Publication Date

November 1, 1993

(Adopted May 1986; amended May 1990 and May 1993)

I. Identifying Plagiarism and Other Misuses

The word plagiarism derives from Latin roots: plagiarius, an abductor. and plagiare, to steal. The expropriation of another author’s text, and the presentation of it as one’s own, constitutes plagiarism, and is a serious violation of the ethics of scholarship. It undermines the credibility of historical inquiry.

In addition to the harm that plagiarism does to the pursuit of truth, it is also an offense against the literary rights of the original author and the property rights of the copyright owner. Detection can therefore result not only in academic sanctions (such as dismissal from a graduate program, termination of a faculty contract, denial of promotion or tenure) but also civil or criminal prosecution. As a practical matter, plagiarism between scholars rarely gets into court. Publishers are eager to avoid adverse publicity, and an injured scholar is unlikely to seek material compensation for misappropriation of what he or she gave gladly to the world. The real penalty for plagiarism is the abhorrence of the community of scholars.

The misuse of the writings of another author, even when one does not borrow the exact wording, can be as unfair, as unethical, and as unprofessional as plagiarism. Such misuse includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another historian’s distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution. Of course, historical knowledge is cumulative, and thus in some contexts, such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, or broad syntheses, the form of attribution, and the permissible extent of dependence on prior scholarship, will be different than in more limited monographs. As knowledge is disseminated to a wide public, it loses some of its personal reference. What belongs to whom becomes less distinct. But even in textbooks a historian should acknowledge the sources of recent or distinctive findings and interpretations, those not yet a part of the common understanding of the profession;-and should never simply borrow and rephrase the findings of other scholars.

Both plagiarism and the misuse of the findings and interpretations of other scholars take many forms. The c1earest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation. More subtle abuses include the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences, or reference to a borrowed work in an early note and then extensive further use without attribution. All such tactics reflect an unworthy disregard for the contributions of others.

II. Resisting Plagiarism and Misuse

All who participate in the community of inquiry, as amateurs or as professionals, as students or as established historians, have an obligation to oppose deception. This obligation bears with special weight on the directors of graduate seminars. They are critical in shaping a young historian's perception of the ethics of scholarship. It is therefore incumbent on graduate teachers to seek opportunities for making the seminar also a workshop in scholarly integrity. After leaving graduate school, every historian will have to depend primarily on vigilant self-criticism. Throughout our lives none of us can cease to question the claims our work makes and the sort of credit it grants to others.

But just as important as the self-criticism that guards us from self-deception is the formation of work habits that protect a scholar from plagiarism or misuse. The plagiarist's standard defense—that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes—is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. A basic rule of good notetaking requires every researcher to distinguish scrupulously between exact quotation and paraphrase. A basic rule of good writing warns us against following our own paraphrased notes slavishly. When a historian simply links one paraphrase to the next, even if the sources are cited, a kind of structural misuse takes place; the writer is implicitly claiming a shaping intelligence that actually belonged to the sources. Faced with charges of failing to acknowledge dependence on certain sources, a historian usually pleads that the lapse was inadvertent. This excuse will be easily disposed of if scholars take seriously the injunction to check their manuscripts against the underlying texts prior to publication. Historians have a right to expect of one another a standard of work quality that deprives plagiarism or misuses of their usual extenuations.

The second line of defense against plagiarism or misuse is organized and punitive. Every institution that includes or represents a body of scholars has an obligation to establish procedures designed to clarify and uphold theirethica1 standards. Every institution that employs historians bears an especially critical responsibility to maintain the integrity and reputation of its staff. This applies to government agencies, corporations, publishing firms, and public service organizations like museums and archives, as surely it does to educational facilities. Usually, it is the employing institution that is expected to investigate charges of plagiarism or misuse promptly and impartially and to invoke appropriate sanctions when the charges are sustained.

Many learned professions are just beginning to think seriously about the need for general policies on fraudulent research and writing. Usually, employing institutions tend to respond to each in an ad hoc manner, with responses ranging from extreme indulgence to uncompromising severity. Penalties for scholarly misconduct should vary according to the seriousness of the offense. A persistent pattern of deception justifies termination of an academic career; some scattered misappropriations may warrant only a public disclosure. What is troubling is not the variation in responses but rather the reluctance of many scholars to speak out about the possible offenses that come to their notice. No one advocates hasty or ill-founded accusations, and the protections of due process should always apply. If, however, charges of plagiarism or gross misuse are sustained by an investigating committee, its findings should ordinarily be made public. When appraising manuscripts for publication, viewing books, or evaluating peers for placement, promotion, and tenure, the trustworthiness of the historian should never be overlooked After all, scholarship flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and candor, which should, in our opinion, include the scrutiny and discussion of academic deception.

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