January 21, 2008, 04:47 PM ET
Shame on Plagiarists
Plagiarism is an ugly word, and it is an ugly fact of academic life. Each of us who has taught for a period of years has encountered student plagiarism of various kinds, and I assume we have all been upset by the ethical betrayal represented by a plagiarized essay. My university has an honor code and a special student system of justice to deal with the offense, which seems to have become more common in this age of Web-based information. Ironically, of course, such plagiarism is now much easier to detect, since Google (and numerous software programs) are so good at remembering and comparing. But the sense of violation arising from the discovery of plagiarism remains an affront to the sensibilities of any dedicated teacher.
I suppose that fewer of us have encountered plagiarism by our professional peers, but of course that is also more common than most of us would like to admit. I first became aware of the problem when one of my graduate school friends discovered that a more senior scholar had reproduced large sections of his dissertation. Later I learned of the allegations of plagiarism in the field of history that were well publicized in the press. Still later I had the deeply troubling experience of discovering that a trusted graduate-student colleague had copied whole chapters of her dissertation from a published work. It is hard for me, and I expect for most of us, to imagine what sort of desperation drives a person to betray professional trust in such a manner. But whatever the cause, the result is an egregious violation of professional ethics.
Of course, I am also aware that there are difficult borderline cases, in which scholars of good will cannot agree as to whether an ethics violation has occurred. And here both universities and professional associations struggle to promulgate definitions that will define a “bright line” between the permissible and illegitimate use of other’s words and ideas. The historians, in a field more commonly involved with public accusations of plagiarism than most, have certainly struggled with the issue — most recently in an AHA panel on plagiarism in historical journals at the January meeting of the Association (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 January). Richard Byrne covered the story nicely in “Hot Type,” and I will not rehearse the general arguments here.
But I do want to note that my friend Tony Grafton, currently the AHA vice-president for the Professional Division (which has jurisdiction over professional ethical matters), is quoted as saying that the AHA had given up the adjudication of plagiarism charges several years ago because “The process of adjudication was unable to yield a usable result,” but holding out hope that a more effective process might be found. I think I was in a very small minority of AHA members who publicly regretted the abandonment of jurisdiction over plagiarism, and I hope that Tony’s Division will revisit the question. For me, the willingness to identify ethical violations and penalize transgressors is at the very core of the definition of a professional organization. The fear of the law of defamation should be enough to intimidate professionals into doing what is right. If we are so quick to punish our students for their transgressions, why not out our wayward peers? Shame has a distinguished history in criminal law, after all, and it is probably the appropriate response to most professional ethical violations.
Image detail from a photo by Flickr user tinou bao