In Defense of Ayres: "Professor X" says Blame the Editor

In a post last week I suggested that the instances of near-verbatim quotations without quotation marks in the new book of Yale Law Professor Ian Ayres, Supercrunchers, might be the product of sloppy work by a research assistant rather than Ayres himself. I linked the controversy to similar concerns about books by Harvard Law Professors Alan Dershowitz, Charles Ogletree and Laurence Tribe. I also said it was possible that the lack of direct quotations was the result of an innocent mistake. I said:
it's conceivable that Ayres first inadvertently lost the quotation marks, and then, when editing for style what he thought was his own prose, made the minor changes [described earlier in last week's post] but it's also a plausible inference that the paraphrase was introduced deliberately so that Ayres could claim that he wasn't quoting and thus didn't need to attribute. I'd like to believe it was the former phenomenon, but I think the latter inference is more plausible.
I went on to say that the latter inference was even more likely if some portion of the writing had been delegated to a research assistant. As I tried to make plain, I wasn't saying that Ayres in fact was the victim of a sloppy research assistant to whom he had delegated too much authority, only that I thought this theory better fit the facts. (Ogletree, for his part, did admit that his borrowings were the result of work done by research assistants. More on that below.)

Yesterday another academic wrote to me to suggest an alternative explanation: Pressure from the editor of a trade press. Because this academic does not want to antagonize his or her own editor, I made a promise of anonymity in exchange for posting his or her thoughts here. Professor X says:

I am in the middle of a "trade" edit of my next book, and it's become clear that there is another way to explain the Ian Ayres problem rather than your suggestion of ghost writing. . . . [A]t a number of points, my editor suggests changes to my manuscript that are exactly like the sort of changes that Ian is (rightly) criticized for. This suggests that this is not a ghost writing problem (even though there are surely some legal scholars who let students do writing for them -- there's just no evidence that Ian is among them).

One of the most common comments that a trade editor will make is that an academic writer uses too many quotations. The reader wants to hear from the author, and so the author should paraphrase rather than quote. The way this gets operationalized in a line edit (at least in my experience), is the editor removes quotation marks from a quotation, and changes a little bit of the wording -- perhaps only one word! -- leaving the sentence structure intact and the citation in place. This is exactly what Ian's troublesome passages look like. I am not accepting this sort of editing, of course. But if an editor is generally doing a good edit, authors will usually want to accept most of their editing. You can see how someone could make the wrong choice, and let such an inappropriate edit remain in the manuscript.

Since you have charged Ian with [utilizing ghost writers] -- a more serious charge -- and I think this explanation more clearly fits his case, I think it would be helpful if you would post an alternative viewpoint. I'm sorry I'm not comfortable speaking publicly about my own editor's practices right now, but hopefully that's understandable.
Thanks, Professor X. I'm happy to offer this alternative, which, if true, would exonerate Ayres of the charge of relying on ghostwriters. Note, however, that I did not in fact "charge" Ayres with utilizing ghostwriters. I merely said that I found ghostwriting to be a more plausible explanation than deliberate copying/paraphrasing without attribution by Ayres itself.

Of course, if the editor of a trade press is the culprit, that raises two new problems. First, how could someone who edits a trade press think that very minor wording changes relieve an author of the obligation to use quotation marks? And second, how could an author agree to such a change? If a research assistant /ghost writer provides an author with prose that purports to be original but is in fact a nearly verbatim paraprhase of someone else's work, even if accompanied by a general citation for the source, the author will not realize that fact unless he goes back to the original source, which an author who delegates ghost writing tasks often wouldn't do. However, in the example Professor X cites, the author is confronted with the verbatim quotation, the removal of quotation marks, the tiny change in wording, and perhaps also the removal or alteration of attribution. I suppose it's true that an author who is rushing to get a book to press might not notice these changes, and their impropriety, but I don't think that this scenario is inherently more plausible than, or even as plausible as, the ghostwriting explanation.

To repeat, I don't have any direct evidence for any of the explanations. I'm just speculating about what seems most plausible to me. And to be clear about another point, I think there are gradations of plagiarism. The failure to use quotation marks in the Ayres book is a relatively minor sin, and as I have been careful to say, could be the result of an innocent error. My main point was to raise a broader issue: If the controversies surrounding the works of Ayres or any of the Harvard authors in fact reflect extensive ghost writing by research assistants---and as noted, Ogletree has admitted to insufficient supervision of research assistants in his own case---that is arguably a more serious problem than failure to use quotation marks and paraphrases properly. For that point, I'll simply say that I agree with Larry Solum, who wrote (here) in 2004: "In some ways the most distressing aspect of the [Boston Globe] story [about Ogletree] is the way that it seems to take for granted the practice of publishing research assistant's work as one's own without explicit sharing of authorship credit--a practice that is, in my mind, quite dubious."