Letters to the Editor

Plagiarism Policy and the Professional Division

Peter Charles Hoffer, March 1992

I have read with great concern the alteration of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct regarding plagiarism. As reported in the May/June 1991 Perspectives, the Professional Division "proposed" and the AHA Council "approved" an amendment deleting the "intent to deceive" clause. This seems to me a mistake of serious and far-reaching proportions.

First, given the Professional Division's and the AHA's growing involvement with increasingly publicized cases of imputed plagiarism, I question the propriety of a small number of scholars deciding what constitutes plagiarism. The "Professional Division" appears to speak for the AHA and the AHA for the profession, but the "Professional Division" is represented by six professors selected for three-year terms by a small proportion of the membership of the AHA, in turn a small proportion of the historical profession. I do not recall the "Division"—in reality the six members of the Division—ever asking the members for our views on this question, or circulating a proposed change of the Statement. There is in our constitutional tradition a custom of ratification of important "amendments" to our laws. Although a change in the text of a document prepared by the AHA may not be regarded by the Council in the same light as an amendment of an article of our constitution, the consequences of the deletion of the "intent to deceive" clause are so momentous, and the cases so publicized, that the membership should have been included in the process of determining a standard for "professional accountability." That the Council approved this revision without consulting the membership merely compounds the error.

Second, in effect, the revised text of the Statement has changed plagiarism from a willful negligence standard to a strict liability standard. On its face, this is a dangerous emendation for a profession that is constantly revising its own writings. We may or may not stand upon the shoulders of our predecessors, but we share documents with each other and exchange ideas freely. Under its most generous and forgiving interpretation, the revised text shifts the burden of proof to the accused. In its most stringent form, the new text makes the accused's evidence irrelevant. Can the defendant in such cases insist that he or she did not see the plaintiff's work, much less use it, or is such insistence barred by the deletion of the "intent to deceive" clause? The revised version of the Statement makes burden of proof questions nightmarish.

Third, the revision of the plagiarism standard raises procrustean professional dilemmas. What is one to do when one's publisher insists that the number of footnotes and quotations must be curtailed, or a reference to another scholar's published work is accidentally omitted? What if quotation marks are left out? Should the charge of plagiarism be allocated among scholars, editors, typesetters, and publishers according to some formula? More vexing still, how are we to treat textbooks under the new standard? The authors of textbooks utilize other scholars' research and conclusions, but textbook publishers view footnotes and endnotes with horror, and the bibliographical suggestions at the ends of chapters never give enough information to trace the sources of the textbook authors' ideas. Freelance writers and popular historians borrow even more widely than the authors of textbooks, but often fail to cite sources or cite so broadly that much of their work has a free-floating quality absent from academic scholarship, albeit a quality that does not bar them from obtaining academic honors and prizes.

Fourth, the punishment for plagiarism varies greatly, as the cases cited on page 8 of the May/June 1991 Perspectives demonstrate. In criminal law, strict liability offenses rarely allow for such latitude in sentencing, and that for good reason. Discretion in determining penalties must rest upon an assessment of the degree of intentionality. By deleting the "intent to deceive" clause, the AHA violates this sound premise.

The AHA is a supporter of academic freedom, but the transformation of plagiarism into a strict liability offense with a stroke of the pen gives to university administrators more power—unchecked power—than many more notorious debasers of academic freedom dare to claim. There is a growing climate of self-persecuting hysteria among American academics, accusations and counter-accusations of political correctness fostered by government agencies and political factions in and out of academe. The AHA should not add to this climate by changing the statement on plagiarism, at least not without a clear signal from a majority of its members. Please reconsider.

Peter Charles Hoffer
University of Georgia

The Professional Division Responds

On behalf of the AHA's Professional Division, I would like to respond to Professor Hoffer's letter. While we do not believe the Division's or the Association's actions are immune to criticism, we do find Professor Hoffer's arguments misleading and are reluctant to allow the discussion to move forward without clarification of the following points.

