Plagiarism spat over scientific poster prep advice escalates to legal threats

scientific-poster-300x224Colin Purrington has developed something of a niche in the research world. While teaching evolutionary biology at Swarthmore College, Purrington began developing a how-to manual for putting together poster presentations for meetings — a pursuit that has earned him a little money and some attention.

The result is a website, Designing conference posters, that, by his reckoning, has received some 2 million hits over the years (actually, there was a previous iteration of the site called “Advice on designing scientific posters”).

Not surprisingly, Purrington, who has copyrighted the material on his site, likes to protect his intellectual property. According to Purrington‘s site:

Contents copyright Colin Purrington (1997-2013). Plagiarizing, adapting, and hosting elsewhere prohibited. Included in the plagiarizing prohibition is (1) paraphrase plagiarism, which is when you copy sentences and phrases but make minor word changes to mask your theft, and (2) idea plagiarism, which is when you present an idea as your own when in fact you found it here. Also, I have lost my patience with people claiming that Fair Use allows them to bypass my copyright, so don’t even think about it.

As he states, he frequently finds his words floating around the Internet, and, most of the time, quickly is able to get the offenders to take down the text. But not always.

Several weeks ago, Purrington found substantial passages of his text — he claims — in the appendix of a document from a group called the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc., a Georgia-based mix of industry and academia that doles out federal research money to biotech scientists. The section, Appendix 5, appears near the end of a lengthy document about an annual grant competition and is meant to offer friendly advice about how to create a successful poster for the group’s annual symposium, which will:

provide university scientists with the opportunity to meet industry scientists and to attract matching fund commitments.

The three-page document (these are in the 2011 version) includes many helpful hints, such as:

The number one mistake is to make your poster too long. Densely packed, high word-count posters are basically manuscripts pasted onto a wall, and attract only those viewers who are for some reason excited by manuscripts pasted onto walls.


When using acronyms and numbers (e.g., ATP, 42) within the body of text, scale down the font size by a couple of points so that their sizes don’t overpower the lowercase text, which they would do if you leave them at the default size. Use of “small caps” will sometimes do the trick, but this effect varies with different fonts.

Which, to Purrington, had the ring of the familiar. Here’s what he’d posted, while still at Swarthmore, in 2004 (more on why that’s important in a moment):

The number one mistake is to make your poster too long. Densely packed, high word-count posters are basically manuscripts pasted onto a wall, and attract only those viewers who are for some reason excited by manuscripts pasted onto walls.


When using acronyms and numbers (e.g., ATP, 666 — Purrington says he used to have the number 42 there but changed it. “Satan made me do it, no doubt”) within the body of text, scale down the font size by a couple of points so that their sizes don’t overpower the lowercase text, which they would do if you left them at the default size. Use of “small caps” will sometimes do the trick, but this effect varies with different software.

Many other passages of equivalent similarity appear throughout the two documents. Indeed, side-by-side comparison of his 2004 document with CPBR’s 2012 version shows the texts to be virtually identical.

Thinking it was a simple matter, Purrington fired off a takedown request to Purdue University, a consortium member, where he’d found the text, and waited for satisfaction. Purdue complied quickly. But Purrington was stunned when, not long after, he received a packet of material from the whitest of white-shoe Washington lawfirms, Arnold & Porter, accusing him of violating CPBR’s copyright! Turnabout is fair play, we suppose.

The impressively threatening missive — here’s the PDF — instructs Purrington to cease and desist his unlawful breach of CPBR’s copyright, else severe penalties shall ensue. (In other words, CPBR says Purrington isn’t a poster master but a … wait for it … im-poster.)

We have retained copies of your unlawful copies to preserve as evidence. Your actions constitute copyright infringement in violation of United States copyright laws. Under 17 U.S.C. 504, the consequences of copyright infringement include damages of between $750 and $30,000 per work, at the discretion of the court, and damages of up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement. If you continue to engage in copyright infringement after receiving this letter, your actions will be evidence of “willful infringement.”

It also expresses a sensitivity unique to menacing lawyer letters, when it confesses to have been deeply troubled by Purrington’s desire, expressed in his cheeky takedown letter, to have “the head” of the person who allegedly violated his copyright. (To be fair, Purrington tells us he offered to pay for shipping, “which can be considerable for human body parts.”)

This language was interpreted by CPBR’s staff as a physical threat against their personal safety. Should you make any further similar threats, CPBR staff will have no choice by to contact authorities to protect themselves.

Despite the legal elephant gun here, Purrington insists he has primacy in the case.

