I’m delighted to report that The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR) has finally decided to stop plagiarizing me. Details below. But first, the back story in case you missed it, which is likely.
For the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, CPBR included approximately four pages of my poster advice (my full version is here) as an appendix in a PDF they emailed to thousands of researchers around the country who wanted CPBR grant funding (the PDF was a call for proposals). A sample page of this appendix is at the bottom of this post, with the plagiarized text highlighted in red. There was no indication anywhere in the entire document that the text had been copied from my web page (e.g., there were no quotation marks around text, and no generous citation like, “Text on how to make a poster courtesy Dr Colin Purrington”). This type of plagiarism would be classified as “blatant plagiarism” and would earn you an automatic F in a college course, with possibility of expulsion from the school (I know this because I had served for years on the Swarthmore College judiciary board, where plagiarism cases were often heard). I was also annoyed that they’d decided to copyright my text: at the bottom of the pages in question there was the line, “Copyright CPBR”, verbiage that claimed legal ownership of the text. CPBR also told recipients of the PDF to not post the document online, effectively hiding it from public scrutiny.
But somebody at Purdue University’s grants office decided to post the document (oops), and I stumbled onto it in 2013. Via email, I asked that the document be taken down (or my content removed), and CC’d the folks at CPBR.
At this point, CPBR might have contacted me. For example, they might have said, “Oh, gosh, we had a moron on our staff back in 2006, and he must have just copied that text because he thought it was funny. So sorry, we’ll remove it. Can we link to your web page??”
Instead, they hired a large law firm (Arnold & Porter) and threatened to take me to court if I didn’t take down my website. Yes, that’s right: CPBR officially accused me of plagiarizing them. They threatened very large legal fees, too. In hindsight, I suppose I should have let those threats play out: it would be really amusing to see them try to get my site unplugged. But because the threat was totally legal (so to say) and could potentially bankrupt me, I decided to hire a lawyer, too.
And this is when the story gets completely unsatisfying: I haven’t heard from CPBR or it’s lawyers for over a year. I suspect CPBR’s lawyer became furious at CPBR, because CPBR probably assured its lawyer that I was the guilty party. But I provided crystal clear proof of the contrary to their lawyer, so their relationship probably soured rather quickly. I was hoping to eventually hear from the lawyer that the threat had been lifted, but I guess that’s not going to happen. And CPBR has never contacted me, either.
My only evidence that CPBR admits to the plagiarism is that they’ve finally stopped using my text in their most recent PDF (kindly sent to me by several of the member universities).
So that’s the update.
What continues to depresses me about this whole experience is that CPBR and Dorin Schumacher have faced zero consequences for (1) plagiarizing me rather extensively and (2) falsely accusing me of copyright violation. Most people roll their eyes about (1), viewing advice on “poster design” as far too boring to care about (note: my goal was to craft advice that was less boring than other how-to guides; the theft of my text suggests I might have been successful). But (2), making knowingly false allegations about copyright infringement is really terrible regardless of the topic. I would have thought that after the story went public last year, that Dr Schumacher would quickly lose her job or that CPBR would stop getting government money. But Dr Schumacher still gives herself $250,000+ per year (she owns the company, it turns out) and CPBR still gets millions of dollars each year from the USDA, Department of Energy, and EPA. Some — perhaps tens of thousands — of that money went to a lawyer directed to pursue a legal claim she knew was false. That’s public money, some of it contributed by me (!), a taxpayer. If there was any justice in the world there would be a high-level governmental liaison who would say, “Dr Schumacher, this use of public money is objectionable and you are officially defunded.” (I’ve contacted all the government officials that give the checks to CPBR; they all have told me they cannot get involved.)
What makes this especially bizarre is that CPBR’s goal is to get plant biotechnology research ideas into trademarked products. Hence there’s a lot of talk in CPBR’s documents about trademarks, privacy, and copyrights. For an organization that clearly values intellectual property, it’s really shameful it engaged in blatant plagiarism. And it’s shocking that such an organization would falsely accuse somebody else of copyright infringement as a way to bully the weaker party (me) into ceding legal ownership. Simply shameful.
It’s also rather strange that CPBR would ever choose to plagiarize me in the first place. First, when in doubt, don’t plagiarize from sites that have “please don’t plagiarize” verbiage on their pages (I do), especially if the author also has a page dedicated to the evils of plagiarism and how to stop fight it (I do). There are thousands of sites on how to craft conference posters (plus plenty of articles and books), and the vast majority have no such verbiage. Second, don’t ever plagiarize from people who might reasonably come across your stuff. I’ve actually published on plant biotechnology (e.g.), and it would be completely likely that I’d eventually read CPBR’s PDF on funding sources (and thus discover the plagiarism). So odd, on both counts.
If you’d like to see the PDFs with and without the plagiarism, just let me know and I’ll send them to you (I don’t want to post them). If you have questions for Dr Schumacher, here’s her email: email@example.com. And here’s her lawyer’s: firstname.lastname@example.org. And, just in case you’re curious: I do have official copyright on my text from the US Copyright Office; CPBR most certainly does not.
Thanks to all the people who’ve sent kind words of support to me during over this issue, or who’ve sent messages to member universities or governmental officials. I’m truly grateful for all.
By the way, The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research is on day 2 of its annual symposium today (March 4th). If you’re in DC, please stop by the (posh) George Town Club (1530 Wisconsin Ave, NW) if you have a few minutes to spare. It’s fully funded by US taxpayers so I’m sure they’d let you come in. Oh, and there’s a poster session! And I’d love to know if the posters are any good this year, so if you go, please drop me a line.