Arguing Against Free-Market Plagiarism Prevention

Economist's surveys suggest that profession's laissez faire system of fighting scholarly cheating fails if breaches don't get reported or punished.
December 17, 2007

Most academic disciplines largely trust a decentralized approach to policing potential instances of plagiarism, counting on scholars to report situations when they occur, and journal editors or academic administrators to respond to and punish breaches upon learning about them. The assumption that wrongdoing will eventually become known, and that a cheater's reputation will be destroyed (along, not unimportantly, with fears of legal dangers for getting involved) has led most scholarly societies to avoid playing a direct role in policing academic misconduct. (One disciplinary group that did investigate charges of plagiarism, the American Historical Association, gave up doing so in 2003.)

That approach makes sense if the appropriate people are fulfilling their appropriate roles in that informal system, says Gary A. Hoover, an associate professor of economics at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. But Hoover, whose personal experiences as a victim of academic piracy have led him to study the state of plagiarism within his chosen field, argues that the system falls down if incidents don't get reported to those with the power to punish the perpetrators, or if those with that power don't act.

And too often they don't, Hoover argued in a presentation made to a group of government economists in Washington on Friday, based on a series of surveys and papers he has produced on the subject of economics plagiarism.

At the core of Hoover's argument to the Society of Government Economists are data from two surveys he conducted with Walter Enders, a fellow economist at Alabama. One, conducted in 2004, was of about 110 editors of economics journals; the other, from 2006, sought the views of about 1,200 rank and file economists, about 80 percent of them academics. While there was significant overlap on many points, the views of the editors and of likely authors diverged in a few key ways. As seen in the table below, for example, 64.7 percent of rank and file economists said that using another scholar's idea without attribution was "likely" or "definitely" plagiarism, compared to 52.4 percent of journal editors.

Proportion of Journal Editors and Economists Who View Certain Practices as Plagiarism

Practice Not at All Not Likely Likely Definitely
  Economists Editors Econ. Editors Econ. Editors Econ. Editors
Unattributed sentences 2.8% 1.8% 16.6% 19.8% 41.7% 44.3% 38.9% 34%
Unattributed proof from working paper 2.5% 0% 16.6% 9.3% 41.7% 32.4% 38.9% 58.3%
Unattributed proof from published paper 2.2% 0% 4.8% 4.6% 27.5% 29.4% 65.5% 66.1%
Unattributed idea 3.0% 3.9% 32.3% 43.7% 46.1% 35.9% 18.6% 16.5%
Use of privately collected data 7.7% 2.8% 16.8% 16.8% 31.4% 32.7% 44.0% 47.7%

And when asked for the appropriate responses when clear cases of plagiarism are identified, nearly three-quarters of rank and file economists said they thought a plagiarist's department chair, dean or provost should be notified, while fewer than half of journal editors thought so, as seen in the following table:

Proportion of Economists and Editors Who See Certain Responses to Plagiarism as Appropriate

Practice Not at All Not Likely Likely Definitely
  Economists Editors Econ. Editors Econ. Editors Econ. Editors
Notify original author (if possible) 1.8% 1.8% 4.1% 8.2% 24.5% 19.1% 69.2% 70.9%
Notify department chair, dean, provost 4.0% 11% 21.9% 42% 43.3% 23% 30.1% 24%
Ban future submissions to journal by plagiarist 4.9% 1% 23.0% 21.5% 39.9% 35.5% 32.2% 42.1%
Public notice of plagiarism 9.3% 19.2% 41.0% 50.5% 32.0% 17.2% 17.8% 13.1%

Hoover sees it as a problem that journal editors, who are arguably most likely to be in a position to come across potential instances of plagiarism, are less likely to view the theft of ideas as plagiarism and to see it as appropriate to report potential wrongdoing to the superiors of someone they caught.

"If we as a profession are going to say, we're not going to have an overall policy, so the way we're going to police this is through reporting, you have to be able to hurt somebody's reputation" if they get caught, Hoover said. "But if editors are not willing to [report to someone's bosses], where's the bite? Where's the fear of damage to reputation if nobody's going to find out about it?"

(If Hoover sounds passionate about the subject, that may be because he encountered it personally. In 2003, he says, he and Enders were surprised when they were asked to referee a paper that applied time-series econometrics to poverty research. It was remarkably similar to a paper they had co-written that was awaiting publication in another journal -- which had been disseminated via the Social Science Research Network -- and to previous papers they had published separately. When they raised the issue with the editor of the journal that had asked them to peer review the offending paper, the editor checked with colleagues and lawyers and reported back "they and I are both concerned about possible liability for the journal of any aggressive course of action." The editor ultimately sent the plagiarizing scholar an e-mail message rejecting the paper but inviting him to submit materials to the journal in the future.)

Hoover says he partially understands the arguments of editors who, like leaders of scholarly societies, often say that they don't want to take on the legal risk of being responsible for adjudicating cases of academic fraud. And they may not be the only players for whom the incentives not to play plagiarism cops outweigh the arguments for doing so.

In a 2006 paper Hoover published in the Atlantic Economic Journal, entitled "A Game Theoretic Model of Plagiarism," he noted the high "fight costs" that might discourage a graduate student from reporting potential plagiarism by a thesis adviser, say, or an untenured assistant professor from turning in a senior scholar in the field -- especially, he notes, if chances are that reporting the potential breach might not do any good anyway, given the previously described reluctance of journal editors and others to investigate.

"It just might not be worth it to me; I might win the battle but lose the war, or I might report it and nothing happens to you, so I lose the battle, too," Hoover says.

Given the disincentives that various players in the plagiarism food chain face to combat it, Hoover says he recognizes that it is unlikely that the economics profession will adopt a significantly more aggressive formal system of plagiarism detection and punishment. But he recommends some steps groups of journals, institutions and scholarly associations might take collaboratively, such as adopting a code of ethics (which could even give journal editors more legal protection in cracking down on potential violators), or having journals share plagiarism detection software, perhaps financed by scholarly associations.

"I'd advocate something, anything, that has us do more than we do now," he says. "There's a perception that it's not happening because we don't hear about it, but every place I go, I hear from people who say it's happened to them."


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