Super Cruncher Also Super Plagiarizer

A few weeks back I blogged on the book Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres, which described how sophisticated statistical analysis of large dynamic datasets was revolutionizing many fields. It was OK, but seriously marred by a frothy style. I also linked to an NYT review of the book where the reviewer noted Ayres' "quite troubling" tendency to reproduce others' words in his book without quotation marks.

Ayres is a law prof at Yale, and the Yale Daily News student paper apparently smelled a story in the NYT review. They looked into things on their own, and reported:

Several passages in Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres' … newest book are unattributed verbatim reproductions or nearly identical paraphrases of passages from various newspaper and magazine articles published in the last twenty years, an investigation by the News has shown.
Woops! In addition to the one reported by the NYT reviewer, the Yale Daily News turned up eight more.

The article quotes Ayres' prepared apology and a mixed bag of other people with varying ideas about the nature of this misbehavior. In Ayres' (slight) defense, the investigation was aided immensely by the fact that the original sources are referenced in the book's endnotes, and were easy to look up and compare. So there's no indication that Ayres was trying to hide anything; it's just that he was too lazy to either phrase things in his own words or to clearly indicate the quoting in the main text.

Other than the apologies and fixes to future printings of the book, it looks like Ayres will skate. Not everyone's happy. For example, read this Inside Higher Ed "University Diary" blog entry. (I enjoyed the snarky title: "Plagiarism: Yours, Mine, and Ayres'") The author compares Ayres' behavior with similar instances at Southern Illinois University and Harvard, and makes the obvious point: tuition-paying students would have been in serious trouble for plagiarism in their academic writing. Higher-ups, on the other hand, continue to rake in royalties for their mass-appeal works containing similar sins. The Diarist deems these cases "instructively clear instances of oligarchic corruption," and believes more examples are on their way to a university near you.

Columbia law prof Michael Dorf has worthwhile observations here and here.

(Original link to Inside Higher Ed via Clayton Cramer. He comments: "That Ayres is one of the academic community's gun banners just makes it sweeter.")