CPBR claims it drafted its version in 2005. I wrote mine starting in 1997!  The archive has many versions of my site before they even had a draft, so I could not have copied them.

Purrington, who says he will be retaining the Philadelphia firm of Pepper Hamilton for his defense, has posted his own list of demands:

Personally, I’d like (1) a check from them that fully covers my legal costs, (2) a written apology from the  CEO that is posted on their home page for 1 year, (3) a message emailed to all past proposal applicants and research directors stating that Appendix 5 was plagiarized from my site, and (4) an all-expense paid trip to St Simons Island, Georgia [where CPBR is based] for me and my family, to compensate us for the pain and suffering that their bullying has caused.  And about that last one — we better end up having a damn good time on St Simons Island.  No poison in the soup, or anything like that!  Or maybe (5) $150,000 in damages, for each of the years that they infringed upon my copyright?? Oh, and (6) it goes without saying that they can never, ever use my material in the future…so if you are on their mailing list and get the next announcement, please send me a copy if you see my text in Appendix 5 again (I’ll send you cookies if you’re the first!). Finally, (8) I think it would be good to have the plagiarizer fired — that amount of plagiarizing in college would get you expelled for a semester, and is equally inexcusable in the private sector…there should be consequences.

Calls for heads on platters are notably absent.

We attempted to reach David Metzger, the A&P lawyer representing CPBR — and, evidently, a go-to guy when your government contract is in jeopardy — multiple times but did not hear back from him. We also asked the consortium to comment but a representative did not respond.

Although we’ve tried not to take a position in his case — although we do know what it’s like to have someone steal our content and then say we’re plagiarizing them — we will say that we’re troubled by the heavy-handed approach here. Setting aside the question of who has true ownership of the words and ideas, is it really necessary to involve the services of an expensive attorney, who probably billed his client some bucks simply to ignore our two voice mail messages, to work this thing out?

55 thoughts on “Plagiarism spat over scientific poster prep advice escalates to legal threats”

  1. Judging by your account, Purrington sounds a great deal too big for his boots. It would be bad enough if it was original science. The sort of things that you quote have been written a million times before. They aren’t even slightly original. The attempt to make money out of it sounds simply pathetic.

    1. Oh, come on. Purrington is having fun with these pompous, self-righteous lawyers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a takedown request if your material has been plagiarized. Surely CPBR should have acknowledged the source and/or made more substantial alterations to Purrington’s original text. A&P and CPBR deserve having their feet held to the fire for this sort of outrageous perversion of the legal system.

      1. “… having fun with these pompous, self-righteous lawyers…”.

        The name of the lawyer is David Metzger; “Metzger” is German for “butcher”; Purrington asked to have “the head” of the person who violated his copyright.

        Endless opportunities to have some fun here.

    2. I kind of like that he’s standing up to the law folks. Someone has to, and a lot of us are too busy right now to do it.

      But yeah, this does sound a bit like….common knowledge that most grad students are told by their PIs. Well, mine did, at any rate.

      OTOH, he did write it all up nicely and put it in one place- if all he wants is attribution, then perhaps he’s got a point. I’m starting to think we should start making a few distinctions in intellectual property law before everyone sues everyone into oblivion.

    3. Where did he try to make money off it? It’s clear plagiarism (on someone’s part). If there is no value in the original words then they wouldn’t have been worth stealing.

      1. Oddly enough, people hire to me to come give talks on poster design. I know it’s not something you’d see on TedTalks, but people have asked and they are fun to give if the audience is in the poster mood. People have also hired me to consult on the design of their posters. Both types of invitations come because people are reading my page, which itself generates zero income directly (I’ve turned down offers to place ads for printer companies and such). In reality, it costs me money to put the page up, since I have to pay the yearly hosting fee. I used to have a Paypal button at the bottom so that people could buy me a virtual beer if they ended up getting a poster prize, but I took that off a few months ago because only one person donated. Maybe I should put it back…I really need a Rogue Imperial IPA XS this week.

        1. The Streisand effect will work for you CP! Put that beer button back by all means. Now I really want to visit your poster site. Will surely pass you a imperial pint if I like something!

    4. Obviously someone found it useful enough. Why else would they copy it nearly in verbatim. I don’t buy the argument that it is not original. Facts are free game. Carefully drafted thoughts are protected, as they should be.

    5. You could say the same thing about every diet and self-help book ever written (which you might also find pathetic, but plenty of people make their living off it). The point is that he created the actual text expressing the ideas, which makes it his intellectual property. I think it’s fairly outrageous for this organization to not only use his plagiarized material, but to claim it as theirs and demand that he pay them for the use of his own work. Given that, I’d say his response is entirely appropriate.

