Teachable Moments

Last week I asked, “What is the ethical thing to do if a PhD student either (1) accuses you of plagiarism or (2) informs you that someone has plagiarised you or (3) informs you that someone in your field is a plagiarist or (4) informs you that someone in another area is a plagiarist?” Let’s assume that the PhD student is right about the facts, i.e., that there is talk of actual plagiarism, verbatim transcription without citation. (In our example, we’ve been imagining several full paragraphs’ worth.)

There is, in such cases, no sense in which the PhD student might be behaving unethically simply by bringing it to your attention. That is, there is no ethical obligation in scholarship to keep facts like this hidden. On the contrary, there is arguably (let’s argue about it) an obligation to report it. So far, I’ve been asking mainly what the PhD student should do with her discovery. One way to think about this, meanwhile, is think about what her “betters” (i.e., more established researchers) should do with her discovery once she informs them of it.

To my mind, the plagiarist is in a particularly tough spot ethically if a PhD student brings the accusation. After all, this is a “teachable moment”; it’s an occasion to model good behaviour for an aspiring member of the field. If you deny it, or trivialise it, or try to bribe your way out of it, you’re disappointing the PhD student’s expectations about the integrity of the disciplinary. Here, the role of the plagiarist will be to come entirely clean and to involve the PhD student in the process so as to make it both education and edifying.

This would require an enormous amount of character. And that’s of course why I don’t recommend going to the plagiarist. The initial transgression doesn’t exactly indicate great character.

But colleagues and supervisors would also be put in an ethical quandary. They would be equally bound to model good behaviour. So their task would be to show the PhD student how one holds plagiarists to account in the scholarly community. What’s the right procedure by which to get the plagiarist to acknowledge the error and issue a correction? Again, it would be good for the more senior person here to involve the PhD student in the process as much as possible, showing her how it is done.

A special case is where the plagiarist shows you that your work has been plagiarised. What if it’s someone you happen to admire? What if it’s someone who is much better known than you and much more respected? Do you just let it go? Is that what you want to tell the PhD student is the right thing to do in such cases? At a deeper level: is it up to you? Is it your call whether a plagiarist should be held to account as long as its your work that has been plagiarised?

What I’m trying to bring out here is not just that ethical responsibilities are often contingent on power relationships, but also that ethical behaviour is what affords (and often demands) learning. One reason that scholars must behave ethically is that unethical behaviour is difficult to learn from. It closes off discussion rather than opening it up.

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