Court Refuses to Hear Plagiarism Case

Suing your professor on charges of stealing your ideas may become more difficult in New York state, thanks to a recent court decision. Judge Emily Jane Goodman of the Supreme Court for New York City last month dismissed a suit brought by Sheng-Ming Ma, a former Columbia University Ph.D. candidate in mathematics, who claimed his thesis adviser had misappropriated his work.

Ma alleged that his former professor, along with the professor's colleague at Princeton University, had plagiarized his work on oscillatory integrals and published it in a prestigious math journal (Science, 23 April, p. 562). Columbia investigated in 1997, found no merit in the allegations, and asked Ma to apologize. He refused and was expelled. Ma then sued the university and several professors for damages; the university responded that the courts had no authority under New York law to become involved in such "purely academic" matters.

Judge Goodman agreed. In her ruling, she declined to delve into the credibility of two competing math-rich arguments, writing: "This court cannot fathom how I or a jury could decide which theorem is correct." Disputes like this must be settled in the academic community, she concluded.

The decision may put a chill on other cases in New York including, perhaps, a suit by nutritionist Antonia Demas claiming that her adviser at Cornell University took her ideas. But Demas, who has won two judicial rulings already, says she is confident that her case "is very different" from Ma's case and will be argued on different grounds--if it ever goes to trial. Right now, proceedings are on hold, for the court has disqualified Cornell's attorney and ordered the university to find a new one.