Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research rips off writer, threatens to sue him for plagiarism

Since at least 2001, Colin Purrington, a former Swarthmore Evolutionary Biology prof, has been publishing a great guide to conference posters that is widely read and linked. It's also widely plagiarized, and Purrington sends notices to people whom he catches passing it off as their own work, asking them to remove it. Normally, this works.

But not in the case of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc., a company that receives millions in federal grants to fund biotech research. When Purrington sent CPBR an email telling them off for plagiarizing him, they responded by accusing him of being the plagiarist, threating him with massive damages, and demanding that he remove his own work immediately and permanently.

Purrington responded with a pretty good note about the whole awful mess. Though I think he overstates the copyright case here. In particular, he discounts out of hand the idea that reproduction in educational contexts can't be fair use; this is just wrong -- fair use is fact intensive, and educational use tilts the scales in favor of a successful defense. On the other hand, plagiarism (though not illegal) is a cardinal sin in education, and educators who pass off his work as their own may not be breaking the law, but they are unambiguously violating a core ethic of education and scholarship.

But back to CPBR. This is not only plagiarism, it's also copyright infringement, and it's copyfraud -- claiming copyright on something you hold no rights to. It's unethical, it's illegal, and it's fraudulent. CPBR president and chairman Dorin Schumaker (also sole employee -- who, according to its most recent 990, receives $213,964 a year) is not available for comment, and both its attorneys and whomever answers its phone hung up on the Chronicle of Higher Ed when called for clarification.

So: crooks and cowards.

I called the main number for the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research and was told that the president and chairman, Dorin Schumaker, was not available and might not be available for weeks. Schumaker is the only paid employee listed on the nonprofit’s most recent available Form 990 tax filing (her salary, according to the filing, is $213,964). I then called a number listed for a Dorin Schumaker in St. Simons Island, Ga., where the consortium is based. The person who picked up the phone declined to answer questions and hung up when asked if she was Dorin Schumaker. The consortium’s lawyer, David Metzger, also hung up on me. In a follow-up e-mail, he said he was abiding by his client’s wishes.

If they can explain how they created, in 2005, a document that Purrington posted online years before, they’re keeping that explanation mum for now.

Too often in plagiarism cases, the victim never really gets satisfaction. Maybe the offending passage is taken down. Perhaps a footnote is added. The plagiarist might even manage a mumbled apology. But the penalties are often piddling. This is the first case I’ve heard of in which the apparent victim may be the one who gets punished.

Purrington also states that he prohibits "paraphrase plagiarism, which is when you copy sentences and phrases but make minor word changes to mask your theft" -- which, again, overstates the scope of copyright. Paraphrasing material, quoting, and transformative adaptation are, in fact, classic fair use, despite Purrington's statement that he's "lost my patience with people claiming that Fair Use allows them to bypass my copyright. Really, folks?" Well, yes, really: fair use is the right to make uses and copies without permission from the copyright holder. It's not without limits, but it's also not nothing. Incidental copying, copying for the purposes of commentary and criticism, format-shifting, archiving, adaptation to assistive formats, etc -- all potentially fair use. Scholarship depends on fair use and other limitations in copyright, and while Purrington's poster is a great and informative work that greatly assists scholarship, his statements about the scope of copyright and its limitations and exceptions are greatly harmful to it.

I applaud the good work he's done in his guide, and am firmly on his side when it comes to the terrible treatment he's gotten at the hands of the CPBR. But I wish he'd check out some of the equally excellent guides to fair use so that all of the information he disseminates was just as accurate and useful as his conference poster piece.

Adding Insult to Plagiary? [Chronicle of Higher Education/Tom Bartlett]


  1. maybe they’re just following his tip #27   
    “If you get really bored at a poster session, pretend that somebody’s poster is actually yours. Make things up, make a scene, etc. Timeless fun. Oh, the stories…”

  2. I’m not sure he actually makes the claim that educational use isn’t fair use. He makes the claim educational use is not an excuse to plagiarize (with which I agree 100%).

    Maybe there’s more elsewhere I’m missing though…

  3. Not to worry, the Consortium will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

  4. Hey, thanks for the carefully nuanced account, highly attuned to the rights of both copyright holder and fair use.

    1.  I agree, this is great, and the analysis shines light on the murky edges of the various competing viewpoints that are often expressed. If only “I agree with this fellow on some points, but would constructively engage him on some other” were as killer a headline as “SCANDAL!” more writing would help us think, not just light the torches.

