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Version of 30 June 2005, header-details amended 26 April 2006
This is the PrePrint version of a paper later published in a refereed journal. Unlike the final version, this PrePrint contains lots of hotlinks to sources.
The official version is:
Clarke R. 'Plagiarism by Academics: More Complex Than It Seems' J. Assoc. Infor. Syst. 7, 2 (February 2006), at http://jais.isworld.org/articles/default.asp?vol=7&art=5
A copy of the official, published version is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/Plag0602.html
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2004-05
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/Plag0506.html
The superseded version of 6 October 2004 is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/Plag0410.html
The unattributed incorporation of the work of others into an academic publication is widely regarded as being seriously inappropriate behaviour. Yet imitation is fundamental to many things that people do, even in academic disciplines. This paper examines the range of activities in which academics engage, including a detailed study of the authoring of text-books. It concludes that a more fine-grained analysis of plagiarism is needed, in order to distinguish copying that is harmful to the intellectual process, and that which is important to it.
A great deal has been written about the inappropriate use by students of material originated by others. The literature relating to plagiarism by academics, on the other hand, is rather more limited, particularly within the information systems discipline. The legal and ethical frameworks are far from clear, and the tone of many articles is rather shrill. The Internet has brought new opportunities for plagiarists, and new investigative tools for their opponents. The time is ripe for deeper consideration of the issues that arise in the context of rapid, wide-reach, electronic publication.
During the first few years of the new millenium, ethics within the profession of information systems research has been the subject of a small flurry of activity. A case was published in Communications of the ACM (Kock 1999). An ISWorld Resource Page has been established (Davison & Kock 2000-). ICIS panels have addressed various topics within the area (e.g. Davison et al. 2001, Davison et al. 2003). The Association for Information Systems (AIS) has studied the question of member misconduct (Heales 2002, George et al. 2003), including an overview of the plagiarism literature by Heales (2003, pp. 59-65). Shortly afterwards, a paper on the topic appeared in MISQ (Kock & Davison 2003).
The AIS subsequently published a Code of Research Conduct, a segment of which is concerned with plagiarism (Davison et al. 2004b, together with supporting documents, Davison et al. 2004a and 2004c). A key motivation for the research underlying this paper was the articulation of concerns about some aspects of that Code.
The process was informed by literature research; by consideration of the many contexts in which academic publishing is undertaken; and by an investigation conducted by the author, on behalf of a university, into allegations of plagiarism in a text-book.
The paper commences with a brief review of plagiarism generally, to provide context to the more specific concerns of inappropriate copying by academics. The arguments against plagiarism are presented under the headings of pedagogical, ethical and legal. Several counter-arguments are outlined. In order to throw light on the tension between the two sets of arguments, a case study is presented.
It is suggested that balance is needed, and that conventional, narrow, defensive and proprietary attitudes to copying need to be moderated. Constructive proposals are put forward that are intended to provide a basis for postgraduate training, to assist individual authors, and to support investigations into allegations of plagiarism. These relate to evaluation criteria for the seriousness of instances of plagiarism, and appropriate processes and enforcement mechanisms. Specific proposals are also made for revisions to the AIS Code.
This preliminary section reviews dictionary definitions of plagiarism, and its manifestations in journalism, creative literature, entertainment and education.
Plagiarism resembles pornography, at least to the extent that people believe that they know it when they see it, but seldom take the trouble to construct, or to seek out, a definition of the term. Dictionary entries include the following:
The Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition identifies its etymology as being the Latin plagiarius - a kidnapper, stealer or abductor of a slave or child, and the Oxford traces it further back to the Greek plagion - `a kidnapping'. On the other hand, its coinage appears to be relatively recent: the first occurrence identified in the Oxford is in 1621. It appears to have been in common usage by the mid-eighteenth century.
