The Aftermath of Plagiarism

For rules and regulations against plagiarism to have meaning, there must be consequences for those who violate them. However, determining what those punishments should be and who meters them out is a daunting task that every organization with a plagiarism policy must face.

Unfortunately, the enforcement of plagiarism standards is often wildly erratic, meaning that two people who commit similar missteps receive very different punishments. This, in turn, undermines the faith both the accused and outsiders have in the plagiarism enforcement system and often leads to cases of misconduct becoming expensive legal disputes.

Fixing this problem is going to involve organizations carefully crafting and spelling out their plagiarism policies so that there is no question what the rules are, who determines when an infraction took place and what punishments are appropriate.

While crafting such a detailed policy means a heavy time and cost investment, it can save much more down the road by avoiding messy conflict and lawsuits that could drain far more resources.

The Extrajudicial Process

Currently, most cases of plagiarism are handled through an extrajudicial process. This means the process for determining guilt or innocence as well as proper punishment is handled outside of the court system.

This process is different in every field, school, publisher, organization and country.

stacks of newspapers

For example, in an academic environment, the enforcement of plagiarism likely falls on the shoulders of school officials including teachers and administrators. This system can take the structure of everything from a teacher handing down a punishment to a robust disciplinary system with trials and judges. It all depends on the type of school and the nature of the plagiarism involved.

Compare that to scholarly journals, where plagiarism judgments are made almost exclusively by editors and they are responsible for choosing whether to publish a work, retract a work, send it back for correction or blacklist the 'infringer'.

In non-academic and non-scholastic environments, such as journalism, book publishing and web content creation, plagiarism matters are handled by supervisors, editors and, in some cases, industry organizations that mediate or advise on plagiarism cases.

While this system may seem more disparate and inconsistent, it has a slew of advantages over a more centralized enforcement system, such as the judicial system, those advantages include:

  1. Greater Flexibility: Since different industries and different organizations have varied standards on what is and is not plagiarism, this system allows judgments to be made on a micro level. This opens the door for relevant standards to be instituted and relevant punishments to be enforced.

  2. Quicker Results: Any centralized system will suffer from delays that can be removed by making decisions closer to where the plagiarism took place. For example, in the judicial system, a plagiarism case can take a long period of time, even a basic copyright infringement case can take three years or more.

  3. Expert Judges: No one person can be an expert on all types of plagiarism in all types of environments. By having editors and supervisors address plagiarism matters directly, people who are in the field and understand the standards are the ones making the judgments.

The problem with an extrajudicial system is that it eliminates a great deal of accountability. With a judge or a jury in a courtroom, there is an appeals process, a way to challenge and overturn bad rulings as well as standards and guidelines for how the law should be applied.

With plagiarism cases, the initial decision is often the final one and there is no recourse, follow up or appeal process with which to challenge the ruling. This is true whether the decision was too harsh, too lenient or simply incorrect.

This lack of accountability has led to a great deal of inconsistency in how plagiarism is enforced and that has created an environment where two plagiarists can commit very similar crimes, but receive wildly different outcomes.

Below are just a few examples of how disparate plagiarism enforcement can be.

Case Studies: When Similar Acts Receive Different Punishments

While we would like to think that plagiarism is enforced evenly, it rarely is. Two individuals with similar situations can commit similar plagiarism but receive wildly different punishments. This is because outside factors often intrude in plagiarism cases and, due to the lack of accountability of those in power, they are often allowed to influence outcomes without any means of guarding against them.

Here are just five examples of similar (though not identical) acts of plagiarism receiving very different punishments.

Elizabeth Nixon vs. William Meehan

In 2011, Montana Miller, a professor at Bowling State University, sued Elizabeth Nixon, an Ohio State University alumnus, alleging that Nixon plagiarized her dissertation, using some 18 pages of her work verbatim or near-verbatim.

Nixon eventually settled the suit, but not before OSU revoked her Ph.D, which she had obtained with the plagiarized dissertation.