      The linked resources are great too, always excellent to follow a frustrating or unclear reality with a path toward a reasonable understanding and clarity. I’ve been (totally fairly…) bonked with the “just google it, stupid” when asking for more follow-up or information in comments before, but nothing beats some well-curated resources.

    2. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to go into such depth on the minutae of fair use when it’s clearly pretty tangential to the main point of the article.

      It came across to me as Cory being unable to avoid getting on his fair use hobby horse. But that’s just me. (Perhaps he’d like to correct everyone who misunderstands the nature of the GPL while he’s at it?)

      1.  I think it’s fair and useful for a blog to have a point of view, a specialty and even an agenda, which would elevate certain topics above “hobby horse” status. BB seems to take these particular issues as central to its being, and thus, can use individual occurrence as a lens to explore them. I don’t think any pixels have been needlessly slaughtered in this particular pursuit, and for relatively new readers (the internet makes them all the time!) this is pretty helpful context, something sorely lacking in a lot of “headlines only please!” media

    1. Whom is always superior to who, in every situation – just as whilst is always better than while.

      1. According to Thurber, it depends on the formality of the situation. An encounter at a cocktail party: “Whom are you, anyways?”
        Accosting someone on the street: “Who are you, anyways?”

    2. I heard grammar nitpickers are second against the wall when the revolution comes. I hope you’ll hold my hand.

      1. The firing squad will most likely be very appreciative at being informed about whether they’re shooting at, toward, or towards the grammar nitpickers.  :)

      2. I don’t think that it’s all that nitpicky to note that subject and object aren’t the same thing.

  5. The reason I was annoyed with a Fair Use claim is that people were claiming it allowed them to copy me without crediting me (is that so wrong to desire??).  For the record, I checked all the scintillating legal verbiage about Fair Use before telling them they were wrong about this. But, that said, I have removed my mention of Fair Use from my site so that people can better focus their ridicule on The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology, who seem to deserve it more than I do. But I’m biased, I suppose.  By the way, the reason my letter to them (Purdue University, initially) was so rude was because it was the 3rd or 4th time (I’ve lost track) that people had plagiarized from my site, and I was getting increasingly annoyed.  Anyway, huge thanks for covering this!

    1.  Well, that explains what I was missing when I read the post and got confused!

      I think we all wish you luck here, anyway. I don’t think anyone disagrees with you being in the right here against these jerks.

  6. If you do a bit more digging, you may see suggestions that Ms. Schumacher’s organization thinks they own his intellectual property precisely because they administered and funded the research grant that covered its creation via his university.

    1. As this was evidently created as part of his instructional activity, the only possible claimant would be the college, but Swarthmore has formal intellectual property policy that explicitly defaults the rights to such work to the faculty member.

  7. I still can’t believe scientists make posters like they were entering their middle school science fair or that my middle school forcing me to make what was inevitably an ugly, overly information-dense poster was actually preparing me with a useful skill in case I wanted to be a scientist.

    1. Yep, I’m having to make a poster right now for a college course. It feels completely ridiculous.

      1. I went to design school. Pretty much the only thing that you do is make posters. Occasionally models.

    1. til I looked at the check which was of $7473, I accept that my mother in law trully bringing home money in there spare time online.. there best friend had bean doing this for only about 11 months and a short time ago repaid the loans on their place and purchased a top of the range Mercedes. go to……….. ZOO80.ℂom

    1. OK, can anyone who names their cat Professor Purrington please stay in touch so that I can collect photographs from you?  Would love to feature them all on my blog some day.  Some future day when all is calm, that is.  Would be cute.

  8. Well, a big google footprint like this will help, but it would be nice if some public spirited citizen who is in a position to do so made sure that anyone who might be reviewing an NSF grant proposal made by this organization in the future was aware of how they’ve been behaving.   

    1. I just checked out Purrington’s website, an it seems like he’s actually in a perfect position to do this, which is funny, because as far as I can tell, what The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research was plagiarizing and is now fraudulently claiming copyright on, didn’t have anything to do with his particular specialty.  

      I really hope that I’m not being too idealistic in hoping that the scientific community (or the part that  Dorin Schumaker is connected with) will be less tolerant of this kind of bullshit than our society in general is.

      1. Actually, I’ve applied to a few granting agencies for plant biotechnology research (not from CPBR, though) and also spent a year away from Swarthmore College at a major biotech corporation that is a member of CPBR.  Wouldn’t surprise me at all if CPBR first found my website via my research on safety of genetically modified crops. If you want sample, please see

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