A Cautionary Tale of High-Priced Plagiarism

From Plagiarism Today:

Imagine paying $115,000 for a report and not being able to do anything with it due to plagiarism and/or attribution issues. Likewise, imagine being a well-known expert and professor, one that’s routinely cited in the media, and now having one of your best-known stories being a lawsuit over said issues.

That’s exactly the situation that’s befallen a right-leaning advocacy group, the State Government Leadership Foundation, and Stuart N. Brotman, a current professor at the University of Tennessee.

The story involves a massive mess that, after nearly two years in court, finally reached a settlement. Along the way, the case damaged the career of an otherwise-respected expert, the work of an organization and may have hindered the efforts that the State Government Leadership Foundation was undertaking.

The worst part of it is that it all could have easily been avoided. The case winds up being a frustrating lesson not only in the need to avoid plagiarism, but in the need for organizations to think about and prepare for plagiarism, even when dealing with very expensive reports.

. . . .

Today, Stuart Brotman is the University of Tennessee Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law. However, in 2015, he was working for his own firm, Brotman Communications.

It was in 2015 that he was first contacted by the State Government Leadership Foundation (SGLF). The SGLF is, by its own description, a conservative non-profit that focuses on helping states implement conservative policies.

Around that time the SGLF took interest in a plan by the FCC attempted to block states from passing laws that barred the creation and expansion of municipal broadband services.

. . . .

Internet providers opposed the FCC on this issue and the SGLF sought the help of Brotman to craft a report on the laws surrounding the issue.

He submitted that report to the SGLF later that year and was paid $115,000 for it. The SGLF then sent it to Dr. George Ford, a researcher that was assigned to examine the economic aspects of the issue. However, when Ford submitted the report to Lawrence Spiwak, another expert on the relevant laws, Spiwak recognized his own words.

Ford then conducted an investigation and showed that he had used passages from a variety of sources without quotations or proper attribution. They forwarded their findings to the SGLF, who ended up not publishing the report.

Instead, they asked him to revise the report, which Brotman said he did, but the SGLF found the finished report was still too-poorly attributed to be used. Brotman couldn’t explain how so much content remained, but said that it could be because, in March 2018, some of his files were “corrupted” in a hack from Iran that targeted thousands of processors.

The SGLF demanded its money back but Brotman proactively sued them, accusing the foundation of sharing his “confidential” report. That element was quickly dismissed but the SGLF countersued in hopes of getting their money back.

. . . .

According to Brotman in the lawsuit, he said he was not asked to produce an original report but was instead asked to provide a “review” of prior research. However, that argument is, to put it mildly, glib.

As both a journalism professor and an expert in the field of law, Brotman likely knew that the SGLF wanted a report that they could use public discourse and that even a review requires proper citations. Simply put, he plagiarized and that appears to be pretty clear from his own testimony at the trial, even if he avoided using the word “plagiarism” on the stand and still denies doing it.

. . . .

No one likes to believe an expert or author they hire would ever plagiarize, but you have to prepare for that possibility and, perhaps, that inevitability.

Having strong anti-plagiarism clauses in your contracts and a process for checking works upon receipt (and before payment) could have headed this off. To be clear, the SGLF is not to blame for being given a plagiarized report, but a better plagiarism plan likely could have averted the embarrassment and the litigation.

When it comes to plagiarism, this case is a reminder that you can’t afford to trust blindly. Despite spending $115,000 for the report, the SGLF didn’t spend a few hundred dollars for an automated analysis or a few thousand for a human one.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

PG says that during primeval times before the explosion of the internet, an author of dubious repute might risk significant plagiarism, particularly if writing an article directed toward a small non-expert audience (patients reading magazines in physicians’ waiting rooms) regarding a topic about which only a handful of individuals were real experts who, therefore, would be uninterested in reading People magazine under any circumstances.

Regarding the OP, if the author of the plagiarised report were a law school professor, he would be accustomed to reading and writing documents filled with footnotes documenting authorities and sources for nearly every paragraph. See, for example, a page from the April, 2019, issue of The Duke Law Journal:




PG finds the behavior of the professor described in the OP (which may not accurately describe such behavior) to be very strange.

