Plagiarism #4 — Consequences of Plagiarism

If one scholar plagiarizes another,
but everybody keeps quiet, did it really happen?

Bartlett & Smallwood, 2004

If we look at the consequences of plagiarism, there often aren’t any. Unless you’re a student — many universities have policies against plagiarism and punish it (e.g., Luke & Kearins, 2012). But if you’re a researcher, the consequences are usually scarce. Frequently, there’s “a kind of scholarly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy” at work (Bartlett & Smallwood, 2004) — and we all know how well this kind of policy works.

For example, instead of giving out press releases, putting the case on the website or informing possible future employers, the cases are often kept confidential. What I find particularly damaging is that plagiarists are still allowed to do peer-reviews, where they have access to not-yet-published works (well, the work has to be done, no matter that the reviewer is not trustworthy … :-/ ). In short, as Bartlett & Smallwood (2004) put it:

Yet academe appears conflicted about what to do about the plagiarist. While they preach against the sin, many scholars seem wary of confronting the sinners.
Bartlett & Smallwood (2004)

And there are a lot of things that can be done to avoid confronting plagiarism, for example:

  • redefining cases as something different than plagiarism
  • ignoring indicators of plagiarism
  • keeping the case confidential and allowing the ‘author’ to withdrawal or even to submit a second version
  • covering up the incident
  • asking the researcher to leave the organization (kinda like another large organization handles ‘misconducts’)

Even with journals there frequently are only veiled indications of what happened. Best one I’ve read so far was a case displayed on retractionwatch:

“It has been determined that the article … contains language from already published sources without using proper citation methods.”
retraction notice cited on retractionwatch

Nice. What seems to be common is that many disciplines find it hard to believe that something like plagiarism happens in their own field. Even in my discipline of psychology — comments I got in reaction to my presentation were, among others:

  1. “But why would anyone want to plagiarize in psychology? We need a theoretical background with sources, it is in our best interest to cite other researchers?”
  2. “I think that plagiarism is a problem in disciplines which do not require empirical results. For psychology — we do experiments — plagiarism is not that relevant for us.”

(written as remembered, there might be some differences to the original comments)

I think this reaction is typical. No matter that this was a presentation in reaction to a blatant case of plagiarism in a paper I reviewed, the disbelief is still there. BTW, the comments can be easily refuted:

  1. Yes, we need a theoretical background, but it’s hard for some people to come up with it themselves. You really need to know the literature. So you cite your sources correctly, all of them, except one. The source where you got your citations from.
  2. Even in psychology there’s the theoretical background (see above) and an empirical science that presents data has more ways to plagiarize. By presenting the data from the same studies/experiments multiple times with the same analyses and conclusions. That’s actually self-plagiarism and it is damaging for meta-analyses.

If the issue is taken seriously, there are actually a lot of things that could be done to deal with plagiarism. Looking at the literature, there are, for example:

  • Warning the plagiarizing author
  • Informing the original author
  • formal letter of complaint to the institution the plagiarist works for
  • public announcement of the case
  • editorial with a description of the case
  • barring the plagiarizing author/workgroup/institution from publication
  • informing the professional section

If we look at the possible reasons why plagiarism is not combated more extensively, there are these possible reasons in the literature:

  • It’s a long, demanding process
    You have to invest a lot of time and energy (and other resources) in dealing with the case. It’s emotionally draining and can end up forcing a rat into a corner who will do anything to hurt you.
  • Fear of feuds/legal consequences
    Related to the first issue but beyond the concrete case — you can make enemies. The plagiarist him-/herself or his/her friends and colleagues might hold a grudge. Even worse, the plagiarist might take legal actions. No matter whether they work or not, they are stressful to deal with.
  • Loss of face for supervisors, institutions, or the journal
    Plagiarism does not only concern the person who copied and the victim(s) — the plagiarist is usually part of an institution. S/He has supervisors who can now be scrutinized how they could have missed it. The institution itself becomes associated with scientific misconduct. Same goes for journals if the submission was published — now the quality of the peer-reviewers in put in question — how could they have missed it?
  • Diffusion of responsibility
    As the research on helping behavior shows nicely, the probability that people help drops with the amount of people present (simplification). There’s a diffusion of responsibility. Same with plagiarism — who is responsible? The journal? The editor? What’s the role of the reviewers? Who deals with it in the institution?
  • Lack of resources
    Given that dealing with plagiarism can be a lengthy process, it binds resources that could be needed elsewhere. In science, the opportunity costs are high.
  • Confidentiality
    Sometimes cases of plagiarism are seen as confidential — something that should be known only to the person directly involved.
  • Ruins careers
    A final but mayor possible reason is that making cases of plagiarism public damages/ruins the scientific career of the person who did plagiarize.

