Return to Irving Hexham's Web Site to his study page or read:
1) The plague of plagiarism
2) Forget about academic fraud? Were you sexually harassed?

3) The High Cost of Plagiarism

How real is the problem of plagiarism?

Professor Irving Hexham
Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary
© Copyright Irving Hexham 2000 and 2006

1. The Problem
2. Is Academic Plagiarism Really A Problem?
3. The Failure Of Academics To Take Plagiarism Seriously
4. University Administrators and Plagiarism
5. Why Is Plagiarism Tolerated By Academics?

1. The Problem
When journalists are caught plagiarizing the reaction is swift and decisive (New York Times, 05/10/2005; Washington Post, 04/21/2004 ; Toronto Star, 11/25/2004 ). When graduate students, or junior academics are caught plagiarizing it is usually the end of their career in that particular field. When senior academics are caught plagiarizing they usually get away with it (New York Times 11/24/2004; Chicago Tribune, 11/21/2002). Such reactions prove a catastrophic failure of the entire system of higher education.

2. Is Academic Plagiarism Really A Problem?
Although most academics condemn plagiarism some people have recently attempted to argue that plagiarism is not as serious a crime as most people think. They claim that in the business world many people copy memos and other documents that are then circulated without mention of the original source. Further, it is said that the clever plagiarist, who takes small pieces of information from many sources and weaves them together into a unified text, demonstrates an ability to synthesize material that proves a talent for organization demonstrating that he or she is capable of good academic work. Therefore, the argument is sometimes made that the academic plagiarist really does no harm and ought not to be penalized. Such reasoning may sound plausible, but it displays a remarkable lack of understanding of how universities work, the role of university faculty, academic mobbing, the nature of academic research, and the social responsibilities of scholars.

When a student writes an M.A. or Ph.D. thesis, university regulations clearly state that the work must be “original.” In this context the claim to originality means two things. First the work must contain the student's own words, work and ideas. Second, it implies that when the student claims to base an argument on a particular source he or she has actually read that source or gathered their own data in an acceptable fashion and not simply read a summary of the source or research results written by another person. In other words the demand for originality includes a requirement that students do their own reading of primary sources and, where applicable, gathering of data.

The explicit requirement that a thesis contains original material is implicit in the publication of academic monographs and journal articles. When someone publishes an academic book or article, as distinct from a popular book or trade publication, the unstated expectation is that it meets the basic requirements found in the writing of theses and other academic texts.

Understanding the reason why universities insist on originally is equally important. When a university awards a degree to an individual they are certifying that that person has met the requirements of the degree and therefore can be considered an expert in a particular area of academic work. Thus the university confers on its successful graduate students the right to speak with authority on the topic of their research. As an individual moves from student to faculty member the selection process implies that the university recognizes the right of the individual to claim to be an authority in his or her own research area. Promotion within a university from the European lecturer, or North American Assistant Professor, to the rank of European Professor, or North American Full Professor, confirms that an individual has established their reputation as a recognized authority in a particular field.

Here it is important to remind ourselves of the social consequences of academic credentials When someone obtains a Ph.D. they are automatically viewed by the outside world as an expert whose work can be trusted. As someone progresses up the academic ladder the authority of the individual further increases. Consequently, while the media is unlikely to regard Joe Blogs with a B.A. in economics from Back Woods College as an expert on world trade, they are likely to listen to the views of Professor Blogs who teaches at a respected university when he either condemns or promotes policies like outsourcing. Similarly, while the governments are unlikely to consult Joe Blogs, B.A., on an issue of national importance, they may well seek the advice of Professor Blods on how to reconstruct the economy of a devastated area like New Orleans .

Of course, if Professor Blogs earned his Ph.D. as a result of hard work and a mastery of his field then he will be able to give reliable advice to whoever requests it. On the other hand if Professor Blogs is really, Joe Blogs the plagiarists and academic fraud then there is no reason to believe that the advice he gives is reliable. This is because a plagiarist simply repeats the words and ideas of others without having mastered the basic source materials. Someone who has mastered a field has no need or incentive to plagiarize. Therefore, it has to be assumed that the plagiarist is simply a sophisticated parrot who is really fooling everyone by claiming to be an authority when in fact they are entirely dependent on the authority of others.

Note too that plagiarists can, and often do, make very good teachers because all they are really doing is repeating other people's views. The problem is that students who are taught by plagiarists have no way of knowing whether what they learn is reliable or not. This is because the plagiarist has not mastered the material about which they claim to be an authority. Consequently, the plagiarist can easily pass on flawed information simply because know no better.

