It must suck to teach middle school these days. Every student paper has got to be littered with factual citations to the crowdsourced compendium of human knowledge known as Wikipedia. Even if teachers barred students from citing Wikipedia, they just blatantly plagiarize the stuff anyway. Wikipedia is basically the using song lyrics for “write a poem” of the modern era.

Sometimes prestigious law professors may act just like middle schoolers. Cramming to turn in his expert report, one T14 professor allegedly decided to go ahead and spice it up with plagiarized Wikipedia analysis. Indeed, parts of 13 pages of the 19-page report might have been lifted from the website that once explained that “Plato was an ancient Hawaiian weather man and surfer, writer of cosmo girls and founder of the punahou in Ancient Florida?”

So that’s what you do after you leave the Cave.

Anyway, which professor are they saying ripped off Wikipedia?

Professor James Feinerman

Well, it’s James Feinerman, the James M. Morita Professor of Asian Legal Studies, who also serves as the associate dean for transnational programs at Georgetown University Law Center. Bloomberg’s Karen Gullo reports:

[Feinerman] allegedly copied parts of 13 pages of his 19-page report from Wikipedia entries on China’s economy, high-technology development plan and Communist party, according to Stuart Gasner, a lawyer for a California businessman indicted last year in a trade secrets case. The report, which was filed in San Francisco federal court, doesn’t mention Wikipedia.

“Feinerman’s pervasive plagiarism from this unreliable and error-prone source, which has been rejected by federal courts all over the country, casts serious doubt on the reliability of his entire testimony,” Gasner said in a court filing.

Prosecutors in the case are trying to nail a guy named Walter Liew for conspiracy to steal trade secrets from DuPont for a Chinese entity called Pangang Group Co. Prosecutors wanted Professor Feinerman’s expert testimony on the practice of Chinese companies conducting industrial espionage and they couldn’t just make the jury watch Inception because Saito was Japanese.[1] If Feinerman fails to pass muster for Judge Jeffrey White — who canceled a hearing on this matter and is expected to rule soon — prosecutors will be back to square one in their efforts to add Pangang Group to the party.

Professor Feinerman apparently admits that he looked at Wikipedia, but that doing so doesn’t undermine his opinions. For example, describing the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Feinerman wrote:

is a secretive and highly trusted agency, and it is at the heart of China’s Leninist party system. It controls the more than 70 million party personnel assignments throughout the national system, and compiles detailed and confidential reports on future potential leaders of the Party.

The corresponding Wikipedia entry reads:

The Organization Department is one of the most important organs of the CPC. It is a secretive and highly trusted agency, and forms the institutional heart of the Leninist party system. It controls the more than 70 million party personnel assignments throughout the national system, and compiles detailed and confidential reports on future potential leaders of the Party.

Who knows, maybe Professor Feinerman wrote the original Wikipedia language. Did you ever think of that defense lawyers?

Seriously though, this looks pretty bad, and definitely something that should have serious academic implications where plagiarism is a tremendously big deal and quoting Wikipedia is an even bigger one — but as a representative example of the sort of shenanigans going on in this expert report, this seems pretty tame. It’s not like it’s a controversial opinion in the case.

Which is all the more reason to look with confusion on this situation. If this was really copied, it demonstrates curious laziness of Professor Feinerman to avoid just explaining the Organization Department in his own words. It’s a pretty straightforward concept.

Here’s an experiment: take some agency of the U.S. federal government and describe it in two sentences, then look up the Wikipedia entry. I’ll bet it’s similar, but doesn’t share as dumb an overly flowery and unnecessary phrase as “institutional heart of the Leninist party system.” Professor Feinerman was asked to write about something that to him was as obvious as you describing the Supreme Court in two sentences and allegedly still felt the need to copy Wikipedia’s take. Even if Judge White decides this descriptive phrasing was lifted but still doesn’t undermine Professor Feinerman’s qualifications,[2] the prosecutors probably have to dump him. And his career as an expert witness — for which he apparently nabs $350 an hour — is pretty much over, right?

It would be too bad if this goes badly for Professor Feinerman because he actually does have all the qualifications of an Asian law expert and maybe that stupid “institutional heart” line is just cliché when talking about Chinese government. That would be bad luck. But sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. To quote myself.

Wikipedia-Using Professor Riles Corporate Spying Defense [Bloomberg]



[1] Though I’m not sure I’d put it past the government to just say, “Meh, close enough.”
[2] Without prejudging Professor Feinerman’s case, this is a personal appeal to Judge White (or his clerks) to write the opinion in this matter rife with spoofs on Wikipedia policy statements like trolling passages from the expert report with {{Author missing}} or {{According to whom}} or {{Better source}}. Please make this happen.


comments sponsored by

15 comments (hidden for your protection) Show all comments