Professor Hoffer begins by questioning the "propriety" of the Professional Division acting on behalf of the AHA. The five members of the Division—not six, as indicated in Professor Hoffer's letter—have been duly elected by the membership of the Association to act on its behalf on professional issues, consistent with the AHA's Constitution and Bylaws. To be sure, he is right in indicating that all Association members do not vote, and that is unfortunate. But all are encouraged to vote, and there is always a choice of candidates.

Furthermore, at every step, the Division has presented its proposed changes to the AHA Council for study and action. The latter body is the elected governing board of the Association, and its members take action as duly elected representatives of the larger membership. While certainly the United States has a constitutional tradition of ratification of amendments, there is also a tradition of representative government that provides the context for action by the AHA's Divisions and the Council. Amendment of the Association's constitution and bylaws requires notice to and participation by members, but the statements on professional conduct are not part of that document nor are they subject to the same procedures. It is as appropriate for the Council to "legislate" within the context of the AHA constitution as it is for Congress to legislate within the context of the U.S. Constitution.

Professor Hoffer also questions whether the AHA should speak for the profession. While all historians are not members of the AHA, a sizeable portion of them are—the Association is the largest professional organization in the discipline in the United States, exceeding by half again the individual membership of the next largest organization. Moreover, the AHA is the only professional organization that encompasses all geographical, chronological, and topical specializations in history and all work contexts. As the "umbrella" organization in history, the AHA feels that it has a special responsibility to provide broad leadership not only in areas such as ethics but also in research and in teaching. In that context, we provide our Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct and offer to review complaints brought under it, regardless of whether the parties involved are members of the Association. That is consistent with our act of incorporation by the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, which authorizes the AHA to act "in the interest of American history, and of history in America."

Professor Hoffer then proceeds to challenge the wisdom of the revision of the plagiarism statement in 1990, when the Council approved the Professional Division's recommendation that the phrase "with intent to deceive" be deleted. That recommendation was made as a consequence of the Division's review of complaints over a four-year period. In virtually every case, the alleged plagiarist sought protection under that clause, claiming innocence even when facing multiple complaints. The Division's concern is not with intention, which is virtually impossible to determine with certainty, but simply with deception—expropriation by one individual of another's work without proper attribution. Sharing of sources and exchange of ideas is not a problem as long as there is appropriate attribution. At the same time, no one is expected to cite sources to which he or she has not had access—charges of expropriation or misuse are meaningless without evidence that the accused had access to the material in question.

As for Professor Hoffer's concerns about the deletion of quotation marks or footnotes by a publisher or printer, the focus of the AHA's efforts is on the conduct of authors, and we do not hold the latter accountable for decisions made by others. Such decisions reflect publishing policies, perhaps ill-advised, but cannot be construed as scholarly deception. Concerning textbooks and similar types of publication where footnotes are minimized, the AHA's statement is clear—the same "conscientious display of sources" is not required, but "the prohibition against reproducing the sentences of others without quotation or acknowledgement applies just as strongly..."

Finally, Professor Hoffer discusses "punishment" and "latitude in sentencing." The Professional Division sentences no one; it merely renders a finding and communicates it to the parties involved. The Division may on occasion advise the parties involved about an appropriate course of action, but our policies and procedures do not allow punishment or sentencing. The most extreme course of action is full public disclosure, which requires another layer of review by the Council and has never yet been sought.

Professor Hoffer closes by suggesting that the AHA's actions undermine academic freedom. That is simply untrue. The AHA's role is to provide a vehicle for review of complaints, taking them out of the political or public arena and addressing them within a professional context that protects both due process and academic freedom. Finally, at issue here is not "political correctness" but plagiarism, and Professor Hoffer's attempt to tie the two together is unfortunate and confusing.

The Professional Division is always open to comments from the membership regarding its activities and will give due consideration to the concerns raised by Professor Hoffer.

Susan Socolow
Vice-President, Professional Division
Emory University