This is in stark contrast to two years earlier, when another lawsuit accused Jacksonville State University President William Meehan of plagiarism in his Ph.D dissertation, which he wrote while working on his degree at the University of Alabama, noting that nearly one third of it was copied verbatim or near-verbatim from another dissertation.

That other dissertation, while cited in Meehan’s work, was quoted from and the words were presented as original.

This was not Meehan’s first brush with plagiarism, he had been accused of hiring a ghostwriter for a column he penned in the student newspaper in 2007.

The case drew widespread publicity with articles on popular sites such as Boing Boing displaying a chart highlighting the similarities. However, neither the University of Alabama nor Jacksonville State University looked into the matter and Meehan retains both his degree and his position today.

Victor Ponta vs. Annette Schavan

In June 2012, Nature Magazine reported about allegations that Victor Ponta, the Prime Minister of Romania, had plagiarized his Ph.D. dissertation. These allegations were supported by documents that appeared to show Ponta had copied verbatim nearly a third of his thesis.

An investigation was launched  and, though several committees did find that Ponta had plagiarized, their findings were invalidated and other committees, often seen as loyal to Ponta and his party, found that he had not.

Ponta ended up hanging on to both his position and his degree. He remains the Prime Minister as of this writing in June 2014.

This is in stark contrast to former German Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan. The same year as Ponta, she was a accused of plagiarism in her Ph.D dissertation by anonymous bloggers and an investigation into her work found some 60 cases of improper citation prompting her university, in February 2013, to revoke her degree.

Shortly after she resigned her Minister position, many believe due to political pressure.

Schavan initially waged a court battle to have her degree restored but, in April of 2014, she surrendered that fight as well, choosing instead to rebuild her career without her degree.

Kaavya Viswanathan vs Jane Goodall

In 2006, Kaavya Viswanathan was a Harvard student preparing to publish her first novel, entitled ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”. She had received the $500,000 book contract while still in high school and was seen as a rising star in the “chick lit” genre.

However, shortly after the book was published by Little Brown and Co. The Harvard Crimson noted that the book contained many passages that were similar to two books by Megan F. McCafferty, “Sloppy First” and “Second Helpings”, published in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

As the controversy grew and further passages were discovered, Viswanathan was stripped of her contract and the book was pulled off of the shelves. However, as the scandal unfolded, questions were raised whether it was Viswanathan herself who committed the plagiarism or her “book packager” that she worked with.

Either way, Viswanathan has not published a new book and, instead, has headed into the legal field.

Compare that to 2013 when famed primatologist Jane Goodall was preparing to publish her new book “Seeds of Hope”. However, a reviewer at The Washington Post realized that the book contained at least a dozen passages of verbatim copying without attribution.

Goodall later blamed research assistants and chaotic note taking for the errors and the publication date of the book was pushed back one year to allow Goodall time to fix any problems with the work.

“Seeds of Hope” was published earlier this year after the plagiarized portions were either attributed or rewritten.  

Jonah Lehrer vs Marie-Louise Gumuchian

In June of 2012, bloggers and other observers noted that popular science journalist Jonah Lehrer, recently hired as a writer for the New Yorker, had recycled previous content from earlier works of his that he had written for other publications.

But what started as an discussion about the ethics of self-plagiarism quickly turned into a deeper investigation into Lehrer’s work. As instances of fabrication, plagiarism and other ethical missteps.  

In the end, Lehrer was either fired or resigned from every publication he worked for. However, much like Jayson Blair, Lehrer was able to parlay his infamy into a second career. Both landing a lucrative speaking job for the Knight Foundation and a book deal with Simon & Schuster.

This is in contrast to the case of Marie-Louise Gumuchian, a former CNN news editor who was recently fired after an internal audit revealed that she had plagiarized in some 50 stories which contained some 128 separate instances of plagiarism, during her relatively brief time at the company.

The firing was mentioned in an editors’ note and her stories with known issues were either removed, edited or marked to indicate the problems.

Much of her plagiarized material came from Reuters, which which she worked for years before moving to CNN. Reuters, however, is standing by Gumuchian’s work, saying that “We are not aware of any concerns raised about Ms. Gamuchian’s work.”