Personally, I think that while some of the arguments have merit in the sense that they point to relevant issues (e.g., it does cost resources and you make yourself vulnerable to reprisals), none of them is sufficient to stop going after plagiarism. Neither one possible reason alone, nor any combination or all of them together.

After all, science has a reputation to lose. And it’s not science that corrects itself, it’s the people working in science. Yes, it can be a long and demanding process, yes, you might end up with feuds and legal action (if you make the case public, who do you think will win?), and yes, it’s sometimes unclear who should do what. One reason why I love the COPE flowcharts. This is also a good time to have a look at the ethical guidelines of the institution you work for. In some cases, there are explicit steps outlined. (Un)fortunately, these guidelines are rarely used, so you might now know that there are structures in place to deal with cases of misconduct.

And regarding the confidentiality and the possible destruction of a career — well, that’s the point, isn’t it? If someone is guilty of plagiarism, should this person really work in science? Yes, there’s a huge responsibility here, esp. given that many people working in Academia end up identifying themselves only as being a scientist. Losing that identity can be devastating and possibly life-threatening. So, yup, it should be treated confidential at first, because accusations alone do serious damage, even if they are later proven to be unfounded. But if it really was misconduct — ask yourself, do you really want such a person in your field? The case should be made public, even if the person can still work in science afterwards. But without that public record, the next case of plagiarism will be seen again as “the first” and the person will continue.

As for the loss of face — for supervisors, the institution or the journal — besides being a wake-up call that something might be wrong in the way you educate the next generation of scientists, I think Prof. Dr. Ulrike Beisiegel said it best in an issue of “Duz” (duz Magazin 09/2013):

“Eine gute Universität wird immer Fälle von Fehlverhalten zu bearbeiten haben, das ist ein Zeichen für Qualität … alles andere ist ein Zeichen dafür, dass Fehler unter den Teppich gekehrt werden.”
Prof. Dr. Ulrike Beisiegel

roughly translated:

“A good university will always have to deal with cases of misconduct, that’s an indicator for quality … everything else is a sign that mistakes are brushed under the carpet.”
Prof. Dr. Ulrike Beisiegel

Or to put it differently:

“Show me a completely smooth operation and I’ll show you someone who’s covering mistakes. Real boats rock.”
Dune Vol. 6: “Chapterhouse Dune”

And I agree — it does send a message — not only one of quality. It shows that we take the issue seriously. That it matters not only where you end up, but also how you did get there. After all, what’s the message if plagiarism is not punished? If the attitude is “Ignore it, it’s too much hassle and we want to work with that group. Take it as an appreciation of your work.”? I think Lab Times put it nicely when they cited “Martin Frost” regarding other kinds of scientific misconduct:

“To date, no papers have actually been retracted. They still stand as exemplars to the young as to how to build a career. Get the position first – damn the Science – and once there, get people to have the ideas and do the ‘donkey work’, while one spends all one’s time in the rarefied atmosphere of the ‘club’ who hands out the money. Obsequiousness and conformism is what matters not scientific acumen. But what of all those wonderful scientists who were not given the opportunities that were given to Bulfone-Paus? What fine jobs they could have done with the (European) tax-payer funded resources and security of tenure given to her.”
“Martin Frost” cited in Lab Times 2011

If this is the way we do science, it’s no wonder when good people lose interest in it.


Cited Sources

  • 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
  • Lab Times. (2011). “Smear Campaign…” Lab Times, 1, 3.
  • Luke, B., & Kearins, K. (2012). Attribution of words versus attribution of responsibilities: Academic plagiarism and university practice. Organization, 19(6), 881–889. doi:10.1177/1350508412448857


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