It also needs to be recognized that plagiarists often move into academic administration as soon as possible which probably explains why more than one university president has been accused of plagiarism (New York Times, 3/12/2004; The Australian, 02/19/2003). The reason plagiarists take the administrative route is twofold. First, it frees them from the demand that they regularly publish in peer reviewed journals. This means that they can escape scrutiny by other academics. Second, it gives them power over academic appointments and other decisions in their institution enabling them to prevent the hiring of anyone who might inadvertently discover their misdemeanors. Therefore, plagiarism undercuts the entire academic enterprise by enabling people who are actually unqualified in particular areas to claim to be experts and manipulate institutions for their own ends..

3. The Failure Of Academics To Take Plagiarism Seriously
Allegations of plagiarism at Texas A&M University ( The Chronicle of Higher Education , November 5, 1999, p. A18-20) highlight the failure of academics and university administrators to address the issue of plagiarism with the seriousness it demands. For example, after reviewing the evidence one professor is reported to have said "You have to be uncomfortable when exact words are used and not put into quotes. But this is not some kind of high crime …" (op. cit p. 19). In his view academics ought to be "more concerned with the theft of ideas than of actual words” (op. cit).

This is a cop out. Surely, the professor concerned knew that it is far harder to prove the theft of ideas than the theft of actual words. It is easy to demonstrate when someone is reproducing another person's words without quotation marks. It is almost impossible to prove the theft of ideas because ideas circulate within social communities and even when a communal influence is absent similar circumstances often generate similar ideas.

Therefore, to insist on ideas while ignoring actual word use makes it very easy for academic plagiarists to ply their trade. The use of other people = s words without quotation marks and the continuous paraphrasing of someone's work is far easier to recognize and prove than the theft of ideas.

To avoid the obvious conclusion that a colleague is a fraud many academics argue that provided some reference to the original author is made then a writer cannot be accused of plagiarism even if they failed to tell their readers that they were actually quoting, without quotation marks, and not simply citing, another person's work. Legally this argument does not wash. The inclusion of a footnote or some other form of reference without appropriate quotation marks when the words of another author are being used is no defense against the charge of plagiarism as was clearly stated by the judge in the Case of Napolitano v. Princeton University Trustees (Cf. Ralph D. Mawdsley, Legal Aspects of Plagiarism , Kansas, National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, 1985). Nor, is this type of usage accepted by journalistis.

Academics who defend plagiarism in this way are like the Bank Manager who says that the fact an employee returned $1,000,000 to the bank after successfully speculating on the Stock Exchange with the Bank's money is not an embezzler. Neither the police nor a court would accept this type of equivocation. Why should it be different with academic plagiarists?

4. University Administrators and Plagiarism
Universities appear to operate a double standard when it comes to dealing with plagiarism. When the accused is a graduate student or junior academic without tenure the response is swift and certain. Graduate students are given a failing grade and excluded from their programs. Very often they are also banned from enrolling in another course at that university for at least five years. Junior faculty are simply fired, and, if the plagiarism is found in their M.A. or Ph.D. theses , the granting institution is informed and the degree withdrawn.

The situation changes abruptly the higher a person scales the academic ladder with administrators becoming increasingly reluctant to even consider charges of plagiarism against senior academics. A person who has the misfortune of discovering that a colleague is a fraud and who reports this to his or her Head of Department or Dean is inevitably treated as a trouble maker and given a lecture on the right of the accused to sue for libel or defamation. Then, if the charge is not dropped, an elaborate committee procedure comes into play with the person making the charge being warned that henceforth they are bound by university rules regarding confidentiality the breach of which can lead to dismissal.

A naïve person will accept these conditions in the belief that his or her Dean is simply following procedure and intends to thoroughly deal with the issue. The next shock comes when people who are known to be friends or colleagues of the accused are placed on the examining committee, the exclusion of the complainant from all deliberations, and the inevitable judgment that while the charge was not malicious it was based on an inadequate understanding of the situation and that the examples of plagiarism provided to the committee were really simply examples of “carelessness” brought on by “overwork.”

There is also considerable circumstantial evidence that when administrators, such as heads of department, deans, vice-presidents, or the directors of research institutes, are accused of plagiarism then university lawyers are provided to assist them in preparing their defense. Thus most charges against senior academics are dismissed as merely “poor citation” and “errors of judgment.” Then, sometime later, the accused moves on to another university where they usually receive some form of promotion.

