Defending science, history, etc.: A promising precedent?

It seems to me that the case of David Rudovsky and Leonard Sosnov v. West Publishing Corporation (United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 2010), provides an intruiging suggestion for defending genuine science and social studies materials for school curriculum.

A December 21 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reports the outcome of this case. In this case, two law professors were each awarded $2.5 million dollars ($5 million total) for the damage to their reputations caused by the defendant publisher’s actions in publishing a shoddy supplement to a casebook they authored, published under their names.

The supplement was what’s called “pocket parts,” a standard feature of casebooks used as texts for law school classes. A casebook presents excerpts of case opinions, with background information, relevant citations and expert commentary from legal scholarship, and the authors’ commentary, introducing law students to an area of law, as it is actually practiced (at the appellate level, anyway). Since there are new cases every year that advance the area of law in ways that students need to know about, and since it’s not possible to produce a whole new edition of the book each year, a supplemental “pocket parts” is included in the textbook sale, updated each year, until there is a new edition of the entire book.

That’s how it was in the mid-seventies when I went through law school, and apparently it’s still done that way today, despite electronic publishing.

Anyway, apparently West did not want to pay the expected compensation for the authors to do the pocket parts one year, so West went ahead and produced the supplement on its own, without the authors, and then sold it along with the casebook as the authors’ work. The authors complained — and the trial court agreed — that the supplement was beneath the quality of the authors’ scholarship in their area of legal specialization to the extent of threatening to damage their professional reputations.

While the publisher’s conduct threatened the authors’ reputations, the outcome of their lawsuit damages the reputation of West Publishing, itself, as discussed in an article in the Law Librarian Blog.

Although, for purposes of assessing liability and legal damages, the case was concerned with reputation, the same issues present themselves for curricular purposes in terms of credibility and the reliability of sources and media (which on its own is something that students need to learn how to discern).

To provide the current background for the relevance that I’m suggesting, I’ve posted items earlier today on developments in

These all show how the struggle for curriculum integrity will be concerned in the foreseeble future, to a large extent, with conflicts over textbooks and supplementary materials. Developments in all three states involve the integrity of science curricula, for now; but Texas shows that this is not only about science, as it already involves history and the social studies, as well.

Here is the line of attack (or defense) that I think is suggested by the law professors’ case:

I think we need to develop accountability for materials on the part of publishers and the authors whose work is published by those publishers.

This is something I have proposed earlier (on email lists, etc.), before the law professors’ case was decided. One very (very!) knowledgeable veteran of the wars over teaching evolution has told me that this won’t work, because textbook authorship is so lucrative that the scientists would not cooperate.

I’m not so sure; but I feel a need to make this proposal, in any case.

For a more proximate precedent, let’s remember that when the anti-science Kansas State Board of Education based crucial parts of their standards text on text from the NAS national science standards, the NAS and NSTA announced that they were denying Kansas the legal right, under copyright law, to use that material:

. . . the members of the Kansas State Board of Education who produced Draft 2-d of the KSES have deleted text defining science as a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena, blurring the line between scientific and other ways of understanding. Emphasizing controversy in the theory of evolution — when in fact all modern theories of science are continually tested and verified — and distorting the definition of science are inconsistent with our Standards and a disservice to the students of Kansas. Regretfully, many of the statements made in the KSES related to the nature of science and evolution also violate the document’s mission and vision. Kansas students will not be well-prepared for the rigors of higher education or the demands of an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world if their science education is based on these standards. Instead, they will put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they take their place in the world.

We have notified officials at the State Board and the drafting committee of our decision to withhold copyright permission in separate letters.

What I propose is that the scholarly communities (i.e., biologists, historians, etc.) enforce a standard of integrity for authors and publishers of school curriculum materials. There would be sanctions imposed by each discipline on members who allow their names to be used as authorizing non-scientific (non-historical, etc.) crap for classroom use — just as there are sanctions imposed for plagiarism or fabrication of evidence. This could be a matter of informal or unofficial  (but explicit) blacklisting (as in something like an unofficial “hall of shame”), or there could be more substantial penalties in terms of professional standing and reputation (removal from editorial boards?, mention during elections or selection for positions in professional associations?).

If this would become a generally shared norm within the scholarly community, and member disciplines, to the extent that publishers could not find reputable and respected scientists or scholars (or would have to compromise their standards as to) who would allow their names to be used for corrupted textbooks or materials, then it would be a lot easier for individual authors to confront publishers, and easier for publishers to defend themselves for not being able to acquiesce to demands for corrupted products.

This would all require committed scholarly and professional efforts to be clear in educating the broader publics (including journalists, legislators, etc.) to understand the genuine scientific and intellectual (and not just political or ideological) principles at stake.

Maybe this is too ambitious or naive; but it seems to me that without a broader public understanding of these principles, there’s no way to avoid falling into the abyss of politically and ideologically corrupted curriculum.

And this would be one approach to promoting that broader public education.

What do you think?

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] And tt is not only in Social Studies that the integrity of textbooks and curricular materials is being threatened. (Click here for and interesting precedent, and one possible approach to defending textbook integrity.) […]

  2. […] And tt is not only in Social Studies that the integrity of textbooks and curricular materials is being threatened. (Click here for and interesting precedent, and one possible approach to defending textbook integrity.) […]

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