Reporting on Superiors

One of the interesting things about plagiarism is that it is often quite easy to determine whether it has happened. The real difficulty lies in figuring out how and why it happened, and therefore what to do about it. If the plagiarist is intentionally trying to commit fraud, it is both very important to expose it and somewhat risky to do so. Low ethical standards are rarely compartmentalised, so it is rational to worry about the sorts of actions a fraudster might take to avoid punishment, including shifting blame and making threats. If the plagiarist is just a careless scholar, however, we might be less worried about reprisals against ourselves for reporting them but more concerned on their behalf about possible effects on their reputation and career. There is, in any case, an ethics even to the reporting of ethics violations. And that’s where we left the case I introduced last week.

At this point, a PhD student has discovered that a major figure in her field has plagiarised work in another field, a field that the PhD student has followed with great interest, and a scholar that she respects a great deal. Specifically, she has found three complete paragraphs transcribed verbatim and inserted into the plagiarist’s text. She has concluded that the plagiarist has basically stolen a number of very good arguments to support his theory. The arguments are in fact very good (which is why she respects the original author) but she’s not sure they are directly transferable into the plagiarist’s context. Even if he had cited properly, the reasoning seems specious to her. Just pasting them into the new context, in fact, seems to distort the intention of the original author. She’s a bit distressed about the situation because the only reason she read the plagiarist’s work so closely in the first place was because the plagiarist had suggested she would be won over by his arguments there. She had promised to get back to him after reading him. Now what is she to do?

Clearly, the plagiarist had not expected her to discover the true source of his prose. But perhaps the plagiarist was just “sloppy” (as the common excuse runs) and isn’t even aware of the problem himself. It’s a difficult situation.

Like most people, she quickly decides to discuss the issue with someone else, to get another’s eyes on the facts and see if there’s something she’s just misunderstood. But even here, she’s not sure who to talk to. Her supervisor often talks glowingly about the plagiarist’s work, and even his person. So she has decided to take a fellow PhD student into her confidence, someone who is doing work in an unrelated field (unrelated both to the plagiarist and the original author). Notice that she is trying to be careful about who she will “implicate”. After all, whoever she shows what she’s discovered is now, implicitly, in the same ethical situation. Even if our PhD student decides to take things no further, the confidant will have to decide what his obligation is.

I’ll leave it here. And solicit comments from readers, both in the comments and by email. But, before I sign off, do notice that she has considered the possibility of contacting several people at this point:

  1. The plagiarist
  2. The plagiarised
  3. Her supervisor
  4. A fellow PhD student working in another area

Choosing any of these, another ethical question immediately arises: what should they do? Feel free to think about this as well. 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?

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