There is also evidence that the accuser becomes the victim of academic mobbing and their careers, at least within university administration, are ruined. Granting agencies and publishers also seem to be tipped off by unknown people whose authority is unquestioned that the offending accuser is really unreliable and a poor academic. Thus, to accuse anyone of plagiarism is to run the risk of marginalizing oneself academically.

The apparent willingness of senior university administrators to tolerate and even become accessories after the fact is at first sight puzzling and counter intuitive. Yet this is the way many universities work. There appear to be several reasons why plagiarism is cloaked in secrecy and not treated with the seriousness it deserves by many university administrators.

The official reason for secrecy, or as university administrators prefer to call it “confidentiality,” is the possibility that the accused will sue the complainant and the university. This may be a possibility, although it is rather like saying that a Bank Manager should not call in the police when she or he suspects embezzlement because the embezzler might sue them and the bank. Therefore, to promote this as a reason for not taking firm action when the charge of plagiarism is well founded is clearly absurd.

The second common reason given for maintaining strict confidentiality, which has limited merit, is that if granting agencies and private foundations hear that a key researcher is a fraud then they are unlikely to provide grants to the university concerned in the future. Closely, related to this reason is the argument that universities are under constant financial pressure from governments therefore the admission of fraud would simply provide ammunition to hostile critics in the press and legislature. But, neither of these arguments are really convincing because the assume that to deal with granting agencies and the Government is university officials must be deceptive.

5. Why Is Plagiarism Tolerated?
The most likely reason for not really dealing with the issue of plagiarism is that to admit that a long-time faculty member is a fraud is also to admit that numerous people, including all university administrators who dealt with the person concerned, failed to do their jobs in the first place. Thus it seems likely that the real reason for the failure of administrators to deal with plagiarists is that to admit that a university has employed a fraud for a number of years is to implicate the university administration because it failed to discover the deception earlier.

The fact is that from the time a student enters university to his or her ultimate promotion to the rank of full professor their work is theoretically put under the microscope numerous times. Therefore, to admit fraud is to admit that numerous people have failed in their duty and simply not done their job. M.A. and Ph.D. supervisors are supposed to keep a close eye on a student's work ensuring that it is up to standard and does not involve plagiarism or other forms of academic fraud. In most cases this is a relatively simple task that involves checking a few references and knowing one's subject. Apparently it is far too hard for many supervisors who allow theses that contain blatant plagiarism that is obvious to anyone who does even a basic check to see. This means these people ought to be held responsible for not doing their jobs. But, of course, no one bothers to reprimand an academic who approves a fraudulent thesis.

Before anyone becomes a full professor they must go through what is theoretically a rigorous selection process. The graduating Ph.D. student has to convince a selection committee that they are worth employing. Surely, it is reasonable to assume that before hiring someone a university department assigns at least some of its members to read the work of all interviewees to ensure that it is of a high quality. At the same time it is equally clear that in addition to simply reading the candidate's thesis some attempt ought to be made to ensure that it is reliable. In other words someone ought to at least check a few footnotes to ensure that they are accurate and that there is no plagiarism involved. Once again, this is too much for most busy professors who appear to select candidates on their apparent collegiality rather than actual achievements.

After the hiring process is over assistant professors must apply for tenure after three or so years of teaching. At that time all of their work is supposed to be reviewed and critically analyzed. Clearly, this does not happen in many cases because far too many plagiarists are granted tenure. Once tenured another series of supposedly rigorous hurdles have to be overcome for promotion to associate and then full professor. At each stage the candidates work is submitted to the head of department, an examining committee and the Dean. Nevertheless, for all the rigor few people are ever caught out as frauds which can only mean that most heads, committee members, and Deans simply pay lip service to the process without actually doing anything by way of checking the real value of a candidates work.

It also needs to be noted that many academics asked to review manuscripts for publishers or grants for granting agencies clearly read these documents and comment on the arguments presented without checking for plagiarism or other forms of fraud. Therefore, what is known as the “peer-review” process is actually not working. To be fair some publishers do catch plagiarisms and reject manuscripts only to find that another publisher or journal picks it up but such publishers and journal editors are rare indeed.

Thus plagiarism represents a catastrophic failure of the entire system of higher education and undermines all genuine research because as long as it is allowed to exist no one can be certain that a professor is indeed the authority he or she claims or that the academic life of a university is run by genuine scholars.

Return to Irving Hexham's Web Site to his study page
See: 1) The plague of plagiarism; 2) Forget about academic fraud? Were you sexually harassed? and 3) The High Cost of Plagiarism