Law prof. borrows text for book

Several passages in Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres’ ’81 LAW ‘86 newest book are unattributed verbatim reproductions or nearly identical paraphrases of passages from various newspaper and magazine articles published in the last twenty years, an investigation by the News has shown.

Ayres’ ninth book, entitled “Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart,” was published in August by Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. The News found nine passages in the book similar to or the same as sentences from articles printed in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Union-Tribune and Fast Company magazine.

Textual comparison of passages from Ayres' book and assorted articles.
Jae HyungRyuandPamelaShen
Textual comparison of passages from Ayres' book and assorted articles.

Ayres, the William K. Townsend professor at the Law School and a professor at the Yale School of Management, said he plans to make changes to future printings of the book. Three research assistants currently enrolled in the Law School worked with Ayres on the book, according to the acknowledgments printed in the back.

Although Ayres uses endnotes to cite his sources, sentences from many of those sources were printed without quotation marks or other in-text attributions. Of the passages identified by the News, only one is a verbatim reproduction of text published previously by another author. Other passages substitute words or clauses into sentences written by others or omit words or clauses.

A Law School official familiar with the situation said the school has found no evidence that Ayres intended to copy the work of other authors. But one Yale writing expert said Ayres borrows inappropriately from other authors.

In a statement to the News, Ayres said the endnotes represent proper citation for a book intended for a popular audience, but that he plans to make changes to the manuscript for future printings.

“It has recently come to my attention that in several brief instances in the book, my language is too close to the sourced material and I should have used quotation marks to set it apart from my text,” Ayres said. “I apologize for these errors and my publisher has agreed to make appropriate changes in future printings of the book.”

“Super Crunchers” analyzes the rise of mass databases and the ways companies, doctors, education experts and government agencies statistically analyze information in those databases to provide insights into human behavior and interactions.

Suspicions about Ayres’ book first arose in a Sept. 16 review of the book in the New York Times. In the review, David Leonhardt ’95 wrote that Ayres borrowed from Leonhardt’s writing. In a Feb. 22, 2006 New York Times article about misdiagnoses by doctors, Leonhardt wrote: “Their son had been sick for months, with fevers that just would not go away. The doctors on weekend duty ordered blood tests, which showed that the boy had leukemia.”

On page 98 of his book, Ayres wrote: “The boy had been sick for months, with a fever that just would not go away. The doctors on duty that day ordered blood tests, which showed that the boy had leukemia.”

Despite the resemblances between the book and text published elsewhere, Bantam Dell spokesperson Barbara Burg said the company stands by Ayres and the book.

“We support Ian Ayres and agree with his position that his book ‘Super Crunchers’ has a sufficient degree of sourcing for a trade book of this nature,” Burg said. “We recognize that a few short passages in the book should have been set apart as quoted material from another source. We are working with Ian to correct these problems in future printings.”

But Alfred Guy, the R.W.B. Lewis Director of the Yale College Writing Center, said he thinks “Super Crunchers” does not measure up to widely accepted academic publishing standards. Guy co-wrote the University’s current regulations on plagiarism and academic scholarship.

“This is wrong in an academic context,” Guy said. “Your obligation [as an academic writer] is to distinguish your voice from the source explicitly.”

Although the examples would violate the standards for academic writing, commercial trade publication standards may differ from those used to measure students and professors writing in an academic context, Guy said.

But Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75, founder of Court TV and the Yale Journalism Initiative and a lecturer in the English department, said commercial trade book standards should not be any more lenient than those imposed on professors and students writing in academia. Brill said he considers the lack of appropriate quotation marks in “Super Crunchers” to be a case of error on Ayres’ part, but not plagiarism.

“Plagiarism is when you steal someone’s words and you don’t attribute it to that person,” Brill said. “I don’t think it quite rises to that, because he is attributing what he’s saying to the person [in the endnotes]. His intent could not have been terribly guilty, because he provided neon signs … for anyone to figure out what he’d done.”

For example, in the book’s endnotes, Ayres cites a 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times by Alex Pham and Jon Healey. In that article, Pham and Healey, describing the shortcomings of programs that track internet shoppers’ preferences, wrote: “A bachelor buying a one-time gift for a baby could, for example, trigger the program to recommend more baby products in the future, when the suggestions are no longer relevant.”

On page 20 of his book Ayres wrote, without quotation marks or other attribution, “A bachelor buying a one-time gift for a baby could, for example, trigger the program into recommending more baby products in the future.”

In a section about Princeton University economist Orley Ashenfelter, Ayres cites a 1990 article in the New York Times by Peter Passell Ph.D. ’70.

In that article, Passell wrote “The statistical fit from 1952 through 1980 is remarkably snug for the red wines of Burgundy as well as Bordeaux.”

On page two of “Super Crunchers,” Ayres wrote: “The statistical fit on data from 1952 through 1980 was remarkably tight for the red wines of Burgundy as well as Bordeaux.”

The Law School official said Ayres has contacted the writers involved and apologized.

“Now that we have looked into the issue thoroughly, we are satisfied that there was no wrongdoing or misappropriation of another’s work,” the official said.

Ayres declined to comment on how the errors occurred.

In an official statement to the News, Law School spokesperson Janet Conroy said the Law School supports Ayres’ response to the circumstance.

“Ian Ayres is a very well respected scholar and author,” Conroy said. “Based on our understanding of the situation at this time, his statement and response seem to be appropriate steps.”

Several writers from whom Ayres borrowed said they were not angry to hear that their work had been used in this way.

Passell said he doubts the verbatim use and close paraphrasing of others’ work by Ayres were intentional.

“It really can happen to anybody,” Passell said. “He couldn’t have meant to do that.”

Passell also said he thought it was unlikely the New York Times or any publication would pursue legal action against Ayres, because it would be difficult for such publications to prove they incurred damages from Ayres’ use of their articles.

Pham said she has no reason to think Ayres copied her work intentionally.

“I’m not outraged or anything,” Pham said. “Perhaps the best possible explanation would be sloppiness. The worst possible explanation, well, we’ll leave that up to the imagination.”

Ayres’ research assistants, Rebecca Kelly LAW ’08, Adam Goldfarb LAW ’09 and Adam Banks LAW ’08, said in a statement to the News that they think Ayres has a strong commitment to academic integrity.

“Professor Ayres is a wonderful professor who is exceptionally conscientious,” Kelly, Goldfarb and Banks said. “He always made clear to us — as he does to all his students and assistants — his strong commitment to academic integrity and to acknowledging any and all work of others: coauthors, students, colleagues, strangers. Any errors in the book were certainly inadvertent, and it is impossible to believe that he ever intended to mislead any reader into thinking the work of someone else was his own.”

Ayres, who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year, also holds a Ph.D in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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