“They’ll come at you sideways. It’s how they think: sideways. It’s how they move. Sidle up and smile, hit you where you’re weak.”
Book in “Serenity”
Looking at the reactions to plagiarism we have to distinguish between how the person who was plagiarized and the person who did plagiarize reacts.
The person who was plagiarized
Looking at papers and blog postings, frequent reactions to discovering one was plagiarized seem to be:
- weird and depressing (Bartlett & Smallwood, 2004)
- took years to write it, leading to a need for satisfaction (Bartlett & Smallwood, 2004)
- inconvenient and distressful (Kock, 1999)
It’s never a nice position — you want to work in science, advance it, do good work, and then someone slides in from the side and knocks you off your feet. It distracts and makes work unnecessarily complicated. The things one wants to do when discovering one’s work was plagiarized might include:
- informing the editor
(providing evidence and making sure the person who plagiarized did really submit the paper)
- getting legal counsel (e.g., to protect oneself against libel)
- requesting a written apology (including admittance of guilt)
- informing the community
Kock (1999) stresses the importance of informing the copyright-holder. After all, they have a vested interest in making sure their work is not plagiarized and they have the better legal lineup.
The person who did plagiarize
When it comes to the reactions of the person who plagiarized, the reactions seem to range from ‘defensive’ over ‘neutral’ to ‘offensive’ (Kock, 1999, is a good source):
(it was not plagiarism, accidental similarity)
- non-apology apology
(“mistakes were made”, sometimes with a general apology for inconvenience caused, but not admittance of plagiarism)
- downplaying the infringements
(only forgot to put in quotation marks, forgotten to paste in the footnotes)
- downplaying the issue of plagiarism
(only a question who had the idea first)
(publish or perish pressure)
(was a good paper, should feel flattered)
- appealing to lordliness of the author
- admittance in part but without consequence
(not done deliberately, problem with references)
- ad hominem attacks
(incl. allegations of envy, attack on the scientific reputation)
(at times in great detail, turning the table)
- threat of legal action
(e.g., via libel cases)
- threat of community action
(e.g., claiming to have the community on one’s side)
The probably worst case I’ve read so far was in Kock (1999). The author describes what happened when a paper of his was plagiarized — extensively. The first reaction of the person who plagiarized was:
“I am extremely sorry for my mistake. I sincerely apologize for this grave mistake. I will not do this again. I promise. As required by you, I will fax you an apology letter to you today. I kindly request you not to take any further action. I am still on student visa and I come from a poor family. I have worked very hard all my life to be in this position. I have a family and kids. If you take any action, my whole life will be ruined. I may have to end my profession. Please, I beg you. I will be eternally grateful to you if you pardon me this last time. I assure you that I will not commit this mistake again. “Please, at least for my family sake, do not take any further action. Both my family and I will be ever very thankful to you.”
Looking closely at the response, we find:
- begging apology: “Please, I beg you.”
- reference to “poor background”: “student visa”, “poor family”
- reference to prior accomplishments: “have worked very hard all my life to be in this position”
- use of human shields: “I have a family and kids”, “Please, at least for my family sake, do not take any further action. Both my family and I will be ever very thankful to you.”
- embellishing the consequences: “If you take any action, my whole life will be ruined.”, “I may have to end my profession.”
- one-time-only(???)-defense: “I will be eternally grateful to you if you pardon me this last time.”
- appealing to the lordliness of the person: “eternally grateful to you if you pardon me”
- false(?) promises: “I will not do this again. I promise.”, “I assure you that I will not commit this mistake again.”
When Kock (1999) wanted something concrete like a written admittance of guilt, the reaction turned hostile:
“I have taken some time from my busy schedule and investigated your accusations regarding my article. I am wrong to have apologized without investigating the matter myself. Now I have ample evidence to prove that my work was not plagiarized from any published/cited source. I have consulted a top attorney who is ready to take up the matter in court if you still plan to defame me on false grounds. In fact, my attorney suggests I file a ‘defamation suit’ to claim damages for tainting my ‘outstanding research record.’ It is unfortunate that you have managed to prey on my ‘trusting’ nature and caused me and my family lot of heartburn, physiological, and psychological problems since last week. I am willing to forget and forgive this if you recognize this error. Some of the senior colleagues in the field have also encouraged me to take a legal course if you still insist on pursuing this case. I would like to rest this matter with this message. I would appreciate your reply; if not, I will assume that you are intent on ‘defaming’ my career and family and will proceed with my attorney’s recommendations on the legal course of action open to me.”
Looking closely, we find, among others:
- trying to turn the table around/claiming to be a victim: “I have taken some time from my busy schedule”, “I am willing to forget and forgive this if you recognize this error.”
- hinting at “ample evidence”: “Now I have ample evidence to prove that my work was not plagiarized from any published/cited source.”
- hinting at strong legal allies: “I have consulted a top attorney who is ready to take up the matter in court if you still plan to defame me on false grounds.”
- hinting at strong academic allies: “Some of the senior colleagues in the field have also encouraged me to take a legal course if you still insist on pursuing this case.”
- claiming to be innocent: “outstanding research record”
- asking the matter to be dropped quietly: “I would like to rest this matter with this message.”
Yup, that’s the moment where you look for a bucket. Not that you should take this reaction seriously, that’s a rat fighting from a corner. Annoying, yup, but a well-placed kick ends the problem. After all, if this person would really have legal or community backing, the reaction would be different.
The worst thing is, after this reaction it really got bad, but I refer to Kock’s paper. It’s well worth reading (if you do it on an empty stomach).
How to react when accused of plagiarism
What would have been a better reaction? Suppose you are accused of plagiarism, what should you do? Looking at a few cases, from Kock (1999) to the case alleged scientific misconduct of Silvia Bulfone-Paus (Board of Directors of the Research Center Borstel, 2001), I think the following steps would be better:
- Check the allegations immediately
Inform the accuser that you will look into it, don’t overreact but do react within less than a week. Check the submission dates, look for evidence of parallel creativity.
- Assess the damage
Does your work still has worth?
- Put it out into the open
Keeping an allegation secret is damaging and incriminating.
- Ask someone else to lead the investigation
Step down from your position (temporarily) and allow unbiased others to conduct the investigation.
- If you notice other cases of misconduct, mention them
Don’t hide, don’t hope that they will not be discovered, put them into the open.
In general it pays to react to possible problems early and to take responsibility. In any case, it is never a good idea to point to other contributions or successes to try to ‘justify’ the misconduct or reduce its impact. It does not matter what you do otherwise. Just compare it to this situation: If you run over a person with your car, you could give millions to charity, it won’t buy you free of your responsibility and the need to stand trial for what you have done.
A very good help in cases of plagiarism and misconduct are the flowcharts of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). They describe the steps to be taken when one notices plagiarism in submitted or published work.
As for the consequences, we look at them in the next posting.
Bartlett, T., & Smallwood, S. (2004, December 17). Four Academic Plagiarists You’ve Never Heard Of: How Many More Are Out There? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 11, 2013, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i17/17a00802.htm
Board of Directors of the Research Center Borstel. (2001, April 6). Open letter by the Board of Directors of the Research Center Borstel in response to an “open letter” supporting the former director, Professor Silvia Bulfone-Paus.
Kock, N. (1999). A case of academic plagiarism. Communications of the ACM, 42(7), 96–104.
Series on plagiarism: