Category Archives: Plagiarism

Still no consequences for Dorin Schumacher or CPBR over plagiarism and copyright bullying

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: And here’s her lawyer’s: 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. And in the event you’d like to make CPBR suffer on Twitter, I’m at @colinpurrington if you have room on tweet. CPBR doesn’t have an account, unfortunately.

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.

Plagiarism by The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research



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Survival of the fittest

In honor of Darwin’s birthday (February 12th), photographs of the Darwinning team during the Reach the Beach relay last year. Plus photographs of their team vans, Nature and Nurture. The team included two physicists, a chemist, a biomechanical engineer, an astronomer, and two earth scientists. A truly evolved bunch. Photographs courtesy Kacie Kefgen and Meredith Danowski (danke!).

Darwinners team photoSurvival of the fittest

Darwinners team caron-bumber

Charles Darwin tattoo on woman's armYou can spot ‘em in this YouTube video from the race organizers:


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CRC Press recalls book that plagiarized me

clear and concise communications for scientistsThe book, Clear and Concise Communications for Scientists and Engineers, has been recalled by CRC Press due to plagiarism (of me).  Or at least they said it was going to be recalled: it is still available for purchase at CRC Press a week after their lawyer gave me the news.  But CRC Press / Francis & Taylor / Informa is a massive corporation, so perhaps these things take time.

Anyway, it was nice of CRC to so quickly acknowledge and act on the plagiarism rather than accuse me of plagiarizing them.  They also said they would be happy to give refunds to anyone who had already purchased the book.

My only complaint is that they refused to make a public statement about the recall and the reason.  In my informal research (previous post), most publishers involved in plagiarism cases do tend to make some sort of statement … even if they initially don’t want to.  If CRC wanted to better promote its anti-plagiarism policy to potential authors, making press statements about recalled books would be a wise idea.

Publishers should also get in the habit of running every book through plagiarism-detection software: the sections copy/pasted from my site (Designing conference posters) would have been flagged instantly.  But what publisher these days isn’t doing this?  Taylor & Francis certainly does it.   So the question I have is, why did CRC Press/editor not contact me when those pages were flagged?

By the way, there were a lot of sentences about plagiarism in the book.  None of these sentences was plagiarized from my page on plagiarism.  Now that would be hilarious.

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How publishers deal with plagiarism

Alex Haley's Roots
Image from Wikipedia.

Just because I was curious … here’s how various publishers have dealt with books that contained plagiarism.  Of course, publishers don’t always make public statements about such things, so if you have additions or corrections, please let me know.  Similarly, it’s hard to figure out whether the source authors took the plagiarizer (and/or publisher) to court.  I know I have 19 in the list … am sort of reserving #20.

  1. Roots (Alex Haley 1976). Doubleday & Company was publisher.  Amazon still sells this book.  Haley was taken to court by author of The African, which Haley mined for characters, plot, quotes, etc. [details]
  2. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Doris Kearns Goodwin 1987).  I gather she settled with one of her “sources” (Lynne McTaggart) before the plagiarism news was released. Goodwin requested that all copies be destroyed. [details]
  3. Alexander Graham Bell: A Life (James Mackay 1989).  He apparently paid the John Wiley & Sons to have the book recalled … as part of deal to avoid being sued by Robert V. Bruce.  Mackay was caught plagiarizing his next book, by the way. [details]
  4. The Survivor Personality (Patsy Westcott 1995).  Bloomsbury Publishers recalled all the books and had them destroyed.  Amazon sells used copies of this book. [details]
  5. When Love Calls (Gail A. McFarland 1999).  BET Publications recalled the book.  You can still buy used copies on Amazon. Gina Wilkins, who was the author plagiarized, won an out-of-court settlement. [details]
  6. The Wild Blue (Stephen Ambrose 2001).  Simon & Schuster publishes paperback with plagiarism removed. [details]
  7. Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal (R. Fred Ruhlman 2006)University of Tennessee Press recalled the book. [details]
  8. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life (Kaavya Viswanathan 2006).  Little, Brown and Company recalled book, cancelled book deal with author. [details]
  9. Shadow Bear (Cassie Edwards 2008).  Signet said it found no evidence of plagiarism, then claimed the plagiarism was “fair use”, then decided to part ways with Edwards. [details]
  10. Free (Chris Anderson 2009).  Hyperion didn’t pull version with plagiarized passages, but did promise to correct future editions. [details]
  11. Axolotl Roadkill (Helene Hegemann 2010).  Ullstein bought rights from plagiarized author, then republished book. [details]
  12. How We Decide (Jonah Lehrer 2010).  Pulled by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. [details]
  13. Assassin of Secrets (Quentin Rowan 2011).  Little, Brown and Company issued apology, recalled all books from online, brick-and-mortar stores, offered full refund to anyone who purchased book. [details]
  14. The Raven’s Bride (Lenore Hart 2011).  St Martin’s Press defends author.  The best response to this defense is a Poe via the blog, The World of Edgar Allan Poe: “All I can do is offer some more words of wisdom from Mr. Poe himself: ‘To attempt the rebutting of a charge of plagiarism by the broad assertion that no such thing as plagiarism exists, is a sotticism, and no more.’ “  [Here’s the definition of sotticism.]  Amazon still sells this book.
  15. You’re Looking Well (Lewis Wolpert 2011).  Faber and Faber stopped selling the book in 2014.  Though it seems to be on Amazon.  He plagiarized parts of his next book, it appears. [details]
  16. Imagine (Jonah Lehrer 2012).  Houghton Mifflin recalled all copies, reimbursed people if they wanted to bring in copy to where they bought it. [details]
  17. Government Bullies (Rand Paul 2012).  Center Street promised to fix the “misunderstanding.” [details]
  18. A Call to Resurgence (Mark Driscoll 2013).  InterVarsity Press seemed sorry, and explained how author erred, but I don’t think it recalled the book. [details]
  19. Seeds of Hope (Jane Goodall with Gail Hudson 2013).  Grand Central (Hachette) had author(s) rework the book for new publication. Hachette made public announcements about recall, reasons. [details]


