Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Footnote Police, Again

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.


Michael said...

I just saw the debate between Finkelstein and Dershowitz. I lost all respect for Finkelstein after watching the debate. He was making serious charges and using nitpicking mistakes to back them up.

When it comes to issues as serious as terrorism, torture, self-defense, plagarism, etc., one is dealing with serious issues that involve life and death.

What's more, when Dershowitz attempted to discussing the actual ideas and issues, Finkelstein never really addressed the points that Dershowitz made.

In my mind, Finkelstein showed that he does not have the maturity to approach such issues seriously. I don't know how the tenured system works, but I would be extremely concerned about exposing young minds to someone who recklessly throws around claims of this nature and seems unable or unwilling to intelligently discuss the fundamantal moral, legal and political issues involved.

John K. Wilson said...

Is that the Democracy Now debate? You have to be careful not to judge a scholar's academic work based on one hot-tempered TV appearance. Personally, I think both Dershowitz and Finkelstein have made poor arguments about each other, but neither should be punished in any way. The tenure system looks at the value of the academic work and the quality of teaching. Finkelstein's academic work was controversial and harsh, but is highly regarded by many scholars. Finkelstein's teaching got very good reviews, and he's always been clear that he does not teach the way that he writes or debates in public; it's entirely proper to launch harsh attacks on fellow scholars, but not to do the same against your students. DePaul University basically denied Finkelstein tenure on the grounds of incivility in his writings; they acknowledged the high quality of his work. And that's what was wrong with DePaul's decision.

Michael said...

Hi there,

I am referring to the Democracy Now debate and I accept your point (to an extent) about separating between public appearances and academic work [note I am NOT an academic, I'm speaking as an outsider].

It's hard for me to accept that there is a total, 100% absolute separation between public appearance and academic work.

With that said, it's not the heatedness of the exchange that turned me off to Finkelstein, but rather his tactic.

He came out with guns firing, making extremely serious accusations. Finkelstein's opening statement was to charge Dershowitz with plagiarism, call the book a fraud and state that he wasn't worthy of being a professor at Harvard. This statement wasn't the result of a heated debate, it was the reason why the debate became so heated.

And what was his proof: the Peter's quotes, the 2,000 - 3,000 mistake (which, as Dershowitz held, was a mistake that WEAKENED the point he was trying to make in the book), using the wrong name for a figure in the 242 agreement, etc.

None of these warrant the charge that the work was plagiarized and a fraud. Furthermore, none of these points relate to any of the main issues about which they were suppose to debate (except for the 2,000 - 3,000 refugees mistake, but correcting that mistake strengthened Dershowitz's point, as I mentioned above).

All that Finkelstein's tactic end up doing was distract the debate from the real questions and issues concerning the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. Questions such as the appropriate response to terrorism, how does one report casualty figures, the border between strong-arm interrogation tactics and torture, etc.

In general, I found that Finkelstein didn't relate to these questions at all when Dershowitz brought them up (with one possible exception about the assassination of a Hamas terrorist in public, but I have the check the facts of that case because I think that Finkelstein left out important facts concerning that case).

All in all, I left that debate wondering if that was not Finkelstein's main motive - to move the discussion away from the points that Dershowitz made in his book and onto Dershowitz himself. If so, he was extremely successful. But for an academic to engage in such behavior is beyond inappropriate. It is intellectual cowardice and intellectual thuggery at the same time - cowardice for avoiding the real issue, thuggery for using character assassination and baseless charges as a means of advancing an intellectual point or public position.

With that said, it is at this point that I wonder about the dividing line between academic freedom and public debate. Debate unpopular or controversial issues if fine. Standing firm and presenting them in a strong and forthright position is a personal choice/style that each individual has to make.

It may not be the noblest way to argue a position, but it's not grounds for denying tenure.

It's when one crosses the line into using McCarthy like tactics (and I use that name specifically and I know that Dershowitz has done the same) that I wonder about the dividing line.

Please note - this is NOT about defending Dershowitz or the points that he wants to make - I agree that he could have handled the debate better (for one, by not interrupting so often) and I haven't read his book.

Rather, in my mind (as an outsider), it's about whether or not there is a line that one can cross which makes one's public appearances fair game for consideration in considering tenure.