Yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of DePaul University denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein, and on Academe Blog we featured essays by Peter Kirstein and Matthew Abraham, as well as interviews with Alan Dershowitz and Finkelstein.
One minor point about Dershowitz's “plagiarism” was raised in a comment by Steve Byrne as well as in Peter Kirstein's piece, where he claims:
the case against Dershowitz included his devious claim to have consulted primary and secondary sources that were lifted from Joan Peters’ Time Immemorial, without crediting the author. In my classes, such cheating would merit an F for the course as it has in the past. In my profession, such plagiarism could lead to dismissal from the academy.
In defense of Dershowitz (yes, I did actually write that), nothing he did should be considered plagiarism. He is guilty only of poor citations and mediocre scholarship. Dershowitz doesn't really deny originally finding the quotes he used from Peters' book In Time Immemorial. He has two defenses: 1) his assistants double-checked all quotes with the original sources. 2) listing the original source and not the secondary source is the proper citation method.
Dershowitz is wrong on both counts. A good scholar gives credit to his sources, even if he personally looks up the original quotes. And the proper citation method generally is to give both the original and secondary source (see this pdf guide). The reason is simple: giving only the original source misleads the reader into thinking that you personally did the archival research that discovered the source, and deprives readers of another interpretive guide to the quote that you made use of.
However, this is among the most minor of academic crimes. It is not plagiarism, and it isn't anything that a student deserves an “F” for doing. It is, at most, something that you inform a student about to help them improve, or that you reveal to show that a scholar is not really an expert in the field (as Finkelstein did).
So I entirely reject Finkelstein's charges of plagiarism against Dershowitz (in a legal, not a moral, sense). Harvard University should have dismissed them immediately (admittedly, they only investigated this at Dershowitz's request and found that he did nothing deserving of punishment). Of course, Finkelstein is completely free to have a different interpretation of plagiarism than me. But I believe the proper place to address almost all scholarly misconduct is in the realm of public debate, not administrative hearings.
When Ward Churchill was fired from the University of Colorado, I wrote an op-ed titled The Footnote Police pointing out how ridiculous it was to dismiss a tenured professor on charges of putting in footnotes that disagreed with him.
Churchill's academic crimes were minor, and deserving of criticism, not punishment. Dershowitz's academic crimes were even more minor. And Finkelstein committed no academic crimes at all (despite Dershowitz's false charges that he was “unscholarly,” since meanness is not a form of scholarly misconduct).
While I reject the false accusation of plagiarism against Dershowitz, we must keep a proper perspective on this. If we lived in a world where academic freedom was protected, then these charges and counter-charges would be part of a vibrant intellectual debate where each of us could judge the quality of the arguments and the scholarship being questioned.
But that's not what happened. Dershowitz is a tenured professor at one of the top universities in the world, who has never suffered the slightest harm because of the false charges made against him. Churchill was fired from his tenured position for political reasons using trumped up charges. And Finkelstein has been banished from academia despite doing absolutely nothing wrong. That's the real danger of setting standards of misconduct so low that almost anyone can be accused of violating them: the inevitable result is that only controversial scholars who express views out of favor with the political establishment will suffer penalties.