How I Became a (Minor) Victim of Academic Plagiarism

Today, the Baltimore Sun published a detailed story about Towson University Professor Benjamin Neil, who has been accused of numerous instances of plagiarism, especially in a 2012 article on Kelo v. City of New London and post-Kelo eminent domain reform which has since been withdrawn by the Journal of Academic and Business Ethics:

A longtime Towson University professor has resigned his post as the head of the city school system’s ethics panel amid allegations that his published academic articles contain content from dozens of sources without proper — or in some cases any — attribution.

University officials and journal publishers say they are reviewing several articles submitted by Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs professor, after a librarian at another university alerted them to the issue.

A Baltimore Sun review of five papers published by Neil shows passages with identical language and others with close similarities to scholarly journals, news publications, congressional testimony, blogs and websites. In many cases, there was no attribution.

Neil, who has taught at Towson for more than 20 years, says he properly attributed work from other authors.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” said Neil, 62. “The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes. But I’ve given attribution to people….”

Meanwhile, some of his colleagues across the country and authors of the original material who were contacted by The Sun criticized what they called “lazy plagiarism” and a breach of academic integrity. Experts say the incident highlights the pressures that professors feel to publish.

“It’s completely unacceptable conduct, particularly for a professor,” said Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly initiatives librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver who contacted Towson officials and journals about the alleged plagiarism.

It so happens that I was one of the scholars whom Neil plagiarized in his since-withdrawn article “Eminent Domain: In Theory – It Makes Good Cents.” Here is a site created by the Baltimore Sun which gives several examples of plagiarism from that article, including the one Neil copied from my 2007 Northwestern University Law Review article, “Is Post-Kelo Eminent Domain Reform Bad for the Poor.”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Neil’s article (which does not cite or mention mine in any way):

Professor David Dana, in his essay published in the Northwestern University Law Review, suggests that most post-Kelo reform efforts are seriously flawed because they tend to forbid the condemnation of the property of the wealthy and the middle class for “economic development,” but allow the condemnation of land on which poor people live under the guise of alleviating “blight”. This, he claims, results in reform laws that “privilege the stability of middle-class households relative to the stability of poor households” and “express the view that the interests and needs of poor households are relatively unimportant.” [footnotes omitted, but I emphasize that none of those notes cited my 2007 article]

Here is what I wrote:

In a recent essay in the Northwestern University Law Review, Professor David Dana argues that most post-Kelo reform efforts are seriously flawed because they tend to forbid the condemnation of the property of the wealthy and the middle class for economic development, but allow the condemnation of land on which poor people live under the guise of alleviating blight.This, he claims, results in reform laws that privilege[] the stability of middle-class households relative to the stability of poor house-holds and “express[] the view that the interests and needs of poor house-holds are relatively unimportant.”

With the exception of a small change in the first sentence, Neil has copied my text verbatim. That’s a fairly clear case of plagiarism. At the same time, it’s a relatively minor one. The passage in question is short and merely summarizes David Dana’s work, rather than putting forward any original ideas of my own. And Neil did cite Dana (or rather copied my citations to him). Any harm to me was probably insignificant.

If this were the only case of plagiarism in Neil’s work, I would say he deserves only very modest punishment. It might even be sufficient if he fixed the problem, apologized, and promised not to do it again. But, as the Sun article explains in detail, this is just one of many plagiarized passages in Neil’s articles. Some of the others were a lot more egregious than this one. That suggests an ongoing pattern of misconduct, not just an isolated, possibly inadvertent, error.

Serial plagiarizing of others’ work is not just a discourtesy to those authors who didn’t get proper credit. It is also a violation of the academic’s duty to contribute to our knowledge by developing new ideas, rather than merely copying what others said previously. It will be interesting to see the results of Towson University’s investigation into this case.