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Blurred lines: Universities need to define academic plagiarism — many don’t

Every institution of higher learning has policies regarding academic integrity for students, as well as penalties for academic misconduct. The codes of conduct for faculty, however, are more variable.


The term that is used for appropriation without acknowledgment was first employed nearly 2,000 years ago by the Roman poet Martial in his Epigrams. He employed the Latin term for kidnapper — plagiarius — to refer to a fellow poet who was reciting Martial’s own verses.

And while literal kidnapping is illegal, the figurative form is not. A plagiarist may be sued for infringing another person’s copyright — or lose their academic post, as in the case of Harvard University president Claudine Gay earlier this month after being accused of presenting others’ work as her own — but plagiarism is not a legal concept. There is, in fact, widespread disagreement about what constitutes plagiarism, with debate revolving around issues such as how much material is appropriated, whether it appears to have been intentional, and whether someone has appropriated more than once. An even greater debate surrounds what the consequences of plagiarism should be.


The clearest and most problematic type of appropriation is so-called copy-and-paste plagiarism. It’s also the easiest to spot and the least likely to be the result of sloppy editing or garden-variety carelessness. Turnitin, a company that markets a widely used similarity detection tool, estimates the likelihood that two documents will contain the same consecutive sequence of 16 words at less than one in a trillion. These can be thought of as the easy, paradigmatic cases of plagiarism.

Faculty are evaluated in terms of their research productivity, and this is most often measured by the number of papers or monographs that they publish. Decisions about tenure and promotion are heavily influenced by these numbers, which creates a high-pressure environment to “publish or perish.” In this context, it’s not surprising that some scholars might be tempted to mine the ore that they find all around them.


This explanation, however, is not offered up as an excuse. Faculty members are in the unique position of both upholding and exemplifying academic standards, since they must also, when necessary, penalize students for their infractions.

Another thorny issue for faculty is the issue of self-plagiarism and duplicate publication. Given the pressure to publish, some professors repackage and reissue their work with only slight modifications. Given that publications are the coin of the realm in the academic world, this is akin to printing one’s own money. But given that faculty members tend to publish in the same relatively narrow domains throughout their career, some duplication is almost inevitable.

To combat appropriation, many academic journals now screen manuscripts for plagiarism when they are submitted for publication. The policy of Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishers, is typical in this regard: All submitted manuscripts are checked. But such policies aren’t universal.

What should colleges and universities do? Every institution of higher learning has policies regarding academic integrity for students, as well as penalties for academic misconduct. The codes of conduct for faculty, however, are more variable.

When it comes to adjudicating alleged plagiarism by faculty members, guidance is typically sparse. At my own institution, the University of Memphis, a 140-page faculty handbook includes the word plagiarism just once, as a form of “unacceptable behavior,” in the Faculty Code of Conduct. The handbook provides no definition for the term and does not specify the type or scope of appropriation that would be problematic. Plagiarism is also mentioned, as a form of research fraud, in the university’s policy on research misconduct, but that document offers no additional information or guidance. It appears that my university is fairly typical in this regard.


But how can academics set or enforce policies for faculty when the concept is so ill-defined? Even within the same institution, different faculty members can have various and sundry conceptions of what constitutes plagiarism in their classes. In addition, faculty are typically given wide leeway in addressing such cases on their own. It’s only when the instructor decides to make a formal allegation of plagiarism — possibly resulting in a failing grade or termination from an academic program — that the rest of the university’s disciplinary machinery springs to life.

Ira Lightman, the British poet who has made a name for himself by exposing other poets who appropriate another’s work, made the chilling observation that, in his experience, “plagiarists never do it once.” But academics shouldn’t receive higher education’s harshest penalty — separation from their institution — if only one of their publications shows signs of sloppy paraphrase or inadequate citation. Still, if an examination of their work reveals a recurring pattern of such behavior — as seems to be the case for Claudine Gay — then some form of sanction may be warranted.

Plagiarism in the academy isn’t some aberration; it reflects a far larger societal problem. As part of my research for a book on plagiarism, I’ve reviewed thousands of cases of alleged and actual appropriation by academics, students, novelists, musicians, artists, and politicians. But this list of plagiarists also includes cartoonists, choreographers, commencement speakers, clergy, and comedian — and those are just the occupations starting with the letter “C.”


Can anything be done to address academic plagiarism? A good starting point might be the incorporation of explicit guidance into faculty handbooks and other governing documents. One such model was proposed by the Office of Research Integrity, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Not all of the agency’s 28 guidelines would need to be adopted, but explicit discussions about acknowledgments, paraphrasing, and self-plagiarism should be taking place on all college campuses.

Roger J. Kreuz is associate dean and professor of psychology at the University of Memphis.