Professional Issues

Lessons from the Professional Division: Complaints concerning Plagiarism

Barbara D. Metcalf, November 2001

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 . . . . All historians share responsibility for maintenance of the highest standards of intellectual integrity.

—AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct

The Professional Division is a group of five elected members of the AHA that fosters discussion of professional matters concerning historians and also considers various complaints brought to their attention regarding alleged violations of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The complaints often reveal issues of professional concern that need to be publicized, raised for general discussion in sessions of the annual meeting, and, as appropriate, brought to the AHA Council for consideration. The division primarily considers only those complaints that cannot be resolved within an institution and tries to direct problems, whenever possible, to more suitable bodies, like the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP, unlike the Professional Division, is able to conduct investigations and, when appropriate, sanction institutions for unprofessional behavior. When it does consider a complaint, the division works from written materials submitted by both sides, following procedures outlined in the Statement on Standards (available at Proceedings are confidential from the time of initial inquiry until the complaint is resolved. The AHA publicizes its findings only in exceptional circumstances (again, following procedures outlined in the Statement on Standards). Even those findings, however, do not provide discussion about what can be seen as the "lessons" they implicitly contain. And some important lessons are evident even in informal complaints, which may entail substantial communications but are not pursued as full complaints. Hence it is occasionally useful to use the Perspectives column on professional issues to comment on recent complaints brought to the Association, presenting them anonymously.

Several recent complaints concerning plagiarism provide lessons that deserve publicity. Our sample—some 10 complaints—is not large, but it is striking that these represent a very large percentage of the 14 complaints accepted for full review since 1993. The division has also received several informal queries concerning plagiarism. Together they illustrate at least three important lessons.

Plagiarism is more than verbatim copying. As the Statement notes in its "Statement on Plagiarism and Related Misuses of the Work of Other Authors," "Plagiarism includes more subtle and perhaps more pernicious abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution." It includes also "the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences." In the case of historians, one invidious misuse is to appropriate someone else's archival research, citing sources as if they were the product of one's own arduous effort rather than copied from another's writings. Years of archival work on someone else's part can thus be simply appropriated.

Another misuse is to take the conceptualizing and framing of material and present, as one's own, what someone else has laboriously constructed. Knowledge, as the Statement points out, is, of course, cumulative. Ideas, or even information, once expressed in writing or orally, may be disseminated widely and entered into public discussion. Sometimes, however, authors delude themselves into thinking they are presenting their own materials or interpretations when in fact they should rightly acknowledge their debt to someone else. This last failing is particularly invidious in the case of senior scholars who teach, or act as expert readers of, the material of junior faculty members or graduate students. These latter, when their ideas are incorporated into others' writing, may feel, as some of our complainants have explained, too vulnerable to bring a formal complaint.

Provide careful citation and teach others to cite. In several complaints brought to us, we concluded that authors accused of plagiarism were primarily at fault for carelessness in citation. This was the case, for example, in a commercial publication that had extensively used an unpublished thesis without adequate citation. It was also the case in a recent dissertation from a major university. The graduate student would have done better to include the "review of the literature" which is, perhaps, less standard than it once was. If he had, he would surely have made clear both the value of the writings of the senior historian who brought the complaint and also the points at which he differed. He also needed to have exerted greater care in his bibliography, where he often failed to include the subtitles that typically tell what a work is "really" about. Leaving out the subtitles might be construed as a deliberate attempt to mask the fact that other work had been done on the subject. The American Philological Association's "Statement on Professional Ethics" puts the issue strongly: "The most fundamental ethical obligation of any scholar [emphasis added] is to give full and proper credit to all sources involved in research, whether these sources be the published work of other scholars or the unpublished work of students or colleagues" (available at

The Professional Division is often sorely conscious that it offers no "remedy" when it finds professional misconduct, but in two of the complaints in recent years the complainants, both junior scholars, insisted that it was the simple acknowledgment of their work that they wanted and no further penalty for those who had misused their work. It is important that historians provide appropriate acknowledgement from the beginning.

Be vigilant in evaluating manuscripts and reviewing publications, and seek support from publishers and administrators. Reviewers, and indeed publishers, have a responsibility to pursue any indication that the work they are considering may be the product of scholarly misuse. For historians, this is a professional responsibility, and one where the historian himself or herself may not find support from others. Correspondence with a former member of the Professional Division, one of whose own earlier books had been egregiously plagiarized, illustrates problems that may arise in pursuing apparent plagiarism, and also provides a rationale and strategy for action that others may find helpful.

After discovering the plagiarism, this scholar consulted a colleague specializing in intellectual property law who argued that the law did not protect ideas or concern itself with the appropriation of research. The scholar also consulted the editor at the press that had published the book. Both the lawyer and the editor discouraged further pursuit of the case and instead turned the blame on the author, suggesting that it would be a greater offense to inform anyone of unprofessional behavior than to commit it. The scholar concluded, however, that "one owes something to the profession.. One feels caught between not wanting to destroy a career and not wanting plagiarizers to go on to rob others of their words and ideas and set a model of dishonesty for graduate students in their charge." The scholar decided not to ask for a judgment from the Professional Division, since that would still leave undecided the question of whom to report the findings, but instead went directly to the publisher of the offending book, who halted its distribution. At the same time, rather than act as an individual, the provost of the scholar's institution (whose staff concurred with the charge of plagiarism by comparison of the texts) agreed to inform the president of the other historian's institution. The provost was persuaded to act on the grounds that a university is the faculty and students and that the faculty's reputation is central to the standing any institution enjoys.

The Professional Division welcomes your comments on plagiarism or other issues of professional concern as it continues to evaluate its procedures for hearing complaints and regularly revises the Statement on Standards better to represent professional principles and behavior. Please direct correspondence to me, care of the AHA, or by e-mail to

—Barbara D. Metcalf (Univ. of California at Davis) is vice president of the AHA Professional Division.