Reflections on Plagiarism, Part 2: "The Object of Trials"
Peter Charles Hoffer, March 2004
Editor's Note: In this second installment of a two-part essay, the author considers the various possible responses to plagiarism. The first part, "A Guide for the Perplexed," appeared in the February 2004 issue of Perspectives.
The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired; it is but an example for our instruction and guidance.1
The first installment of this essay on plagiarism explored definitions of plagiarism and methods to avoid it. This second installment addresses itself to remedies for those individuals and institutions who believe that they have encountered an instance of plagiarism.
The response of readers, institutions, and other parties to allegations or findings of plagiarism will vary with the relation of the individual or group to the plagiarism in question and the plagiarized work(s). For example, an author whose work has been misappropriated has a different interest in responding to the plagiarism than a publisher whose product has been plagiarized. An employer not directly linked to the work itself but is connected to the suspected plagiarist has another kind of interest in the case and will respond accordingly. The ability of the parties involved to respond will also depend upon practical considerations like office staffing and related policy concerns—such as weighing fears of censorship against evidence of authorial misconduct.
As I have suggested, plagiarism is always a moral and professional offense and only rarely a legal one. Nevertheless, in reality, accusations and responses are often carried on in the shadow of the courthouse. The potential loss of reputation, income, and employment for the accused and the counterbalancing threat of suit for defamation or interference with contractual relations by the accused against the accuser is never far from everyone's mind. Thus, although the following advice is not and should not be taken as legal counsel, questions of law run through it.2
Responsible Parties and Their Duties
Those who live and work in the community of scholars—students, scholars, teachers, grant officers, employers, archivists, and librarians, among others—who know or who have reason to believe that a work is plagiarized have a positive ethical obligation to be concerned. One must not promote the launching of witch hunts, nor is rumor and gossip an acceptable form of denunciation, but the AHA's Statement on Standards urges scholars to be aware of the dangers of plagiarism and to act responsibly when it is uncovered.
First and foremost, teachers (and instructors in graduate research seminars) should make plain to their students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Most schools have a clear and rigorous anti-plagiarism policy. Plagiarism by students is just as serious—indeed, is often regarded as more serious—as plagiarism by published authors. Conversely, graduate students in particular need to know about plagiarism of a different kind, for master's theses and doctoral dissertations have traditionally been major targets of plagiarists. Moreover, some of the most egregious examples of hitherto undiscovered plagiarism have been brought to light by graduate students alerted to the problem by their instructors.
Educational institutions lead the way in investigating allegations of plagiarism, but other institutions playing a role in the production and dissemination of historical knowledge—professional associations and societies, archives and libraries, museums, and funding agencies, for example—also have a duty to act in cases of plagiarism. Institutions retain the discretion to make public their findings or to keep them confidential. (As James Grossman of the Newberry Library has suggested, institutions having an ongoing relationship with an individual accused of plagiarism, as in the case, for example, of a department of history's relationship with a tenured faculty member, have a somewhat different duty than those institutions having a temporary or occasional relationship with such an individual.) In general, institutions have not been held legally liable for plagiarism by individuals connected to the institution in some way if the institution was unaware of the offense, the offense has not been proved, or the institution has no set procedure for handling such cases.
For the benefit of those concerned, all institutions engaged in historical research, dissemination of historical information, and history teaching should have a clear and fair written procedure for dealing with allegations of plagiarism and a schedule of penalties when plagiarism is proved. At the same time, an individual found culpable of plagiarism and punished for it should not be permanently stigmatized and forever precluded from academic activities such as teaching or publishing.
Responding to Plagiarism—The Author
What can and should individual authors do when they believe they have found evidence of plagiarism of their own work? If the plagiarism has no impact on the individual's field, prospects, or career (for example the plagiarism appears in an obscure place), the individual may elect to overlook the offense. From anecdotal evidence, I believe that this course of action is the one most commonly selected. Making a case against a plagiarist takes time and effort, and may not be as rewarding as the individual thinks. Regrettable as it may be, sometimes the alleged plagiarist has more status and resources than the victim and will threaten lawsuits, or other retaliatory measures. This is particularly true when the victim is a graduate student and the perpetrator is a leading figure in the field. A decision not to act may also arise from a myriad of personal factors.
But standing idly by only exacerbates the offense and may allow the offender to plagiarize other works. Not only does inaction allow a misdoer to profit from the misdeed, it may even adversely affect the future career of the victim. For instance, if the work that is plagiarized is not yet in print (if it is an unpublished dissertation or a paper given at a seminar, for example), the appearance of the plagiarization may jeopardize the publication of the original or, in a worst-case scenario, when the author of the original does go into print, she or he may be accused of plagiarizing the plagiarism. There are ways to avert this fate (for example by having one's work notarized—stamped and dated—before going public with it), but most historians would find such recourses a little extreme.