    6. I completely agree with David. If it was a patent, it would be void by prior art. The basic tips for creating a good poster have been around for a long time. if you follow these simple design principles, then it is up to your content to have a god poster. But it won’t be good because of bad design.

      1. But it’s not a patent, which has entirely different rules from copyright. It doesn’t matter if the concepts that Purrington wrote about were widely known or not. The only thing that matters is that those were his words, and they are very much copyrightable and entirely deserving of protection under the rules of copyright law.

        1. Precisely! The storyline “good guy meets girl and they fight and then she meets a bad boy and then has a change of heart and goes back to the good guy in the last chapter and they live happily ever after” is nothing new – but if an author put their own twist and unqiue voice to the story THAT IS THEIR PROPERTY. Just because everyone has a bicycle doesn’t give me the right to go take yours for a spin if I feel like it.

    7. While it does sound as though Purrington’s writing is hardly ground-breaking in terms of the ideas, it’s still his writing. One can’t just use it without attribution, let alone use it and sue him for stealing it from you!

        1. Yes, and this:

          “o, I have lost my patience with people claiming that Fair Use allows them to bypass my copyright, so don’t even think about it.”

          is BS.

          Fair use does allow people to bypass his copyright. It’s why this very blog can quote from his blog and that of the “consortium” without need for permission. There are limits to fair use, but his unqualified dismissal of fair use is cavalier and counter factual. It diminishes my sympathy for his plight somewhat.

          1. I don’t think that’s what he’s saying, and if you notice from his letter and other writing he’s done it uses a light-hearted joking tone not to mention he’s got the resource there for the use of students and academics, hence the reminder about plagiarism. Obviously has had multiple occasions of people posting up his work (probably in it’s entirety) and then claiming Fair Use as an excuse or justification for the breach. Fair Use does allow you to bypass copyright, but it’s limited as to how much you use and how you can use it. I don’t think he actually has a problem at all with Fair Use, with proper attribution

          2. “Fair Use” is not a legal right, nor a legal defense when you choose to use someone’s copyrighted material. Many myths abound regarding Fair Use, including this one “as long as I cite it and it’s being used for educational purposes, then I can do what I want with it.” Umm, wrong. One of the most common ways people violate someone else’s copyright is by reproducing in part or whole the content, and distributing it electronically to the public. We just received a take-down notice last year for one of our dissertators because he reproduced in its entirety, a survey instrument that was copyrighted by Pearson Inc. This survey instrument is sold to clinics, institutions, etc., who may then utilize it to collect data. But, copyright also protects the exclusive rights of the copyright owner when it comes to reproduction and distribution. By copying the instrument in its entirety and including it as an appendix in a dissertation that is freely available in an Open Access database, this student violated two rights of the copyright owner. Luckily for him, Pearson only demanded the retraction of the appendix and links to the document that contained the appendix. Once that was done, the student’s dissertation was able to be publicly displayed once more. Of course, it caused an almost year long delay in disseminating the student’s work, which was detrimental to his future research and career timeline.

            While it’s true one cannot copyright “facts” or “unexpressed ideas”, once a person has put that idea down in tangible form (whether by writing, recording, etc.) and it is a work of original authorship, then that work becomes copyrighted, whether or not it is marked as such. To say that the copyrighted work is mediocre or commonplace does not erase the protection that copyright offers. Furthermore, the company/organization hybrid that outrightly violated his copyright by copying word-for-word much of the heart of the work, did not respond with a claim of Fair Use – likely because they knew they were in an indefensible position. Purrington did not initially threaten them with anything, based on what I read in the above article. Had this company done its due diligence and requested permission to use Purrington’s “unique expression of the ideas” that have “been around forever,” Purrington may have granted them permission, with or without certain limitations. But we’ll never know, because whoever plagiarized him never did due diligence.

            Someone else asserted that Purrington is wrong to think that copyright protects one from plagiarism as opposed to just copying. Well, copying content without attribution and passing it off as your own content is one form of plagiarism. Copying, or reproducing, content, is also a violation of one of the exclusive rights afforded to the owner of a copyright. No one is saying that copyrighting actually stops someone from plagiarizing, or from infringing on a copyright – people will continue to do both – but it does give the owner legal standing in asserting his/her rights. Copyright law is property law, folks.

            Lastly, Fair Use does not allow someone to bypass copyright. If you cannot obtain permission (and by the way, many copyright owners, especially publishing companies, will give you permission for a fee) and it is vital that you use this material in your own work, then it is a judgment call on your part and a risk you take on as well. You should perform a Four Factor analysis of the work you intend on using so that if or when you are accused of infringing on that person’s/company’s copyright, you can produce your efforts at due diligence as well as your “rationale” for why your use fits Fair Use. Again, it is not a legal defense, and it’s only in an actual trial will the determination ever be made that your use of copyrighted material constitutes Fair Use.

