AHA Activities

From the Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics, September 1990

AHA Staff, September 1990

Recognizing that its responsibilities in regard to professional conduct include education as well as enforcement, the AHA's Professional Division has decided to discuss more openly its work, hoping thereby not only to inform the membership of its activities but also to encourage more discussion of and attention to issues of ethical conduct. The Division plans to report at least twice a year, providing examples of the kinds of complaints that have come before it and how they have been resolved. As with the cases summarized below, no names or other identifying details will be provided.

Over the past year, the Professional Division has reviewed and acted upon eleven complaints brought to it. Of these, six focused on charges of plagiarism, two raised questions regarding academic hiring practices, one involved charges of falsification of credentials, a tenth addressed the rights of a historian as an author, and the last concerned access to research sources. The Division found for the complainant in four of the six plagiarism cases, against the complainants in the two hiring complaints, and for the complainants in the other three cases. In several cases, the circumstances were such that the Division, apart from its formal findings, advised the parties involved regarding questionable actions that were not technically violations of standards of conduct.

The three cases summarized below call attention to concerns of the Division beyond the specific violations of standards of professional conduct. In each case, parties acted in ways that, while not clear breaches of conduct, nevertheless jeopardized careers and reputations. The Division hopes that better understanding of professional responsibilities and obligations will lessen the likelihood of such situations recurring in the future.

For a copy of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, contact the Publications Office, AHA, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003.

Case I: Hiring Practices

In the fall of 1988 an Eastern university placed an employment advertisement in Perspectives for a tenure-track appointment in modern European history. A candidate (the complainant) applied for the opening, made the search committee's short list, and was interviewed for the position. After completing the interviews, the department met and unanimously voted to offer the appointment to an applicant other than the complainant. Meanwhile, because a member of the department had been offered a grant for the subsequent year and because of the high quality of the applicants for the advertised post, the department decided to salvage a second appointment by offering a half-time appointment the first year to the complainant with a full-time appointment to follow the next year, subject to approval by the dean. The head of the search committee felt this would be an attractive offer because the complainant was expecting a baby in the late summer or early fall and might appreciate the time off. He thus called the complainant saying that "we are interested in having you teach at Anywhere U.," informing her of the new terms for the position. The complainant initially refused to accept the half-time proposal, insisting that the search committee head go to the dean with a request for her full-time appointment. When the dean refused such authorization, the search committee head then called the complainant to report the dean's decision. When the complainant asked if she could accept the original offer of a half-time appointment, the search committee head indicated that he had never extended a formal offer to her in the first place. The complainant believed that he had, which formed the basis of the formal complaint to the Professional Division.

In its deliberations the Professional Division found no evidence that a bonafide formal offer had been extended to the complainant. Although the statement "we are interested in having you teach at Anywhere U." might be interpreted as an offer and did unfortunately raise false hopes in the candidate, it did not constitute a formal written offer. The Professional Division noted, however, that the search committee head should not have raised the issue of the complainant's pregnancy as a factor in the negotiations and should have been far more precise in explaining the departmental and university position in trying to seek a second appointment. He did not properly "note any contingencies that may affect the availability of the position" (paragraph 3 of Section 4 of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct). He was so informed of this decision.

Case II: Plagiarism

In March of 1989 a historian filed charges of plagiarism against a colleague in his field. One reason given for his filing a complaint was that he had made similar charges two years earlier in a review of this colleague's book, charging that data and ideas had been plagiarized from his published work. The alleged plagiarist, he asserted, had never responded to the charges levelled in that book review.

The Professional Division examined all evidence submitted by the complainant and the alleged plagiarist and found absolutely no evidence of plagiarism. Significantly, however, in its consideration of the case, the Professional Division discovered that the journal that published the review not only had not investigated the charges prior to publication but also refused to publish a rebuttal by the individual accused of plagiarism, allowing the review to stand without giving any chance for a reply. Given the extreme seriousness of the charges of plagiarism in the review, the Professional Division felt that the journal had not acted responsibly and so informed the journal editor.

Case III: Plagiarism

In the spring of 1989, a history department chair, on behalf of a graduate student, filed charges of plagiarism against another historian. The graduate student alleged that the individual had incorporated verbatim or near verbatim passages from the former's M.A. thesis and a convention paper in a manuscript then on the verge of being published by a university press. Subsequently two other scholars joined the case as co-complainants against the alleged plagiarist. The three complainants also notified the publisher, who suspended book production pending further investigation.

Both sides submitted extensive documentation (over 180 pages), which the Professional Division carefully reviewed. Ultimately the Division determined that the work of all three historians had been plagiarized in the manuscript in question and so notified all parties involved. The press decided not to publish the manuscript, and the AHA warned the plagiarist against seeking another publisher. The complainants were advised to make sure that their work is copyrighted and to be prepared to take legal action should the plagiarist secure another publisher. Since the manuscript was technically still a "work in progress" and not yet in final printed form, legal action at this stage was not advisable.

In its review of this case, the Professional Division became concerned about the actions of the university press in regard to the plagiarism charges. While the press initially suspended publication, it shortly thereafter resumed discussion with the author, noting lapses in scholarship but proposing to correct the problems through additional citations and paraphrasing. Although the press eventually decided to cancel publication entirely, the corrective measures that it proposed in the interim were inappropriate, essentially cosmetic, and insufficient in the context of the serious questions that had been raised about the integrity of the manuscript. The Division conveyed its concerns to the press, noting that the publication of such a manuscript, even if ostensibly corrected, would jeopardize a press's reputation in the academic community.