One alternative to passing over the suspected misconduct in silence is to notify the offender directly, preferably in writing, spelling out the problem and asking for an explanation or an apology in writing. This may resolve the issue, particularly if the misappropriation was in fact inadvertent and the offender admits to the error. An apology in writing and a promise to correct the error in some public way, also in writing, may protect the alleged plagiarist from public obloquy and satisfy the victim. The danger in this approach is that it assumes good faith on the part of an individual who may have already acted in bad faith. It also alerts a savvy misdoer to the danger of public scrutiny before the victim has a chance to compile a complete record of the offense. Nevertheless, there are a number of cases in which authors and publishers arranged settlements (based on such person-to-person initiatives), often coupled with changes to the next edition of the work, that were satisfactory to the wronged individual.
An individual whose work has been plagiarized should also consider consulting immediate superiors at the place of employment and colleagues in the field. This consultation should not take the form of rumor-mongering. Any time that an author suspects plagiarism of any kind and decides to inform coworkers, supervisors, or others, the author should compile a thorough and complete record of the offense in a form that can be shared with others. Reproductions of parallel texts would be an especially appropriate part of such a record.
The value of such consultation is threefold. First, it begins the creation of a support system if the case becomes complicated or the suspected plagiarist begins a counterattack. Second, particularly for the younger scholar, networking with mentors provides information on what is and what is not plagiarism. Finally, networking will assist the individual in making decisions at various stages of the process.
If the wronged individual wants a monetary reward of some kind (for example a portion of the royalties of a book containing plagiarized materials) or a legal command to the perpetrator of a misconduct (for example an injunction against publication), the individual may consider filing a lawsuit. Individuals contemplating this step should consult a lawyer. This essay does not offer and should not be read as offering legal advice. Suffice it to say that anyone filing a suit must weigh the cost in time and money against the likely gain. Lawsuits—which can be very expensive and time consuming—are often more about honor and reputation than money, and allegations and defenses surrounding plagiarism are certainly about honor and reputation.
Responding to Plagiarism—Third Parties
Another possible step for an individual seeking redress in a case of alleged plagiarism is the notification of one's own publisher and the publisher of the plagiarized work. This act brings interested third parties into the case.3 Publishers have a financial interest based on copyright as well as reputations at stake, but they do not have the staff to investigate allegations of plagiarism and rely upon their own authors' efforts to make or to defend against such allegations. This applies to editors and editorial boards of journals and the organizations that sponsor the journals, to book publishers, series editors, and to agencies that may have partially paid for or otherwise supported publication of either work, as well as to employers. Although plagiarism is a serious concern to the American Association of University Presses as a potential infringement of copyright, the association does not have a set policy on how to handle plagiarism, nor do university presses themselves.4 Nevertheless, publishers consider plagiarism a serious offense and publishers will communicate with one another to resolve such accusations on a case-by-case basis. In instances where the plagiarism seems minor they will arrange for corrections in the next edition or a written apology. For more serious cases, a publishing house may seek to have a plagiarization taken off the market or, if the culprit is its own author, withdraw the book from publication. University presses may also contact the university's legal counsel if further action is warranted.
At this point librarians may also become third parties with an interest in the case, for publishers or authors routinely ask libraries to remove plagiarizations from their library's shelves. Libraries will have their own policies about these requests, but few libraries currently have set rules for dealing with books allegedly containing plagiarized material. The American Library Association (ALA) has no set policy on how to deal with plagiarism. Libraries and the ALA are very sensitive to the free speech and censorship issues that are collateral to accusations of misconduct. Libraries are thus loathe to remove books or articles from their collections even when plagiarism is proven.
An even more serious step that aggrieved individuals may take involving a third party at interest is to inform the alleged plagiarist's employer. The actions that an employer will take vary from occupation to occupation. For example, in print journalism, where writing or other forms of presentation of information go to the heart of the performance of one's duties, and where credibility is essential to the reputable performance of those duties, employers' responses to allegations of plagiarism may be swift and final. In a number of cases, plagiarists have been fired or forced to resign after a single documented instance or episode of misconduct. Employers also have rules of professional conduct for teachers, staff, and research employees spelling out procedures for investigating and punishing misconduct. These may or may not mention plagiarism by name. (Research misconduct—the mistreatment of human subjects or the falsification or fabrication of research results, for example, has been a far more common concern than plagiarism per se.) Employers, like publishers, will have their own means for determining the seriousness of the offense and the nature of its punishment. Although public obloquy and the resulting stigma are the ultimate penalties for plagiarism, suspension or loss of a job can also result when plagiarism is demonstrated to an employer.
Some employers have acted as mediators, others as adjudicators. It is unwise for employers to make judgments on the basis of accusations alone. The individual who is accused of plagiarism has a professional obligation, not to mention a legal right, to respond fully to all issues, to compile a complete record, and to defend himself or herself. At the same time, employers should not simply allow allegations to go uninvestigated. Silence may send a wrong message to the scholarly community—that plagiarism is tolerated. What is more, professional misconduct hearings can have an educational role in deterring future misconduct and to promote best practices. Whatever the result of the hearings or other process, a full written record should be retained. In the event of exculpation of the individual, this record will be useful to rebut other charges, as well as unfounded and harmful rumor or gossip. In the event that the charges are established, the record will enable other third parties to protect themselves in the case of serial plagiarism.