Not being either a law school professor (although he and two other lawyers had a pleasant lunch with a law school professor yesterday in a meeting of a very local bar association) or an expert on the Federal Communications Commission and its various and sundry activities, PG would expect that an advocacy document such as the professor wrote for the plaintiff in the OP would gain some sort increased credibility if it contained footnotes and a copious appendix of sources.

(PG notes in passing that Mrs. Lascelles, one of his marvelous elementary school teachers, would have gently pointed out the run-on characteristics of the prior sentence. No computer grammar checker could ever exceed Mrs. Lascelles at that task.)

(PG also notes that the author described in the OP was not a law school professor at the time he wrote the article, but dense and extensive footnotes are something a law school professor is expected to understand on the first minute of the first day he/she begins work. Additionally, nothing is easier than padding an expert’s report by copying and pasting a list of sources into an appendix.)

(PG also notes that he is in a startlingly verbose mood today and promises to rein in such tendencies for the remainder of today’s posts.)

12 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale of High-Priced Plagiarism”

    • James – It’s obvious that I became too reliant on Mrs. Lascelles.

      If only she had written an app before she went to her well-deserved heavenly reward, the world would be a less run-on place.

  1. This is hilarious! “The Iranians deleted my citations” is the 21st century version of your dog eating your homework.

    The defense that this was intended as a review is, more subtly, even more ridiculous. A literature review is to summarize prior work. One the one hand, you aren’t being asked to do original research. On the other hand, citing the prior work is pretty much the whole point of the exercise. The only way this defense makes a lick of sense is that he is saying he was too lazy to do it right. Proper citations are a pain. Anyone who has ever done it knows this. But it is what he was being paid to do.

    Last point: The underlying issue is municipal broadband networks. Why would a municipality want to get into the Internet Service Provider business? Because the internet service they are getting from Comcast, Verizon, et al., sucks: overpriced, with terrible service. Who opposes municipal broadband? Comcast, Verizon, et al. They hate having competition. With a local monopoly they can charge the aforesaid high prices without the inconvenience of having to invest in improving the network. These state laws prohibiting municipal broadband are being pitched to state legislators by the Comcast/Verizon crowd.

    My middle-sized very Republican town has a municipal network. It totally rocks! I get better speed than I ever got from the commercial providers, for $30 a month. It turns out that removing the profit motive, while having customers who can complain at the ballot box, works great. (In related news, our municipal water and sewer are excellent.)

    So which side did SGLF, so pleased to pronounce itself “conservative,” take here? There are competing conservative arguments. On the one hand, local decision making is, at least intermittently, a conservative value. If a town believes that it would be better served by local control over this important infrastructure, why should the state legislature tell them they can’t? On the other hand, there is the principle that the government should not provide any service that can be provided by a private company. The stronger form of this argument is that the government will inevitably botch the job, that excellent water and sewer service notwithstanding. This in turn brings us to the gripping hand, that the big internet providers in fact have a well established history of doing a terrible job of it. If the private companies are unwilling to provide this service and do it well, surely it is perverse to standard on principle against letting the local government give it a go.

    So which side did SGLF, so pleased to pronounce itself “conservative,” take here? Silly rabbit! Who is paying hard cash for this sort of study? Not some podunk town wanting decent internet.

    • I find agreement with everything you wrote, but with one caveat. A government institution is empowered to exempt itself from the rules it expects others to follow. As such, excellent service now, may give way to lackadaisical service later, and independent suppliers may find themselves unable to afford to compete, because the rules state they must provide some of the very things which the government-sponsored service has exempted itself from having to provide. Only when the government is held to the exact same standard as any would-be private competitors can you avoid the government sliding into becoming a hairier problem than the problem it was implemented to resolve in the first place.

      • The issue is with natural monopolies. Yes, multiple water companies could run lines to your house and bid for your business. No, this will never happen, nor would it make any sense. With a natural monopoly, whoever gets the infrastructure in place first will have a grip on that slice of the market forever. The usual rules of competition simply don’t apply.

        There are two solutions that work decently, and one that works terribly. The decent solutions are to either heavily regulate the provider, or make the government into the provider. In both cases this is a political rather than an business solution, with all the pitfalls that are implied. How this plays out in practice depends on how functional your politics are.

