The Chronicle of Higher Education isn’t a newspaper that you would normally associate with traditional investigative journalism. However, when it does investigate, it does a pretty good job; it’s just put up the report of an investigation into plagiarism where it names and shames four academics who look to be guilty on all charges. A cultural geographer who seems to have committed extensive serial plagiarism, including writing an article which had “several paragraphs that appear to be copied from a Web site on surf music.” A historian who was found guilty of plagiarism by the American Historical Association – but whose current employer seems to be unaware of the fact. Another historian who appears to have copied extensively from an obscure 1960’s book. And a British international relations scholar who copied five pages of the introduction to his book directly from an article in the well-known journal International Studies Quarterly. Another article (behind the Chronicle’s paywall) talks about a senior scientist (a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and member of the President’s Council on Science and Technology) who appears to have copied large chunks from an article written by one of his proteges without permission (something which I suspect is pretty common in many fields). As the Chronicle reporters suggest, this is almost certainly symptomatic of a wider problem.
While this article delves into a few cases we uncovered, our reporting suggests that what we found is not exceptional. Indeed, an editor at History News Network receives so many tips about purported plagiarism that he now investigates only those involving well-known scholars. A professor at Texas A&M International University was bombarded with hundreds of e-mail messages after writing about being plagiarized. Many of them were from graduate students and professors who believed that they, too, had been victims.
As the Chronicle suggests, there isn’t any very effective means of policing plagiarism given current structures in the academy. Professional associations are reluctant to take on plagiarism cases, or to publicize them when they do. Individual departments may punish plagiarists, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll take action – and if they do, very often, nobody outside the department in question knows about it. The reluctance to take serious action against plagiarists isn’t a conspiracy – it’s due to a combination of a lack of resources, a reluctance to get involved in controversy, and, perhaps, a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God …” (it’s every academic’s nightmare to be accused of plagiarism because of carelessness or sloppy footnoting). Yet it means that in practice there’s an implicit tolerance for plagiarism. It isn’t an endemic problem, but it’s a real and persistent one – most working academics will know someone who has been plagiarized at one stage or another. Academics frequently hark back to the idea that they form a sort of guild. If this has any meaning at all, the academy should do better in carrying out the primary job of a guild; policing the behaviour of their members.