Nonetheless, it is widely believe that Gamuchian’s journalism career is over, or that she will at least be forced to start over.

The Reasons for the Differences and Problems with Them

In each of the cases above, people who had committed similar acts of plagiarism saw drastically different outcomes and impacts. Those differences lead to uncomfortable questions.

Why does Jonah Lehrer get a second chance at redemption while a CNN editor has to find a new career? Why does a new novelist become a public pariah while Jane Goodall is allowed to edit and release her book that contained plagiarism?

These differences can be chalked up to a slew of things. In most of the cases you have different people making judgments with at least slightly different sets of facts. In some cases you have separate standards for what is plagiarism, different policies on how to enforce ethics and even different tools for enforcement.

However, outside factors also played a crucial role in many of these cases, as they do in countless other plagiarism investigations. Those factors can include:

  1. Cultural Differences: Different cultures, view plagiarism in different ways and, as such, enforce the rules around plagiarism differently.

  2. Power/Prominence of Accused: It is much more difficult to levy plagiarism allegations against someone who has power, wealth or prominence. An unknown researcher is in a different position than a media icon when accused of plagiarism.

  3. Public Interest: The public takes interest in plagiarism cases regularly, but doesn’t pay attention to all allegations. When the public is watching intently, the outcome is often very different than when it isn’t paying attention.

  4. Legal Concerns: Many publications feel that taking strong action may make them vulnerable to a lawsuit from the accused. Likewise, in other situations, not taking strong action may invite legal action from the victims of the plagiarism.

  5. Financial Pressures: When a plagiarist is lucrative, the cost of severely punishing them is much higher for an organization. In some cases, a strong response just doesn’t make financial sense.

Many of these outside factors are inconsistent and invisible to outside observers or even the accused themselves. This makes plagiarism enforcement appear arbitrary and that, in turn, reduces respect for plagiarism punishments handed down and can even hurt the perception of all involved in the eye of the public.

However, it also leads to a potentially more serious problem of those who are convicted of plagiarism turning to the judicial system as a means to resolve or appeal the decisions against them,

This includes a former Kent State Ph.D who had his degree revoked due to plagiarism in a rough draft of his thesis, a Harvard law grad who said he missed out on employment after, he claims, his school made a false allegation of plagiarism against him and even controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who successfully (initially) sued for wrongful termination after being fired over accusations of plagiarism.

All of these lawsuits are expensive, time-consuming distractions. Not only will they take many thousands of dollars and many years to fight, but they will eventually be decided by judges and/or juries that have little expertise in plagiarism and/or the field of study involved.

While these types of lawsuits are not completely preventable, no litigation is, many of them can be avoided but it means institutions are going to have to be proactive with their plagiarism policies and plan for these types of disputes before they happen.

Solving the Problem

Addressing the problem is no simple task. The ideal solution would be industry-wide standards for plagiarism and plagiarism enforcement. However, that is impractical for a variety  of reasons.

Instead, the best solution available today is for organizations to have clear, well-defined and public plagiarism policies that they then follow consistently and evenly.

Unfortunately, many organizations feel that this means little more than printing a definition of plagiarism along with a range of punishments in either a handbook, contract or other terms of service. However, such policies, while flexible, open the door to a great deal of interpretation and that, in turn, leads to inconsistent responses to plagiarism.

Instead, a good plagiarism policy should answer all of the following questions:

  1. A Clear Definition of What Plagiarism Is?: The policy needs to thoroughly describe what is considered plagiarism for the purpose of the policy. This includes unattributed words, paraphrasing, ideas, research and other elements that can be plagiarized.

  2. Who Will Perform the Investigation?: After plagiarism is suspected, someone has to delve into the matter and determine what the facts are. Who will be the person to do the research and gather the information?

  3. How Will Severity Be Determined?: Rather than just offering a range of punishments, a complete policy will list how the severity of the plagiarism will be determined, in particular, the list of factors that will be weighed and how they will be weighed. This can include the word count involved, what exactly is being plagiarized (in particular whether it involves introductory material or research) and weighing repeat offenses.