            Disclaimer: I am a thesis and dissertation officer at a major university and have begun to provide information on copyright and authoring issues to our graduate students. Trust me, this information is sorely needed in our world of cut-and-paste everything from the internet because it’s a free-for-all.

    1. Colin Purrington produced original content providing lots of useful tips on how to produce effective scientific posters. He publish it online with copyright notice so that people could read and learn from it.

      CPBR copy & pasted the content into their own documents, without permission, stripped all attribution to Colin from it, and then claim their own copyright on it.

      Colin contacted them asking them to remove the content, they responded by siccing a lawyer on to him to sue HIM for stealing content from THEM.

      Hope that clears it up 🙂

      1. Thank you for the clarification. After reading the responses so far, I tend to side with Colin Purrington. I will be upset if someone takes my ideas and content. Looking at Purrington’s website, I would say that there is original content. Those who argue otherwise may be misunderstanding the meaning of originality.

        I’m guessing here, but it will be easier for CPBR to seek Purrington’s permission to link to his website. Again, I’m guessing. But an amicable request from a nonprofit is usually granted. After all, IMHO, it is good for Purrington to have wide exposure.

  2. Oops. I don’t think my prior comment made it. Anyway, I find this issue very interesting, but I also recall a very helpful and detailed book I read in the early 90’s called “Research: How to Plan, Speak, and Write About It,” published by Springer. It had an excellent chapter concerning poster presentations and how to prepare them, and I would be interested in seeing if Mr. Purrington took any of his material or advice from that book, which precedes his “copyright” by nearly 12 years. The information in that book, by the way, helped me win a couple of poster prizes at scientific meetings.

    1. Do I understand this correctly: You once read a book about a similar subject and think that’s enough reaon to start speculating Purrington plagiarized it?

      1. It’s a riff of Purrington’s overboard copyright claims, where he claims ownership of not merely his specific expression, his actual words in their entirety, but of the facts and ideas on his page, which he says people may not use. Yet Purrington did not invent the ideas he presents, so I’d say he is estopped from making such claims. Hence, I assume, the reference. Tongue in cheek, I had assumed.

  3. “(2) idea plagiarism, which is when you present an idea as your own when in fact you found it here” Nope, sorry. Ideas are not copyrightable. Only creative expressions of ideas are copyrightable. So we have a battle-of-the-douche-nozzles here, apparently. A pox on both.

    1. Yeah, have to agree. The initial reporting I read made this into “consortium rips off funny guy then threatens to sue him,” which is the case. They left out the “‘funny’ guy claims copyright on facts and ideas and says there is no such thing as fair use.” :-p

      1. I think many of you are taking his claims about plagiarism a little too literally. He obviously has a tongue in cheek writing style. He can put whatever little warning he wants on his website about prohibiting plagiarism. I’ll reserve judgment that his behavior is even close to on par with the consortium or its attorney until he sues someone for a copyright violation for expressing a similar idea.

  4. I did Google searches on a couple of the key phrases used by both Purrington and CPBR. Both the specific language and the ideas seem to be rather widespread.

    1. Of course it is. It’s basic graphics design, minimize clutter, maximize contrast between your text and the background etc.

    2. The “specific language” is widespread because Purrington wrote the best poster advice out there. Purrington is totally in the right here. Of course, some of the “ideas” about how to make a good poster are “out there,” but Purrington’s presentation is unique – it’s funny, readable, well organized, in a way that most “HOW TO MAKE A GOOD POSTER” stuff out there is not – you tend to get ugly bulleted lists and opinionating about how a particular font is “correct” blah blah. That’s why everyone who gets assigned (or fancies themself an expert) to give a talk on “HOW TO MAKE A GOOD POSTER” copies Purrington. So now, ironically, it’s SO “out there” that people are thinking, what’s this guy Purrington’s problem, all this stuff is “out there” … It’s HIS STUFF that’s out there.

  5. Two interesting details in the cease and desist letter. First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a demand letter of any kind marked “proprietary and confidential — not for public release.” How could anyone claim that a cease-and-desist letter was itself proprietary or confidential, or claim the right to prohibit public release by the recipient?* Second, it’s peculiar that the letter doesn’t expressly deny plagiarism by CPBR — which makes one wonder all the more.

    * I just did a bit of research and have found that claiming the ability to restrict publicity for C&D letters is a recent fashion among those who write such things — but it remains legally vacuous.

