Cheaters in our midst
We must do more to tackle academic plagiarism
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.