Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Think Tanks: Power, Policy, and Plagiarism

A new working paper was just published by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University titled "Think Tanks' Dirty Little Secret: Power, Public Policy, and Plagiarism."  The paper was written by Dr. J.H. Snider, President of iSolon.org and Non-residential Fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Here is an abstract of the paper:
In academics, idea plagiarism is a sin of the first magnitude, whereas in business and politics, it is considered, well, academic - of no practical significance. Where do think tanks fit on that spectrum? Are they fish or fowl, or neither?

Compared to academic scholars, think tank scholars have a greater incentive to plagiarize ideas. The pressure to claim credit in both scholarly communities is great, but the pressure to give credit is relatively weak in think tanks. One reason is that the problem-solution structure of think tank work doesn’t include a contribution-to-literature section. Another reason is that think tanks don’t publish their work in peer-reviewed publications, which are well-designed for cost-effectively weeding out idea plagiarism.

Think tanks may claim to respect original work as much as universities. But that doesn’t mean it’s in their self-interest to act in accordance with those values. This paper provides eight case studies related to such behavior. The paper assumes that if think tank scholars, like academic scholars, claim to provide original work, then they should be held accountable for proving that they in fact do so. The author hopes that others will investigate the limitations of such an assumption.

Unfortunately, the two traditional approaches to discouraging idea theft, passing intellectual property law (primarily used in commerce) and relying on private institutions to cultivate social sanctions (primarily used in academics) are not well suited for think tanks. An alternative approach is a hybrid policy where law is used to strengthen social sanctions. For example, libel and transparency laws pertaining to think tanks could be reformed to encourage a more robust market in evaluations of public policy credit claims.
The paper includes case studies from think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), New America Foundation (NAF), and the Cato Institute.

Dr. Snider has commented on think tanks in a variety of other publications, including:

From 2001 to 2007 Dr. Snider was a Markle Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, and Research Director at the New America Foundation (NAF).