Few Policies on Plagiarism

Report on history journals finds that they confront complaints on an ad hoc basis -- without the benefit of standard procedures.
November 19, 2007

In 2003, the American Historical Association got out of the business of adjudicating complaints of plagiarism, saying that the association could best promote good scholarship by issuing standards and promoting education about them. Journals, other publishers and colleges and universities are better suited than an association to consider plagiarism complaints, the AHA said, and they all have various sanctions they can impose.

The move was controversial within the association, in part because it came at a time of several well publicized incidents of alleged plagiarism in the profession.

The association has just released an analysis on how plagiarism is handled by journals in the discipline and the answer appears to be that editors favor ad hoc approaches over policy.

"Very few journals have written plagiarism policies, and many journals are reluctant to develop them," said the study, which was published in the AHA's magazine, Perspectives. At the same time, the study found that 9 of the 35 history journals participating in the survey reported dealing with plagiarism accusations at least once.

The study -- written by Alan Lessoff, professor of history at Illinois State University and editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era -- noted how sensitive plagiarism issues remain for the association, even though it no longer settles accusations. Even though his report is written in a measured tone, he writes that because of "legal considerations," both the AHA and the Conference of Historical Journals wanted him to stress that "nothing here amounts to a statement of 'best practices' or a model policy."

Part of the problem, the study notes, is that journal editors are not only called upon to consider allegations about work they have published, but allegations that come in the form of book reviews of material published elsewhere.

"When accusations emerge before publication, for example during peer review of a manuscript, journals are in a position to handle the matter informally, either by rejecting the manuscript outright or by asking for changes," the report says, noting (without offering an opinion of whether this is appropriate) that some journals just reject such pieces. "More serious are accusations that emerge during preparation of a book review, which anecdotal evidence suggests to be a frequent way that plagiarism charges come to the attention of journal editors. A journal that publishes a review containing such a charge risks involving itself in ensuing legal wrangles, including countercharges of defamation, which from the courts' perspective is a serious matter indeed."

One approach being used, the report says, is for journals receiving plagiarism allegations to submit them to an outside panel for review. One publication (not named in the study) has used that approach twice, and as a result in one case ran a review with a plagiarism accusation in it, and the accused author publishing a reply (acknowledging a problem but denying intent). In the other case, the outside review "in effected exonerated the accused author," the report says.

The journal Lessoff edits is among the few to have a specific policy for handling accusations of plagiarism -- and he notes in the report that the journal developed the policy when it was faced with an accusation of plagiarism and "the journal's reputation was at stake."

The policy involves the use of an outside review panel and thus "removes the editor, who after all has worked with the accused author on the article, from direct oversight of the review," Lessoff writes. The policy offers possible sanctions for plagiarism, including disclosure of the review's findings in the journal to barring the author from again publishing by the journal. In the incident that prompted the development of the policy, the accused author was cleared.


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