Glencoe's thieves

Editor's Introduction -- Many schoolbook-writers are crooks who steal material and try to pass it off as their own work. They steal text or illustrations from schoolbooks written by other people, or from respectable books or journals, or even from documents issued by state education agencies. In the article below, you will read about some blatant and clumsy thievery performed by crooks who were working for the Glencoe Division of the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company. This article ran as a sidebar to a review of Glencoe's middle-school book Merrill Physical Science.
from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1993

What a Shame!

Lawrence S. Lerner

In the teacher's edition of Merrill Physical Science, dated in 1993, a promotional blurb on page 4T says:

The themes of science are broad, unifying ideas that integrate the major concepts of many disciplines. . . . Several unifying themes pervade Merrill Physical Science. . . . Major themes in the text are

  • energy
  • stability
  • patterns of change
  • scale and structure
  • systems and interactions

In the State of California's current Science Framework, published in 1990, a passage on pages 26 and 27 says:

The themes of science are ideas that integrate the different scientific disciplines. . . . Six themes . . . are developed in this framework. They are:
  1. Energy
  2. Evolution
  3. Patterns of change
  4. Scale and Structure
  5. Stability
  6. Systems and Interactions

So we are looking at a case of theft -- the kind of theft that is called plagiarism. Merrill's writers have taken material from the Framework, have not acknowledged where they got it, and are pretending that it is their own work. As one of the writers of the Framework, I find this case interesting -- especially because of what the Merrill gang left behind, at the scene of the crime.

The theft was clearly done in haste. To see why I say this, open the Framework and read the sentence that immediately follows the list of themes. "The presentation of science," the Framework says, "could be organized along other thematic lines; possibilities include actions, reactions, interactions, matter, diversity and unity, hierarchy, energy and matter, and many others." There is no evidence, however, that Merrill's writers ever contemplated other themes or even tried to do so. It seems to me that they just copied the names of some themes from the Framework and then ran away.

Neither is there any evidence that they actually tried to use the themes that they copied. During my reading of Merrill Physical Science, I haven't seen even a token use of unifying themes, and I certainly haven't found that unifying themes "pervade" the book. Merrill's claim seems to be nothing more than that -- an empty claim.

Along with ideas, the thieves left something else behind. Though the Framework gives six examples of possible themes, Merrill's writers made off with only five. Did the sixth -- evolution -- escape their notice? Or did they imagine that evolution was a purely biological phenomenon, irrelevant to the physical sciences? It is hard to see how they could have imagined any such thing if they really had read the Framework, which says (on page 29): "Evolution in a general sense can be described as change through time, and virtually all natural entities and systems change through time. . . . Evolution is not confined to the earth and its systems but extends to the entire universe."

Finally, why have Merrill's writers failed to tell that their statements about themes have come from the Framework? Regardless of whether their book does or doesn't actually use themes, they could have acknowledged the Framework as the source of their material, and they thus could have avoided committing plagiarism. Why have they not done so?

My guess is that Merrill wants to have things both ways. The list of themes is evidently intended to appeal to educators in California, who will know where the list originated; Merrill presumably wants these people to regard the list as evidence that the book meets California's requirements. At the same time, I assume, Merrill doesn't want to mention the California Framework outright, because educators in other states may not want to buy a book if they think that has been written specifically for California.

What a shame! Merrill could have avoided this mess by taking the high road: honest work, an honest attempt to understand science, and honest writing.

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties are condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education.


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