Tag Archives: CPBR

Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research has finally stopped plagiarizing me

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: info@cpbr.org. And here’s her lawyer’s: david.metzger@aporter.com. 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.

Plagiarism by The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research



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This post is for people tracking the bizarre ethical slide of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. (CPBR).

As you probably know from my earlier posts, CPBR sends out a yearly invitation to plant biotechnology researchers to submit grant proposals.  Part of the emailed PDF has instructions on how to make a scientific poster, and a big part of that section was created by copying/pasting text from my page on the topic (but with no quotation marks and no attribution).

Because I happen to have an official copyright registration on my poster design page, the PDF is in violation of U.S. copyright law.  So, in addition to being able to sue CPBR rather easily, I can can also use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to send Notifications of Copyright Infringement (NOCIs) to have the CPBR document (PDF and any paper copies) destroyed.

So here’s what I’ve done.

  1. I’ve asked every member university to delete the PDF when received from CPBR.  In other words, the grants administration office will no longer forward that PDF to faculty on campus.  Because CPBR forbids member institutions from posting the PDF online (don’t ask me why), this means CPBR will not receive grant applications in the future.  Note that asking universities to help protect my copyright is a friendly request — I was not accusing the universities of anything.  It’s just like asking them to help protect copyrighted movies that might be illegally shared by students.  With one exception (University of Minnesota), they are happy to help. The University of Minnesota’s lawyers insist email forwarding of PDFs is exempt from copyright law (lingering effect of cold temperature?).
  2. I’ve asked every member company to do the same.
  3. I’ve informed the Fraud Alert representatives of the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agencies that CPBR is violating U.S. Copyright Law and should stop receiving Federal funds (DOE has given them almost $23 million, for example).
  4. I’ve informed CPBR’s internet provider that CPBR is using email to send content that infringes on my copyright.

All of the above could have been avoided if CPBR simply linked to my Designing Conference Posters page.  I love it when people link to my page.  Alternatively, if CPBR wanted to quote a sentence or two, that would be totally fine.  Here are two examples (book, website) of how to use quotation marks and attribution.

“Yet the politics of shipwreck can be avoided, I think, if we can construct a theory of feminist criticism within the framework of a general theory of the critical process that is neither purely objective nor purely intuitive; in that way, its processes can be examined beside, compared with, and contrasted to other branches of criticism with some degree of dispassionate distance.” [translate]

— Schumacher, D. 1989.  Subjectivities: a theory of the critical process.  Pages 29-36 in Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory, edited by Josephine Donovan. University Press of Kentucky.

“CPBR speeds the transfer of plant-related biotechnologies from the research laboratory to the marketplace, expanding economic opportunities through university research and global networking. Its highly competitive project selection process includes … industrial evaluation of research concepts to insure [sic] industrial relevance … ”

— The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. Retrieved 22 March 2014, from http://www.cpbr.org/content.html.

It’s really odd that CPBR didn’t just use quotations and attribution.  The CEO has a PhD in literature, and CPBR’s website has images and quotes that are all nicely attributed. Plus the core mission of the company is to foster commercialization of the intellectual property of participating scientists — and CPBR has IP lawyers on retainer for that very purpose.  There are, in short, so many reasons why this is not a company you’d expect to plagiarize or to infringe on copyrights.

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Why I should be the next CEO of CPBR

Dear Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research board members,

In the event that you are ever looking for a new CEO, I would be grateful to be considered.

First, given that you fund science, it would seem important for you to have a scientist at the helm.  I am one. One of my sabbaticals from Swarthmore College, was, in fact, at Dupont’s “Plant Solutions” group, so I have first-hand experience of the research demands inside a plant biotechnology corporation (a CPBR member, by the way).   I have also published articles on genetically modified plants and the challenges companies face to commercialize them (example). This all might be TMI, but I hope it demonstrates that I have a deep interest in plant biotechnology and research.

Second, to be a spokesperson for CBPR, I think it would be valuable to have eaten genetically modified plants. I have. While shopping in Hyde Park, Chicago, during my post-doc in mid 1990s, I had the opportunity to buy a whole bunch of Calgene’s Flavr-Savr tomatoes. Because I was (during the day) researching the safety of genetically modified, this was an irresistible real-life experiment that I couldn’t pass up. I don’t recall how I cooked them (probably in an Indian curry), but I did and I survived to tell the story. Consuming this transgenic “frankenfood” didn’t make me infertile or make my kids look funny.  Anyway, this invaluable experience would allow me to truthfully say to both the media and to member plant biotechnology corporations that genetically modified organisms can be made (and eaten) safely.

Third, I can ensure that the annual meeting in D.C. is a success. I used to be the head of the Swarthmore College Sigma Xi chapter (not real power, of course, but I had option to get my signature made into a rubber stamp), so I have years of experience booking rooms, finding keynote speakers, and micromanaging caterers. I even ran the annual poster session, so I know how to set up those annoying tripods.