        My town is run by Main Street Republicans, which is to say that they understand that roads need to be plowed and potholes fixed, and that these need to be paid for. We have municipal water and trash, and have never had the least bit of trouble. In places like this, having basic municipal services crap out on you is how local politicians get voted out of office, and they know it. Getting internet hooked into this system is all to the good.

        Regulation can work, but is generally done on the state level. Accountability is less direct, making it easy to point the blame in a different directly. State legislators are surprisingly cheap, and regulatory capture a problem.

        That last way to deal with a natural monopoly, that doesn’t work? It is what we have now with internet: pretending that we can count on market forces to keep businesses in line. This isn’t like choosing a supermarket, where there is another just down the road I can switch to if my current one pisses me off.

        • I don’t disagree with much of what you say but are we really talking about a “natural monopoly”? I’ll give you that on water as it can actually be dangerous to send another company’s water down the local pipelines. However, do other utilities like gas, electricity and broadband really satisfy the natural monopoly definition?

          I’m on the other side of the Atlantic, living on the southern edge of London, and rules and regulations are very different here. It’s hard to count but I guess that I have a choice of 20+ suppliers for each of gas, electricity and Internet and am not sure why the USA can’t offer something similar. Of course, I’m lucky to live where there are two different fibre optic cable choices for my house and in less fortunate (rural) areas none of the many suppliers may be able to deliver high speeds, but you do still get to choose which one you’re going to complain about.

          Would your Municipal Broadband Supplier actually be a monopoly or would commercial concerns be allowed to compete? Are there any regulations forcing companies to allow other suppliers to use their infrastructure?

          • > 20+ suppliers for each of gas, electricity and Internet

            Some places in the USA are that way. But no matter whose names are on the bills, everyone gets their gas, electricity, or internet from the same pipe or wires; who you make the payment out to is just a legal fiction.

            Same thing with cellphones in the USA. There are three big cellular companies, one small one, and one miniscule one. No matter what company you’re paying for service, they’re still buying their bandwidth and tower access from the same five, if they’re not just a sock puppet of one of them anyway.

            • I understand why you say that but for broadband I have a choice between two different fibre cables and for the rest the prices, TOCs, and quality of service all differ even if the same delivery superstructure is being used. So it is rather more than a legal fiction. In effect, the gas pipes and electricity cables (and BT’s fibre optics) are acting as regulated common carriers for the companies supplying the commodities. I’m actually not too concerned about the price differences but some of the suppliers have terrible reputations for service – particularly billing errors – and I like being able to avoid them. Plus for broadband the multiplicity of companies offers good opportunities for bargaining over prices/speed when contracts are up for renewal or when price increases are proposed.

        • We have municipal water and trash, and have never had the least bit of trouble.

          Has trash collection ever been put out to bid, and compared to the municipal cost?

          One incentive for municipalities to have their own services is jobs and patronage.

          Municipalities tried to apply natural monopoly theory to cable TV when it started. But, the power company showed they had pole space for more than one provider, and horizontal drilling allows multiple cables between the same curb and sidewalk. Then fiber optic greatly reduced the cable volume needed for services. (Watch 5G to see the future.)

          Whenever a municipality creates its own cable system, ask if Comcast is allowed to serve the same place.

          • > Has trash collection ever been put out to bid, and compared to the municipal cost?

            Yes, in my town. We paid $15/mo for collection twice a week, for whatever you could drag to the curb. Then a private firm came in and lowballed a bid to take it all over, and the City Council went for it.

            I don’t know what the savings were supposed to be for the city, but now trash pickup is $35/mo, and they only pick up once a week, and they’ll only take what will fit in the special wheelie-bin they issue, and they have a long, long list of things they won’t take at all, which means the city is cluttered with old car tires, abandoned furniture, and old TV sets that the citizens can’t easily get rid of, and nobody will pick up.

            But it’s all *better* now, you see?

  2. Perhaps not germane, but did the local bar association serve mixed drinks or just beer?

    • Ours is a very local bar association, with each of us living within a 2-3 minute walk from the entire membership.

      Unlike every other bar association in the United States (perhaps the world), nobody consumes alcohol at meetings so designated drivers are unnecessary.

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