An individual harmed by plagiarism may decide to publish his or her accusations. This move involves third parties, but unlike the author's own publisher or the library, they are not parties with an interest in the case. The best venue is a scholarly publication—a major refereed journal, for instance. A more problematic second choice would be a web site (for example, an H-List) or the media (for example, a newspaper).
Those who agree to publicize the accusation—journal editors or moderators of electronic discussion lists, for example—can become targets in the controversy. One online history news service that has reprinted a number of such accusations simply announces that it publishes contributions as is, without attesting to their veracity, but it does require civility in the posting.5 Such publishers should act in a professional manner, emphasizing substance rather than blameworthiness. Rather than using what is now commonly referred to as "the p-word," they should simply point the readers' attention to the alleged instances of misconduct themselves.6 Publishers of these accusations, for example book review editors, will want to be very careful about what they allow an accuser to write for publication. In general, it is far better for a letter to the editor from an accuser or a book reviewer who makes an accusation in the review to point out the derivative nature of the work in question, what works are not cited in it, and the like, than to make a bald accusation. The American Historical Review in conjunction with the Professional Division of the AHA has developed a policy for such submissions and will share that policy with other book review editors seeking counsel.7
At any time in the process, the alleged victim of plagiarism may also want to avail himself or herself of the assistance of professional organizations like the AHA. The involvement of the AHA is in consonance with its congressional charter to act "in the interests of American history." The Professional Division does not offer formal adjudication of such cases, but its vice president and the executive director of the Association provide wise counsel to those who contact the AHA.
Whatever method parties select in response to their suspicions, they should be aware that the initial burden of proof in plagiarism cases always falls on the accuser. It is the accuser who must make the case. For this reason, one should never make accusations of plagiarism lightly or for political reasons. Even an accusation made hastily and argued poorly can be so devastating in itself to the author's reputation that the author can never recover from it. Although an act of plagiarism may be a historical datum, a piece of documentary evidence fixed in a past time, the accusation of plagiarism is a moral judgment that has to be weighed carefully. If, as a historical fact, plagiarism cannot be excused or forgiven—historians are not allowed to erase historical facts—a moral judgment is a matter of discretion and should be made wisely and with humility.
The Future of Plagiarism
If the rising number of student research papers purchased from web sites is any indication, plagiarism has become even more prevalent among students than in past years.8 The pressures of grades and professional advancement that drive students and young scholars to engage in misconduct are, if anything, growing. Among graduate students and college teachers of history, the competition for places, honors, and employment are tied to publication, and that competition has become more intense at the same time as it has become more difficult to find publishers for monographs. One must concede that plagiarism will always be with us.
And if this is so, then what is the value of all the advice and concern in the foregoing pages? The answer is twofold: to assess and to educate. This essay offers guidelines in making substantive judgments about accusations of plagiarism. At the same time, however frequent the instances of plagiarism may become, in the end, the objective for everyone interested in the reputation of the profession and the quality of its product must extend beyond punishment of malefactors. A second and equally important goal of the essay is educational—to maintain the integrity and civility of the community of scholars, while improving scholarly standards themselves.
Plagiarism is not a capital offense unless it is repeated. The ideal is to prevent its recurrence. The more historians discuss the causes and cures of plagiarism, the more likely it is that we can avert some unintentional cases and dissuade some individuals from deliberately crossing the line of ethical conduct. Thus historians can fulfill Maimonides's admonition that all trials should not be ends in themselves, but lessons for future conduct.
Peter Hoffer, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia, is a member of the Professional Division of the AHA.
1. Maimonides [Moses Ben Maimon], "The Object of Trials," The Guide for the Perplexed trans. M. Friedlander 2nd rev. ed. ( reprinted New York: Dover, 1956), 304.
2. I have benefited immensely from conversations on the legal points involved with N.E.H. Hull, professor of law in the Law School of Rutgers University at Camden, as well as with members of the AHA Task Force on Intellectual Property.
3. That is, the legal meaning of interest—that is, a financial stake in the outcome of the affair. By the same token, third parties without an interest does not mean that they are uninterested in the outcome, only that they have no financial stake in its outcome.
4. Peter Givler, executive director of the American Association of University Presses, "Copyright: It's for the Public Good," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2003, B20.
5.The George Mason University-sponsored History News Network.
6. Even newspapers reporting on accusations of plagiarism may avoid the p-word in the title of the piece. See, e.g., Jacques Steinberg, "New Book Includes Passages from Others," New York Times, May 31, 2003, A 15, A23. But electing to avoid the p-word may allow a plagiarist to continue a career in theft. See, for example, Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words, rev. ed. (New York, 2001), 185.
7. See the AHR's guidelines for reviewers posted at http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/ahr/for_authors/book_reviews.html.
8. A study conducted by Don McCabe, a management professor at the University of Rutgers at Newark, found that nearly 40 percent of the 18,000 student subjects in the study had engaged in plagiarism from the Web or had copied parts of books for research assignments without citing the sources. The numbers and percentages had increased over the years of the study. Kelly Heyboer, "Cut-and-paste, turn it in-you call that cheating?" Newark Star-Ledger.