Profs who plagiarize: how often?

Imitation may be flattering but copying in the academic world is rarely appreciated - at least, not without citations and footnotes referencing the original.

In recent years, students have been heavily prepped on the perils of plagiarism. But it turns out their teachers, in some cases, have been more lax.

A series of high-profile cases - capped by accusations made last week against e.e. cummings scholar Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, who is also an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - has brought fresh attention to the subject. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the scholar.]

Even if faculty plagiarism is not measurably on the rise - numbers are so hard to come by that it is hard to gauge whether it is - the attention aroused by the recent headlines, coupled with the emergence of antiplagiarism software, has resulted in far more scrutiny of academic research.

"We're seeing the scale balance a little bit," says Tim Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity. Until recently, he says, "we've focused so much on promoting standards of academic integrity among students and assumed that professional scholars knew the rules."

But the rules have become more rigorous in the past three decades. Standards for footnotes in research papers are tighter.

"What was considered sufficient attribution in pre-[World War II] research would almost all be considered plagiarism today," says Jon Garon, dean of the School of Law at Hamline University.

Blatant copying - lifting whole paragraphs from another's work without attribution - is the most egregious form of plagiarism.

But most cases are less flagrant and involve such things as insufficient attribution, such as footnotes referring only to the first sentence when the borrowed material extends to the whole paragraph.

But whatever the level of plagiarism, the damage to an academic's reputation can be devastating - whether the complaint is found to be justified or not.

This ability to taint someone's reputation by charging plagiarism has in the past two years created a minitrend that worries Mr. Dodd, who calls the practice "malicious outing."

"What I'm seeing is a malicious application of the rules of academic integrity," he says. A disgruntled individual may review a particular professor's work seeking evidence of plagiarism.

Despite more cases coming into public view, the handling of plagiarism at the faculty level is hampered by lack of uniform procedures and protocols. The most basic question of who should investigate an accusation is still being hammered out between departments, universities, and professional associations.

How investigations are conducted and how faculty are disciplined are determined by each institution and vary from school to school. And since plagiarism is not illegal, only unethical, there are no laws to guide colleges and no statute of limitation on how long a individual can be held accountable for an act of plagiarism.

Cases can spill over into areas of copyright law or trademark law, Professor Garon says, but these are very rare. On the other side, an accused academic can claim slander or libel, he adds. "But if there are some arguable facts, the ability to bring such a claim would be hard."

"Plagiarism is nuanced and doesn't lend itself to legal analysis very well," Garon says. "The laws are designed to protect people's economic interests. It's not a universal set of fairness rules."

Last October, Kennedy-Western University, a distance-learning online institution, became the first college in the country to start screening all faculty research and course material by using plagiarism-detection software. The impetus came from the faculty itself, says Susan Ishii, director of student affairs.

Since the start of the program, no faculty member has been caught plagiarizing.

The Center of Academic Integrity's Dodd worries, however, that plagiarism-detection software undermines "the expectation of trust in a mature scholarly community."

The trust issue is misplaced, says John Berry, founder of, the plagiarism software company used by Kennedy-Western. "That would be the equivalent of saying the referee out on the basketball court erodes trust," he says.

Honor codes and shifts in teaching methods have not helped this problem disappear but software can do so.

Soon, he predicts, it will become "the next-generation spellchecker."

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