Cheaters in our midst

We must do more to tackle aca­demic pla­gia­rism

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

When the Ro­man poet Ju­ve­nal wrote the line “Quis cus­todiet ip­sos cus­todes?” (“Who will guard the guards?”), it re­ally meant, “Who will en­sure that those who guard us do not over­reach their author­ity?”

But there is an­other sense of the ques­tion: Who will pro­tect those who are meant to pro­tect us?

At higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions around the world, aca­demics do what they can to en­sure that stu­dents do not pla­gia­rise. The aim of stop­ping pla­gia­rism is pro­tec­tion: pro­tect­ing the orig­i­nal au­thor, pro­tect­ing the stu­dent from later reper­cus­sions, and also pro­tect­ing the in­tegrity of the aca­demic field of study.

Aca­demics, how­ever, do not only teach; they also write aca­demic papers and seek to have them pub­lished in aca­demic jour­nals. Most aca­demics are not paid for these papers; the process is seen as part of the job, with re­wards com­ing in the form of in­creased job se­cu­rity, pro­mo­tion and pres­tige.

But who pro­tects these aca­demics from pla­gia­rism by other aca­demics? While there may be sev­eral strong sug­ges­tions for cor­rec­tion, there is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess.

To il­lus­trate: I pub­lish papers in ed­u­ca­tion, and some of my papers have dealt with a very nar­row topic in ed­u­ca­tion. Un­til now, this topic has been mostly ne­glected by other re­searchers. It was, then, with great glee that I saw a pa­per rec­om­mended to me by Google Scholar fea­tur­ing this topic; I ea­gerly down­loaded and read the pa­per. Un­for­tu­nately, it turned out that large tracts of it were merely sum­maries of my own work, in­clud­ing claim­ing to cite the same ref­er­ences that I had painstak­ingly re­searched.

In re­sponse, I sent emails to the editor of my jour­nal, the pub­lish­ing house of my jour­nal, the con­tact au­thor of the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cle, the editor of the of­fend­ing jour­nal, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pub­lish­ing house of the of­fend­ing jour­nal, and the rec­tor of the univer­sity of the con­tact au­thor.

Al­though I re­ceived sym­pa­thetic re­sponses from the editor and pub­lish­ing house of my jour­nal, noth­ing con­crete has emerged. And ev­ery time I open Google Scholar, this of­fend­ing pa­per is still rec­om­mended to me.

There are other routes, such as con­tact­ing Re­trac­tion-Watch or per­haps pur­su­ing a le­gal case – not an easy path, es­pe­cially given the in­ter­na­tional na­ture of academia.

Aca­demic jour­nal data­bases do have stan­dards, and the Com­mit­tee on Pub­li­ca­tion Ethics sets guide­lines, but these are for jour­nals and pub­lish­ers only – in­di­vid­ual au­thors are fairly stranded. Pub­lic nam­ing and sham­ing has been sug­gested, but that op­tion is not ap­peal­ing for most aca­demics.

Apart from that, there is noth­ing that I can do. Nat­u­rally, I also fear the day that some­body reads a later ar­ti­cle of mine on the topic and then ac­cuses me of not ac­knowl­edg­ing the work done by the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cle and of pla­gia­ris­ing that work.

In a world where aca­demic ca­reers rise and fall on pub­li­ca­tion, surely it is time that this is­sue is for­mally ad­dressed.

Per­haps the so­lu­tion calls for some in­ter­na­tional body, with clear guide­lines, to which aca­demics may ap­peal when they be­lieve that their work has been pla­gia­rised by other aca­demics, which can is­sue judge­ments, and whose judge­ments are bind­ing on pub­lish­ing houses to take swift ac­tion.

What­ever the so­lu­tion, surely we need some way to en­sure that while we do all we can to pre­vent pla­gia­rism and to pro­tect our stu­dents and other aca­demics from be­ing pla­gia­rised, some­one has our backs and is pro­tect­ing us from be­ing pla­gia­rised by other aca­demics.

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