Confronting -- and Not Confronting -- Plagiarism

History journal editors explain the challenges of dealing with complaints -- while some scholars see inadequacy in current systems.
January 7, 2008

To most academics, plagiarism is a serious violation of professional ethics. But even as professors consider which combination of software, policies and education can teach undergraduates about academic integrity, many are unsure about how to handle allegations against fellow scholars.

The issue has been vexing to the American Historical Association, which got itself out of the business of adjudicating plagiarism disputes in 2003, but where no real consensus has emerged about who should deal with these issues and how to balance the rights of those who have been accused of plagiarism with those whose work may have been plagiarized. A panel discussion of journal editors at the AHA's annual meeting on Saturday reinforced the results of a recent survey: Many journals have no written policies on how to handle allegations and fear that inquiries could get their publications sued.

A central problem, participants said, is that however much plagiarism may offend scholars and make professors look silly to the public when famous authors are exposed, the law takes a different approach. "From the point of view of the law, defamation of character is a very live issue, but plagiarism is really marginal," said Alan Lessoff, professor of history at Illinois State University and editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

During the discussion, several editors shared horror stories (generally without names) of the kinds of plagiarism issues that have come their way -- generally prior to publication, when a reviewer calls to say that the book or article that was sent for consideration is awfully familiar, because it comes from something the reviewer wrote. Other complaints go further, such as what to do about a reviewer who -- in violation of a confidentiality agreement -- shared unpublished research in a piece he was reviewing with one of his graduate students, denying the author a scholarly scoop.

Generally, editors said that they feel forced to deal with these situations quietly, hoping for private agreements that satisfy everyone. When rejecting pieces they believe to have been plagiarized, they talked about telling apparently sloppy or dishonest authors that their work had a "singular correspondence" to other published work -- as opposed to using the P word.

But threat of lawsuits is clearly a huge issue for journal editors. The key word in dealing with these cases is "fear," said David R. Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is editor of the Journal of Urban History.

While the journal editors all understood that fear, many in the audience spoke of other worries: of having their work copied or distorted and of having nowhere to turn. Some victims of plagiarism spoke of their frustrations over the lack of policing, and several suggested that a more aggressive approach is needed. One suggestion: Creating Web sites where people could submit work that they believe has been plagiarized for public view.

In the discussion, the journal editors talked about some of the difficulties they face in dealing with plagiarism allegations and some of the misconceptions they believe exist about the problem. Lessoff said that highly publicized cases about famous authors have created a false impression. "There is an illusion that rooting out plagiarism amounts to a moral crusade against the high and mighty," he said. But based on his experiences and talking with other editors, most of the cases that do come up involve people who are "marginal or insecure in their professional positions."

In a case his journal investigated, in which the accused was exonerated, the person bringing the allegation did not have an academic position at the time and the person accused had a position without tenure and was in a position where "if this news had gotten out and been credible, that person’s career would have been destroyed right from the start."

The example is telling, Lessoff said, because some people believe colleges and universities should handle the issue. But what about independent scholars, he asked? And what about cases where just informing a college might end an adjunct's career or doom someone's chances of winning tenure? A theme of Lessoff and other journal editors was the potential for accusations to damage careers of people not even close to academic superstar status.

While plagiarism is "a bad thing," he said, "vigilantism, moralism, taking people down -- arguably that’s worse."

Edward Linenthal, an Indiana University historian who is editor of The Journal of American History, said he was surprised when he became editor to find no policy in place to handle plagiarism, and that's still the case. He said this worries him because he has been told that the lack of a policy -- when an accusation is made -- "poisons the well" because however the allegation is handled may then be questioned.

But he also said he was concerned about the expectation that journal editors root out plagiarism; could that expectation, he asked, shift ethical responsibility away from where it really belongs, with authors? “I’m not worried if we publish an article and an author is guilty of plagiarism,” he said. If that happens, he said, “the author hid it well” and it is the author who “has breached the integrity on which we rely for the profession."

Linenthal is the editor who shared the story of having a manuscript reviewer violate confidentiality by sharing some research findings with one of his graduate students. In this case, he said, the author of the manuscript found out about it and came to Linenthal to tell him about, but to ask that he not do anything about it. The victim in this case was a junior scholar and the person who violated confidentiality was a senior scholar, so the victim didn't think it was wise to create a stink.

Goldfield, of the Journal of Urban History, noted that journal editors may not always have control over the situation. His journal is published by Sage, and he said that the company is developing a policy to be used by all of its journals. On the other hand, that policy will apply only to material published, not to allegations that are made in or about an unpublished manuscript. In one case, he said, he asked a historian to review three books and the historian in question (who showed up at the meeting Saturday) said he would review only two books because the third was substantially plagiarized. When the historian and Goldfield approached the university press that published the book they believed had copied material, they were unable to obtain any satisfactory agreement.

The historian, Arnold Hirsch of the University of New Orleans, said that most of his colleagues advised him to "keep my head down" and not pursue the issue. He has been unable to get the book removed or to fully have the plagiarism acknowledged, but he also hasn't sued or created a major splash about the incident. But he said he was frustrated to be told that others had been told that the issue had been resolved, when in his opinion it was not. "These are problems that are prolonged and stretched out," he said.

Hirsch was not alone in suggesting that the system is not working. One audience member suggested that there needs to be more formal sharing of information so that a plagiarizer who is detected by one journal is known to others, and could be banned. Others suggested an approach similar to the way the National Institutes of Health and other federal science agencies impose sanctions on scientists who have lied on grant applications or committed various forms of research misconduct.

Several suggested that in cases where plagiarism is charged, there should be a journal or Web site where someone can publish the allegation and documentation of what the two works said, so that the readers can decide whether a charge has merit. While some editors said that they liked that idea, they noted that there is no such place now, and that there will still be a need for some basic review of whether the charge had any merit.

Another scholar in the audience, who said she had been the victim of professional misconduct, also questioned the urgency with which the profession treats the problem. One theme of the editors on the panel was that allegations of plagiarism involve an incredibly small proportion of the profession. But, this scholar said, "9 out of 10 cases are never going to see the light of day, but they are there."


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