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Kids learn to plagiarize from their public school teachers

Use quotation marks to avoid plagiarism
This is a made-up quote inspired by a public school teacher who plagiarized me (twice). Please use this slide in your presentations to teachers-in-training.

This post is for public school principals and superintendents — people who are in a position to set broad educational policies and to rally teachers, staff, and students to achieve those goals.

Here’s my plea: ask your teachers to use quotation marks and citations when they copy/paste text into Prezi shows and syllabi. Without explicit marching orders, some teachers seem to plagiarize, and then their impressionable students end up viewing plagiarism as “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like sharing MP3 files and bootleg Gossip Girl episodes.

How often do public school teachers plagiarize?  I don’t have any real data, but I’ve recognized chunks of my text on perhaps several hundred syllabi, slides, and handouts.  That might seem like a small number (there are a lot of teachers), but I see the frequency as rather depressing. They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of proper and careful attribution? You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘.  Easy peasy.

So some teachers clearly plagiarize (and then post the files on the Internet for the whole world to see). But why? Let me allow a teacher to answer that. The teacher quoted below plagiarized from me several times, excerpting parts of my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus (no quotation marks or citation). When I mentioned this to her the second time, she replied,

“You’re absolutely right. Sorry again. It is a good resource and it helps kids, which is why I use it. I can see why you take issue that it is part of my syllabus which is tied to me/my class, but the teaching world couldn’t possibly, on every single document/worksheet/test we give our students, quote or cite source for chunks of information we use to help our students learn things. Education (at least where I teach) moves too quickly to do so, and we already have too much asked of us in and outside of the classroom. But yes, it is a large amount of information taken directly from your site/work.”

On her syllabus are chunks taken from other people, too (you can tell partly because the font and writing style are completely different; again, no quotation marks and no citations). If students are able to recognize this as patchwriting (likely, given it was an Advance Placement course), students may assume plagiarism is socially acceptable. If a lot of teachers plagiarize like the above, I think it may explain why so many students in college plagiarize. It can also explain why they seem so shocked when they get penalized.

The teacher above is using what I like to call the Fair Use Excuse. “Fair use” is a quasi-official term that describes a clause in the US Copyright Act that allows people to legally use copyrighted text or images under some circumstances. But “fair use” does not allow plagiarism (using text without quotation marks and without attribution). I’ve even had university copyright lawyers try the Fair Use Excuse when I mention that a faculty member has plagiarized me — I laugh at this lame defense. Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their plagiarizing students? I don’t think so.

The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect these individuals are second-generation plagiarizers who learned how to plagiarize from their teachers … the first generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is, in my view, the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers.

By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a strong (one-sentence) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty. (Her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school, by the way.)

So if you are a principal or superintendent, please use your influence to encourage your teachers to model academic honesty. It’s in the same vein as asking them not to smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to explicitly prohibit, but do. Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re thinking right now, “But my teachers are all great — this is simply not an issue at my school/district.” And — forgive my bluntness — you’d be delusional.

If you are not a principal or superintendent, but know one, please consider sending this post to them. If you happen to be an education professor in college, you might want to add this issue to your teacher certification program. Really.

And if you are a student who has just been caught plagiarizing (oopsy!), the above information is your ticket out of the trouble!  Just analyze (via Google search) your teacher’s syllabus (or Prezi slides, or whatever) and document his/her plagiarism. Then show the results to the principal and argue that your teacher showed you, by example, that it was totally acceptable to copy/paste without attribution. To further make your case, plug in your school’s academic honesty policy into Google — chances are that your principal plagiarized it from a university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busier!).

Please also see my page on Preventing Plagiarism.

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