Guest Post: When it’s not just students who plagiarize

All course instructors have academic integrity statements on their syllabi. Unfortunately, dealing with students who have plagiarized is one of the worst parts of teaching. But it’s not just students (usually undergraduates but occasionally graduates) who can—and do—plagiarize. Two colleagues plagiarized my work. One of them plagiarized twice. Although these events happened a number of years ago, I still have knots in my stomach just thinking about it.

“Bob” was an Assistant Professor a few years ahead of me on the tenure clock. He was good friends with the chair of our department. Bob and Chair applied for a large grant from a major funding agency. Their application garnered interest, but the reviewers wanted them to elaborate some aspects of their proposal. Because I was an expert in several of these areas, the reviewers recommended that I be brought in on the proposal. What should have been a testament to my scholarly contributions and reputation soon became a nightmare.

Chair “asked” me to “help” Bob with this additional work. I could hardly say no. After all, I was untenured and he was my chair. Over the next few weeks, I helped Bob. It’s hard to quantify how much work we each did on the grant, particularly now, years later. My estimate is that I wrote about one-third of the supplementary material, as well as offering feedback on Bob’s share, which I openly acknowledge was the majority.

Several months later, Chair sent an email to the department. They had been awarded the grant. Chair was effusive in his email, applauding Bob’s accomplishments and emphasizing how important this grant was going to be our department. Nowhere did he mention that I had helped write the grant—and specifically the part that ended up securing the award.

Fast forward two and a half years. Bob’s book came out. It was in my field, so I bought a copy. I was stunned and horrified to see my ideas central to his book, but they were not cited. Anywhere. I had presented these arguments at a major conference. The session was well attended and I explicitly remember Bob attending the panel. Twenty-one months passed between my talk and publication of his book. True, books take a long time to come out, even once the final manuscript has been submitted for copyediting, proofs, and production. But I know for a fact that Bob was working on his book for at least fifteen months after my conference presentation.

During this time frame, my own scholarship had taken a hit for a complicated set of reasons that I will not specify because they would further risk my anonymity. My own book was published eighteen months after Bob’s. Although I could and did cite my earlier work, including the (in)famous conference paper, I also felt bound by scholarly norms to cite Bob’s book—even though he had not referenced my own prior work.

Needless to say, I no longer respect these two colleagues. But it’s not just my professional (and personal) relationships with them that have suffered. There have been other consequences. For one, that large grant helped Bob get tenure. It didn’t help my tenure case. In addition, an article in one of our leading journals was published a few months ago. The ideas in question were the heart of the article’s interpretive framework. Guess whose book was cited: Bob’s, not mine. I do hold the editor partly responsible for not pushing the author to situate these ideas in larger literatures. There are a number of relevant publications here—and not just mine. But this article confirms how intellectual genealogies—both visible and invisible—matter. They have lasting, tangible effects. And these effects are to the benefit of some and the detriment of others.

What have I learned from this experience?

  1. Unfortunately, do not assume your colleagues will act responsibly and ethically. 
    I used to be optimistic about colleagues and collaborative ventures. I also used to think that such an attitude was an asset. It opened doors, fostered interest in my work, and contributed to a sense of intellectual community and camaraderie. These experiences forced me to rethink my relationships with colleagues and reconsider possible collaborations. Now I cover my bases. In many ways, I am sad to have lost this trusting spirit, but the costs—professional, intellectual, emotional, and psychological—have been too great.
  1. Get the terms of any and all collaborations—official and particularly unofficial—spelled out in writing. Make amendments to those agreements as collaborations shift over time.
    The expectations, division of labor, and authorship should be discussed and detailed. If the project changes mid-stream (and it probably will), those terms should be updated and reflect new realities. Do not assume your work will be attributed fairly and justly. Instead, take the time to make sure your contributions will be recognized.
  1. Despite the time, effort, and significant emotional and psychological toll, file complaints and pursue other review mechanisms so that questionable or explicitly unethical behavior is addressed in a timely fashion.
    In retrospect, I should have contacted my Dean, Human Resources at the university, and the ethics board at the funding agency. I did not do so for a complex set of professional and personal reasons. But the power dynamics of the situation were also against me. I—an untenured female faculty member still relatively new to the department—would have had to speak out against two male colleagues, both of whom were senior to me. And one of them was my chair. In the end, I took the path of least resistance: I did nothing. Now I sorely regret it. I doubt Bob would have failed to cite my work in his book if I had called him on his unethical behavior on the grant several years earlier.
    Subsequent experiences have confirmed that filing complaints can have enormous consequences. I have worked with female graduate students who have faced their own ethical conundrums. One situation became bad enough that she had to involve university officials. Fortunately, it was eventually resolved in her favor. However, it turns out that a number of graduate students who had worked with this faculty member had also faced unethical situations. All of these students were female and/or LGBT, while the supervisor in question was senior male faculty. This student was the first to pursue any action against him. Now there is a track record on file. But given the informal data she collected, there should have been a track record much earlier. If there had been a paper trail, other students would probably have been protected. Instead, several of them left graduate school.
  1. Power relations and specifically power inequalities should not affect ethical conduct and behavior.
    Let me be perfectly clear: I do not assume all male faculty are unethical scholars, colleagues, and supervisors. I have had respectful, productive collaborations with multiple male colleagues, both junior and senior to me. In addition, gender is not the only relevant power dynamic. We can—and should—also consider race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, disability, ESL, and other dynamics of difference.
    That said, I suspect unethical breaches are far more common when unequal power relations are in play. And those with less power are more likely to suffer the repercussions, from leaving graduate school and being pressed into silence to having lower “impact factor” statistics because their work is not adequately credited and cited.

Reliving this experience has been painful, even years later. I have a lump in my throat as I write this. Meanwhile, my colleagues have suffered no consequences. None. I remain disappointed, frustrated, and very, very angry. I have not forgiven them for what they did. I’m not sure I ever can. My hope in writing this essay is that others might learn from my experience and avoid similar situations.

Today’s guest post is by Tenured but Disillusioned, an Associate Professor at a R1 Institution in North America.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: When it’s not just students who plagiarize

  1. It would be helpful to know if this colleague plagiarized in the sense of taking words you wrote and presenting them as his own, or if he repackaged your ideas as his using paraphrasing without citing you. If it’s the latter, I would say it’s more akin to scooping or stealing ideas than plagiarizing. Purposefully scooping using these means (exploiting insider knowledge about a close colleague’s work) is highly unethical, but plagiarism can be an actual legal issue (copyright violation). At least in my department, scooping would likely be seen as a communication failure to be worked out internally whereas plagiarism would be a legal issue and one of the few grounds for termination for even a tenured professor.

  2. Good advice in any situation – and a warning – it is not only males who perpetuate unethical behaviour such as this (unfortunately). Don’t rely on any sense of sisterhood either, follow up or report on any plagiarism as early as you see it – no matter who is the perpetrator.

  3. Pingback: Links 6/1/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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