  6. “(2) idea plagiarism, which is when you present an idea as your own when in fact you found it here.”
    There is not a single original idea there.

    1. He never claimed that all of the ideas are his own. A copyright protects the language used, which CPBR blatantly copied (plagiarised) with cursory paraphrasing.

  7. As I noted in a post on my blog when Retraction Watch was subject to a fake takedown notice over the Anil Potti retractions, fans of Douglas Adams will remember this particular legal move well. An editor cunningly sent a copy of the Hitch Hikers Guide back in time to allow the originators of text plagiarised in the Guide to be sued for break of copyright. Hitch Hikers guide won the case, of course. Douglas Adams was quite prescient!

  8. The question here that can lead to the answer about the perceived absurdity of the lawyers’ claims would be this: Who pays the lawyers’ fees? I believe that even if lawyers lost the case, the fees will be paid by the university, corporation, consortium, etc. And lawyers should be very grateful to the people who gave them work. No absurdity.

  9. Without taking sides here, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a “fair use” issue. Stanford University defines fair use thusly

    In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an illegal infringement.

  10. Is there a reason most of the links in this post aren’t showing up? They appear to lead to “Google Attachments” and when I click it tells me that *MY* Gmail account is temporarily unavailable (though, it is available). Is it just me or can others actually see the documents?

    1. Not sure why that happened, but we’ve fixed the three affected links. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  11. The issue here is not whether Purrington was a little pompous, officious, or legally misleading or ignorant in his website. This doesn’t harm anyone. What does harm people is the routinely dishonest and divisive behaviour of lawyers, and this is what we should be up in arms about.

  12. I think the issue is not that they gave the same advice (have white space, don’t use too much text, etc.) but that they used what looks like an entire page word for word from his website. The ideas are not original, but his exact wording is his. And they should have just put a note in their material attributing it to Purrington. Its not like they are in the graphic design business and the originality of their poster guidelines is at the core of their mission and reason for being…

  13. Strange that Purrington is accused of trying to make money from this or being “too big for his boots” just because he is making a joke of these lawyers (“damn good time on St Simons Island”, come on!). You can be sued for thousands for using a single copied image on your personal webpage, one stolen mp3 = hundreds of kiloeuros/dollars, in germany you have to have an impressum/masthead on your family webpage or you can be and will be sued by lawyers.
    He is clearly turning the methods used by The Man against The System for fun, so what?
    I wish him every success and a nice trip to St Simons Island.

      1. And if you end up getting the trip, let me know when you go and Dinner’s on me. I hadn’t heard of you before this, but you just gained another fan for many different reasons. And I’m not overflowing with extra cash, but if they push it and you have a legal defense fund – donating will be on the top of my list.

  14. From what I’ve seen so far, the behavior of the CPBR in this case looks to be appalling. Sure, there is a general set of agreed upon sound advice regarding posters that one could adopt and present without infringing copyright. There’s nothing special about saying, “Posters should have about 35% white space,” if that’s the generally known recommendation. And, of course, when people make a list of what they know as the generally agreed upon sound advice, the lists will look similar. Such a result wouldn’t necessarily be plagiarism or copyright infringement, but that seems to be clearly NOT the issue here. This is not merely coincidental generally similarity of advice, nor is it merely coincidental appearance of identical phrases. (There are only so many ways to say, “Posters should have about 35% white space,” after all.) The CPBR appendix has harnessed and used a distinctive voice and sense of humor. It would extremely unlikely for two different writers to produce something so /distinctively/ similar. Given that, the close similarities in sentence structure, organization, and example choice are more damning than they might otherwise be.

    It’s only salt in the would that the very sense of humor they are willing to steal from Purrington is identified by their lawyers as grisly and inappropriate. Thanks go to Purrington from all of us who enjoy the expectation that our intellectual property will be respected even when publicly accessible. I do hope that St. Simons Island is worth the effort.

    1. Exactly – his material is very distinctive because of his good writing and his humor. There’s really very little chance of someone else coming up with his exact wording.

  15. These discussions tend to found over confusion of the concepts of copyright violation and plagiarism. While they often go together, they are not the same thing. For example, if I take the ideas from Purrington’s web site, change the order, and express them in my own words, without giving credit to Purrington, then it is not copyright violation, but it is still plagiarism. It is still plagiarism even if I have Purrington’s permission to do this. And if you reproduce my expression of those plagiarised ideas (in a manner that is not “fair use”), then you are guilty of a copyright violation–and the fact that I myself plagiarised the ideas to begin with is completely irrelevant.

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