Fourth, I can speak a little French. And a smaller amount of German. I read on your site that forming global contacts is important, so I wanted to mention this ability just in case it might tip the scales in my favor. Alas, my PhD is not in French Literature, so I could never fill the shoes of your current CEO.

Fifth, I can design and maintain web sites. I’m not a professional web admin, but I maintain sites for both my kids’ schools, plus I used to maintain an extensive site at Swarthmore College on the topic of plagiarism (imagine that!).  CPBR’s web site is how biotechnology companies and member universities will first know of CPBR, so it’s good to have a site that looks modern and has content. I could fix your current site in an afternoon. In particular, I would use it to more engagingly promote ongoing activities of the CPBR so that people visiting the site aren’t left with the feeling that it’s a front for laundering government money back into industry.

Finally, I have a zeal for scientific posters, and posters are critical part of your granting process. Not only do I maintain a web page on the topic (“Designing conference posters“), I have given numerous (paid) talks to universities, medical colleges, and societies on the topic. It has also come to my attention that you have 2 1/2 pages of advice on creating scientific posters in your “Call for preproposals” that I actually wrote, so I feel like I’m pre-qualified for the position. E.g., if you hired me as CEO, your non-profit wouldn’t be in breach of copyright infringement, and thus wouldn’t be at risk of being sued.  That’s just a thought.

In summary, I am a good fit for the job — if it ever opens up, of course. The funding environment in Washington is extremely fragile, so I’m sure you are not actively looking to replace your current CEO, who has been incredibly successful at getting government and corporate funding for CPBR. But if for some reason the current head left for better opportunities (she only makes $250,000 per year, I think), I’d be honored if you would keep me in mind. I would like to state clearly, of course, that CPBR’s pending litigation against me does not diminish my desire to work for you. I am actually in need of a salary, to be honest, so that I can pay legal fees associated with your suit.

I have never been to St Simons Island, Georgia, but hope to travel there soon on vacation. If it wouldn’t be too pushy, I’d love to meet everyone.

Thank you very much for your time.

Colin Purrington
Swarthmore, PA

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Help me defeat the powerful El Guapo

One of the many great scenes in ¡Three Amigos! is the impassioned speech about rising up against the obstacles that all of us face in life. It’s a speech everyone should commit to memory. I like it so much I have the mp3 on my running playlist (right after Moby’s “Extreme Ways”), and my extended family watches the movie every Christmas eve, per tradition. I also play the clip whenever I lecture on how to confront Creationism in science classrooms (it applies, trust me). The movie clip is below, but if it doesn’t play on your device, here’s the sound clip and text. So watch it, and then continue reading below, where I explain why I need help and why you should give it to me.

My personal El Guapo right now is The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR, to those in the biotech world). If you read my previous post, you know that they have demanded that I permanently delete my 15-page guide to making scientific posters for meetings (“Designing conference posters“), or else face litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and such. This ultimatum was delivered via Certified Mail from Arnold & Porter, a prestigious law firm. This demand came only after I pointed out that CPBR’s “Call for preproposals” contains 2 1/2 pages of text lifted from my website. If you want to see it, there is a version here (though probably not for long). These 2 1/2 pages not only fail to mention that I am the author, they contain “Copyright The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.” at the bottom. So, essentially, they have hired one of the most expensive law firms in the world to bully me into giving them the rights to my intellectual property. Some have argued that anything written about scientific posters is boring and not worthy of copyright, but I have been working on the content since 1997 and I rather like it: I have crafted it be a tad irreverent in the hopes that undergraduates might actually read it. So, naturally, I have absolutely no intention of giving my text to CPBR. And I have no intention of letting them get away with the bullying.

This is where you come in. Or could come in, if you want. My personal El Guapo has a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and they apparently have every intention of pursuing litigation. So even though they plagiarized from me, they could ultimately get my site taken down if I run out of money before they do, a likely outcome of the litigation. So how can I defeat El Guapo? I can sew! Actually, that’s true (I own two sewing machines), but that’s not going to help me in this situation, regrettably. The only thing I can do is use this darn blog to defeat them. That’s where you come in. What I’d really appreciate is for people with influence to help advertise this situation so that CPBR feels the scrutiny of taxpayers, and, by extension, the scrutiny of politicians who give CPBR its millions in yearly allocations. That’s right: CPBR is using some of those funds to hire expensive lawyers to file fraudulent copyright infringement claims. If you pay taxes on April 15, you should be outraged. So if you can Tweet this post to your followers, my situation might eventually get known by those in D.C. who vote on such distributions of government funds. And if you don’t Tweet or Facebook, but know important people, please consider calling them. And then email me so that I can properly thank you.

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