Plagiarism isn’t a laughing matter to me

Recently, the presidents of three elite universities made the same disgraceful comments in front of a Congressional committee.  Always have to laugh when folks like this talk about diversity while representing points of view in which any diversing from the party line is prohibited.

The furor over their remarks eventually led to Harvard President Claudine Gay being exposed as a plagiarist. While this should have resulted in her immediate termination, her defenders used arguments that no accused college student would ever be able to use. “She didn’t know the rules,” or “She didn’t mean it,” or “No biggie.”  Disgraceful.

It is massive hypocrisy if our towers of learning do not rigorously enforce on their Presidents and faculty the same rules they apply to their students.

Frankly, I was not surprised.  A little more than a decade ago, some of my research work was plagiarized, at one of the three elite universities whose Presidents recently made the national news.  The University of Pennsylvania.

What could I have ever researched which could have been plagiarized?  A fun story.

Incidentally, what exactly is plagiarism?  This 2,000-year-old term has an interesting derivation.  Its Latin root means something approaching “kidnapping.”  Apparently, the Roman poet Martial wrote that someone had kidnapped/stolen some of his verses.  I learned this from Wikipedia, a great site, providing insights, which I carefully cite.  Over the centuries, Martial was able to marshal together other scholars to echo his point, so they could alert Literary Marshals to monitor these kidnappings.

 Wikipedia also informs us that the Latin root is similar to an Indo-European (wherever that is) word which means “weave.”  Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!  And you can quote me on that.  It’s just a coincidence that Sir Walter Scott also used those words 216 years earlier. 

Over the years I have taught a high school class on journalism and given talks to Notre Dame student groups on writing and getting published.

One of the tips I offer is “Become the World’s Leading Authority (WLA) on a topic.”  This will insure an audience of some kind to aid in getting published.

How do you achieve this distinction?  Pick a relatively small topic, which is near and dear to you, and research it intensively.  Then submit some essays to the various publications (now I would say “websites”) for which your topic might be germane.

My research on Notre Dame men connected to Major League Baseball made me the WLA on that subject.  I researched the lives and careers of Lou Sockalexis and Ed Reulbach, and wrote items about them for various baseball publications and encyclopedias.  Over the years, I have been interviewed more than a dozen times because Reulbach was reported to be one of the first great Jewish baseball players and because Lou was the first great Native American major leaguer.

During the 1980s, I was the Chair of the “Collegiate Baseball Committee” of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).  I intended to produce what I was going to call the Collegiate Baseball Register, modeled after the “Official Baseball Register,” published annually by The Sporting News.

One of the things I learned in ND journalism classes was that few persons were able to make their living as “authors.”  Most had day jobs, such as college professors, in order to pay the bills while they did their research and/or writing.  In the late 80s, I found myself in the perfect role to compile the necessary research and write my book.  I was working late nights (9 p.m. until 6 a.m.), as a security specialist, in the homes of various Los Angeles celebrities.  Once my client went to bed, I had lots of free time to do my research.

Over a two-year period, I sent more than 3,000 letters (no email and no internet) to more than 600 colleges to inquire about the college attendance of persons reputed to have attended their school.  This information is readily available from the past 70 years or so, not that all colleges have Sports Information Departments, but records about players from 1871 until WWII were quite sketchy.

After I completed my seminal research, I had so many projects going on that I turned it over to my colleague Rick Benner, who wrote a fine book (2007). Rick took the forward step to have me write the forward.

Anyway, as I (finally) get to the point of this story, six years after Rick’s book came out, a baseball pal of mine proudly sent me a very fine article from the alumni magazine of the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater.  The article was well done, with some wonderful photos.  When I reached the end of the story I realized that the writer had kidnapped all of my research for his article.  He had included details that nobody knew before I dug them up and contacted Penn.  No attribution.

 I called the Archivist at Penn. I called the Archivist at Penn and learned he was like the school’s future President Gay.  This did not make me gay, at all. He began by stating that the person who did the research (a PhD student) was no longer connected to the University.  “So what?” I replied, holding back the salty language I wanted to add.  His next feeble display of integrity was that it was only my word that I had done this research.  I was again able to withhold four-letter language from my phone call, but not from my mind.  I, politely, with gritted teeth, suggested he just walk down the hall from his (plush, I bet) office and check the relevant files to find my correspondence.  “No can do,” he said. Who did he think he was dealing with!

Rick had already turned over all of his research (and mine) to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, NY.  He got them to dig through it (unlike Penn, they have integrity and a respect for researchers) and they found all of the correspondence between an outstanding employee of Penn’s Archives and me.  Only when the Archivist received copies of this from me did he deign to correct his files and give proper attribution. 

So, when I watched the disgraceful performance of the current President of Penn and the plagiarizing President of Harvard, I was overcome by schadenfreude, and thankful that the Germans provided is with this wonderful word.

If you’re still with me, here is the first email I sent to Penn:

Dear Penn Archives:

I recently came into possession of the attached research.  I congratulate the two persons mentioned for their fine work.  But, I am a little disappointed that the writers did not credit the person who sent all the material upon which this research was gathered and fleshed out.  I was that person.

If you check your files, I’m sure you will locate multiple letters from me.  In all of them, I requested that the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) receive credit.  My work has appeared in many college baseball media guides and in some alumni publications.  This is the first time I am aware that I have not received research credit.  This is very disappointing to me.

Cappy Gagnon

I was a bit more assertive (LOL) in this later message:  since I am forced to beat the credit out of you, I have tracked down my original letters and correspondence with the Archives at Penn

Finally, there are two ironies about my dealings with the low interest/low character Archivist at Penn. 

The first letter I ever received from his office at Penn included this sentence, “We remind you that any reproduction in published form of any materials provided must bear the credit line ‘Provided by the University of Pennsylvania Archives.’”  Very funny.

Most of my written correspondence was with one of his top staff persons, whose title was Public Service Archivist. So, the worker bees in his own office did a fine job, while the guy with the big title couldn’t carry her I-Pad.  She replied with many lovely comments, including offering her continued assistance and good luck and stating “All of our staff have enjoyed reading…..”  I guess, by “all” she did not mean her own boss, the Archivist!