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Adding Insult to Plagiary?

Colin Purrington

Colin Purrington

Colin Purrington wrote a funny, helpful guide about designing scientific posters. It has loads of practical tips (don’t make it too long, use a nonserif font for titles, etc.) and jokes about the mating habits of cute red pandas. The guide has been remarkably popular—he estimates it’s been viewed about two million times over the years—and he gets e-mails thanking him all the time. It has become a claim to minor fame.

Sometimes people, um, borrow his guide without giving him credit. This happens fairly regularly, and when he finds out about it, he sends an e-mail asking them to take it down. Usually they do. But when he sent an e-mail to the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, asking that a roughly 1,200-word, near-verbatim, uncredited chunk from his guide be removed from the consortium’s materials, the response was unexpected.

Rather than apologies, a lawyer sent him a cease-and-desist letter accusing him of plagiarizing the consortium’s materials and demanding that he take down his guide or face a lawsuit seeking damages up to $150,000.

Purrington was taken aback. Understandably.

The consortium also took exception to Purrington’s e-mail. In that message, Purrington requests that the plagiarist’s head be mailed to him “if you can cover shipping charges.” The consortium’s lawyer wrote that this was interpreted as a “physical threat against their personal safety” and said the group would call the authorities if there were any further threats. While the consortium apparently liked some of Purrington’s clever lines in the guide enough to repeat them, this particular witticism did not strike the group as humorous.

So what is the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research? Glad you asked. It’s a nonprofit that, according to its Web site, has received more than $60-million in federal grants from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency over the last 20 years, plus some $80-million from unspecified industry sources. Big money. The consortium then doles out that money in grants to universities like Iowa State to study plant resistance to aphids and such.

In the not-at-all-friendly letter sent to Purrington, the consortium’s lawyer explained that the material was created by the consortium itself in 2005. That would be a very strong and persuasive point if Purrington hadn’t posted his guide as early as 2001, a fact that can be verified by going to the date-stamped Internet archive. Back in the aughts, Purrington was a professor of biology at Swarthmore College; these days, after quitting his tenured position (!) to spend more time with his kids, he is a self-described house husband and works part time as a photographer and graphic designer. He likes the lifestyle change, though he misses the lab sometimes.

He started writing the guide back in 1997 as part of a class he was teaching, made it available to his students, and later posted it for anybody who wanted to use it. Even though it appears obvious who actually wrote the guide, Purrington still has to pay a lawyer to respond to the consortium’s lawyer. He estimates his legal bill so far at around three grand and growing. Along with being costly, the whole experience has been a huge bummer.

“I felt violated, and then I was accused of something I didn’t do. I’ve never had the feeling of both of those at once,” he says. “The plagiarism certainly made me mad, really mad, but what made my blood boil was that they tried to bully me with a lawyer.”

I called the main number for the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research and was told that the president and chairman, Dorin Schumaker, was not available and might not be available for weeks. Schumaker is the only paid employee listed on the nonprofit’s most recent available Form 990 tax filing (her salary, according to the filing, is $213,964). I then called a number listed for a Dorin Schumaker in St. Simons Island, Ga., where the consortium is based. The person who picked up the phone declined to answer questions and hung up when asked if she was Dorin Schumaker. The consortium’s lawyer, David Metzger, also hung up on me. In a follow-up e-mail, he said he was abiding by his client’s wishes.

If they can explain how they created, in 2005, a document that Purrington posted online years before, they’re keeping that explanation mum for now.

Too often in plagiarism cases, the victim never really gets satisfaction. Maybe the offending passage is taken down. Perhaps a footnote is added. The plagiarist might even manage a mumbled apology. But the penalties are often piddling. This is the first case I’ve heard of in which the apparent victim may be the one who gets punished.

In a characteristically witty blog post, Purrington asks for an apology from the consortium, reimbursement of his legal fees, and “an all-expense paid trip to St. Simons Island, Georgia, for me and my family, to compensate us for the pain and suffering that their bullying has caused.”

My guess is that those round-trip tickets won’t be forthcoming.

Correction (4/10/2013, 1:33 p.m.): This article originally misnamed the institution where Mr. Purrington once taught. It is Swarthmore College, not Swarthmore University. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

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