it leaves the academic vulnerable to all sorts of embarrassments when another academic signs off on the piece for publication elsewhere or, even, worse case scenerio, the ghost-writer has himself plagiarized other work.
You're right: "plagiarism," properly understood as stealing another's ideas, is likely inappropriate in these cases. The deception -- passing off a ghostwritten op-ed as one's own -- is the real concern. I suppose, since the experts' names are actually written on the pieces, they can't be faulted for avoiding criticism that might result from the publication of the opinion. But there's the whole question of full disclosure and independence.
There seems to be a presumption that the articles did not accurately express the signers' opinions. Does that make a difference? Moreover, these are opinion articles, not academic papers. Is there a higher standard for an academic vs. a non-academic when writing an opinional article? Is there an expectation that an opinion article is anything more than the opinion of the author?
This 'endorsement' phenomenon by professors is strikingly similar to the use of press releases by gun control or environmental organizations as editorials by anonymous editorial boards. In other words, over the signature of the paper itself, providing its full faith and credit to the advocacy group.
I have to admit that I was a humanities major when I went to college many years ago. It seems to me that when you append your name to an article you are stating that you wrote that article. If you are instead saying that you agree with the content of the article, then that should be stipulated in another way. I don't see that this being an opinion piece rather than a scientific article makes a scintilla of difference. Either you wrote the thing or you concur with the thing and you should state which it is.
I wonder how many professors take credit for what has been written in their name in instances like these. That seems to be a potential Pandora's Box in this type of situation.
I guess I had a higher opinion of the integrity of the professors I studied with. I know that none of them would have considered putting their name on something that they did not actually write and that goes for the science professors I studied with as well as the humanities professors. I started out as a chemistry major and later changed my major to humanities.
"It seems to me that when you append your name to an article you are stating that you wrote that article."
It seems that way to me too.
Yes, of course. If I sign my name to a letter, to which a dozen or a hundred of my colleagues are also signatories, it doesn't imply that I wrote the letter. It indicates my concurrence in what it says. If I am the only signatory on an op-ed, the implication is not only concurrence with what it says, but that I am its author. The "work for hire" allowance is a necessary function in many large academic projects. It is also rife with the possibility of abuse.
It looks like academics, or at least some of them, are catching up to politicians and other public figures. If you see a book or article purportedly written by an elected official, you can generally assume it's ghostwritten (unless the author's name was Moynihan). The same goes for many public figures--Rush Limbaugh's books, for example, were ghostwritten for him. Usually, you can find some sort of acknowledgement of the ghostwriter in the acknowledgements or preface of the book.
This is an issue that should concern every organization that depends on grassroots advocacy to achieve its objectives. If your organization provides template language for op-eds or letters to the editor, you could be vulnerable to attack and may be endangering the reputation of those who agree to submit the pieces under their byline. And you may threaten the reputation of your organization as well.
Providing template language for op-eds and letters to the editor is a practice used to give voice to those who agree with a particular point of view but lack the time or the skills necessary to articulate their opinions. It serves the positive purpose of extending the reach of important societal issues into hometowns across America.
However, given the plagiarism scandals and the increased scrutiny to ensure all published work is original, the practice may very well be unethical.
After I read Mr. Adler''s piece, I sent him an e-mail that read in part:
"In the past several months, I have counseled my clients to discontinue -- or change the way they use -- this common practice because of hightened sensitivity about unoriginal work. In cases where clients have moved forward with this approach, I have been emphatic in instructing signatories NOT to suggest they wrote the pieces...just that they fully endorse them."
In an e-mail back to me, Mr. Adler dismissed me as a "flack" who (I''m paraphrasing) doesn''t have the high standards of a journalist(!!!!). He has asked me not to post his response on this Web site.
I'm afraid Mr. Adler, in his miopic attack on the nuclear industry hasn''t grasped the broad impact of his assault.
Okay, Mr. Adler, here's the research a mere "flack" has done. Too bad it is original, because you should have done it in the development of your own op-ed! I found that Public Citizen disseminated and encouraged placement of a template op-ed opposing the national nuclear waste repository at Yucca http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nukenet/message/2952 as did the Nuclear Information and Research Service and Pennsylvania Environmental Network. In fact, the NIRS has made available sample op-eds on an array of subjects and encourages their wide dissemination and submissions to local editors with alerts through its Web site. Currently, they are peddling "NUCLEAR POWER IS NOT A SOLUTION TO CLIMATE CHANGE," http://www.nirs.org/nukesandglobalwarming/NIRSOPED.htm.
I am very concerned that the development and dissemination of "template" op-eds and letters to the editor is a common tactic employed by a range of advocacy organizations. These organizations and others considering such a tactic deserve clear guidance regarding the ethics of such actions. Type "Sample Op-Ed" into Google (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=%22sample+op-ed%22&btnG=Search) and more than 1,700 pages are returned from organizations ranging from our federal government to the ACLU to the NEA.
I am also concerned with how far scrutiny of standardized or template language can go. Through DPK Public Relations' Media Interview Skills Training, I instruct clients to be disciplined in message delivery and encourage spokespersons to adopt particular ways of telling their stories and articulating their points-of-view. This is standard practice throughout the public relations field based on the accepted truth that communicating the same or similar messages repeatedly will help build awareness. But does it pass the plagiarism litmus test?
Adler's "expose" that supposedly revealed the dastardly tactics of one organization to manipulate the American public missed the point...and missed a tremendous opportunity. The real story isn''t about the NEI or Potomac. It''s about how public engagement and grassroots mobilization initiatives have institutionalized the practice of adopting a standard set of thoughts, words, sentences and paragraphs in the pursuit of spreading a message.
In so doing, this mass communication approach completely overlooked the fact that its foundation is built upon the practice of plagiarism.