  4. How Will the Repercussions Be Determined?: Once you know the severity, they have to be paired up with either specific or a very narrow range of punishments that can be applied to them. It may help to break apart plagiarism across tiers and assign punishments to those tiers.

  5. Who Will Determine the Severity and Repercussion?: Even with very specific severity and repercussion guidelines, someone still has to make the actual determination. A good policy spells out who exactly that will be and what their relationship is, if any, to the person who conducted the investigation.

  6. How Will It Be Determined?: How will the person making the determination do so? Will there be a full trial with both sides presenting evidence? Will there be a tribunal that hears the evidences presented by one side and votes? Or will the decision be made informally by one person? Any and all systems can work but it needs to be spelled out.

  7. How Will Appeals Be Handled?: After the initial decision, is there an appeals process? If there is, who will make the determinations and what will the process be for those? There needs to be clear guidelines about where someone who feels they were treated unfairly can go to take the matter up higher.

  8. How Will Privacy Be Handled?: Will the investigation be kept secret while it’s being processed? How will the results be announced after it is complete? Will other, related, organizations be notified about the results or will they be kept purely internal? Privacy, both with the public, related organizations and the media needs to be discussed, in particular with the Internet and how quickly private matters can become global affairs.

However, once the plagiarism policy is completed, it needs to be posted in a public place. Ideally, this includes posting it on the organization’s website, but inclusion in manuals and contracts is also wise. It needs to be visible to everyone, not just those who are under its purview, but it’s especially important that those who are subjected to it are aware of it.

On that note, the best way to ensure that those subjected to the policy are aware and agree to it is to work it into any contracts that they sign. For companies addressing their employees, this can mean putting it into their employee contracts or during introductory training, for journals accepting submissions it can be included in the terms of service, for students, it can be part of the admission process.

Having a clear plagiarism policy that is adhered to and signed by the people that are subjected to it is the best way to prevent the legal issues that can arise from vague policies.

While this might seem like a lot of effort to put into a plagiarism policy, especially if plagiarism issues are rare, it can save a great deal of time and headache down the road. Not only does it ensure that plagiarism investigations are performed thoroughly, it speeds up the process and helps protect against legal issues.

Fortunately, there is help out there. Schools, for instance, can turn to the AMBeR Plagiarism Benchmark Tariff for an example of a brief, but effective plagiarism enforcement policy that uses a point system to determine both severity and punishments.

For journals, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) provides a series of resources and guides to help editors and publishers determine how to respond to various publication ethics violations, including plagiarism. Likewise, the Society of Professional Journalists has a new ethics code that addresses plagiarism among other topics.

Other industries have similar guides that can act as starting points for crafting a robust, complete and effective plagiarism policy.

But regardless of where the policy comes from, having it, making it public and following it closely is crucial to both fairly dealing with plagiarism issues and avoiding the legal headaches that can result from them.

Bottom Line

Consistency and clarity are the most important aspects to any plagiarism policy. While it is crucial that plagiarism be treated seriously as an ethical offense, if that enforcement is irregular or erratic, having a strong policy on paper is pointless.

It is important for organizations to not just write down an effective policy on plagiarism, but to adhere to it. While it would be ideal for such policies to be handed down on an industry-wide level, such a system isn’t practical at this time. That shifts the responsibility to individual organizations to craft, publish and adhere to policies of their own.

Still, industry-wide organizations have a crucial role to play in addressing this issue. Not only can they draft and hone policies that may become the future standards, but they can provide guidance to other organizations in their field as they work to perfect their policies.

In the end, there will be no single solution to this problem. Making plagiarism enforcement consistent is going to require purging the existing system of the outside influences that impact it. That, in turn, will require a great deal of soul-searching to find why those influences are there in the first place.

However, once it’s done, not only will plagiarism enforcement become much more consistent, improving confidence in the extrajudicial process, but fewer plagiarism-related cases will wind up in the courts saving organizations time and money while avoiding major distractions.