Published syllabi for journalism courses pay little attention to plagiarism. Professional Codes of Ethics generally mention it, but lack depth in their treatment of it. For example, the current Code of the Australian Journalists Association (now a Division of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) says "10. Do not plagiarise"; and the draft replacement states: "6. Plagiarism is stealing. Always attribute fairly". The exhortation in the 1,000-word Code of the U.S. Society for Professional Journalists is a masterpiece of brevity: "Never plagiarize".
Some corporate codes of conduct and statements by newspaper publishers vilify plagiarists, e.g. "Plagiarism is one of journalism's unforgivable sins - and, at this newspaper, a dismissible offense" (from the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, quoted in Journalism.org 2004). Some codes recognise 'value-add' as a criterion or mitigating factor: "When other work is used as the source of ideas or stylistic inspiration, the result must be clearly your own work" (from the Detroit Free Press, quoted in Journalism.org 2004).
In practice, the profession of journalism involves the production of a great deal of text in a short time, with minimal time for research and reflection. As a result, plagiarism is rife, and only some of the most extreme cases are acted upon. This is especially the case in specialist newspapers and magazines targeted at particular industries, whose copy in many cases comprises minimally creative re-working of the content of media releases from suppliers. But the problem can also afflict the great names in journalism, as was evidenced by the departure of the Editor of The New York Times in mid-2003, as a result of the paper's failure to detect and control fabrication and plagiarism by a reporter, Jayson Blair (e.g. Hernandez 2003).
In the various literary genres, instances of direct and substantial plagiarism arise from time to time, often with serious consequences for the author's reputation among their peers, and sometimes for their livelihood.
Less serious instances can still be contentious. It is common to hear criticisms of works as being 'derivative', by which appears to be meant sufficiently similar in approach, style and devices that only limited claims of creative originality can be sustained. Much discussion takes place about the re-use of plot-lines, and scandals surface from time to time (Valentine 2005); yet many plot-lines can be ultimately traced back to at least Shakespeare and often Ancient Greece.
In addition, the concept of 'genre' is related to plagiarism, to the extent that all, say, crime thrillers, horror stories and love stories, conform with stylistic norms. This suggests a need for accusers to keep a sense of proportion.
The concept of genre is institutionalised in the entertainment world. Barbara Cartland could re-write the same novel many times, and Mills & Boon continues to commission very similar novels from successions of willing, heavily mutually plagiarising authors. In television and multi-media entertainment, copyright and trademark laws are used to enable genres like 'reality TV' variants and 'Idol' to generate considerable revenue-flows from licensing in many limited geographical areas around the world.
A further consideration that blurs the concept of plagiarism is the considerable extent to which artists of all kinds are applying modern technologies to allude to earlier creative works. Cartoonists self-plagiarise their previous depictions of individuals, and their and others' symbols for events, attitudes and values. Digitised and originally-digital photographic images are manipulated with a level of professionalism that was seldom attainable with 'air-brushing' techniques applied to silver chloride prints. The 'sampling' of music has rapidly moved from oddity to established art-form. Recorded video is being manipulated to create surrealism and super-realism, which rely for their impact on being at once close to and distant from the original depiction of human experience.
With so many forms of communication making constructive use of copies of prior works, it is only natural that questions are arising about the continued relevance of longstanding norms concerning plagiarism, and even the notion of authorship.
In marked contrast with the relaxed attitudes to plagiarism in some contexts, educators have been hardening their hearts against plagiarism by students, particularly at undergraduate level. A vast informal literature has arisen in recent years, especially in the U.S.A. but also in some other countries, stimulated by the ready availability of conveniently copiable sources accessible over the Internet.
Many papers deplore copying without appropriate attribution, often in strongly moralistic tones, e.g. Standler (2000). Most institutions express firm rules (sometimes called 'Hono(u)r Codes'), and some specify sanctions rather than leaving them at the discretion of teaching staff. Sets of guidelines include Bone (2000-2003), Harris (2002), and Northwestern (2003).
On the other hand, some authors have questioned whether adjustments may be needed in the current era of ready discovery of and access to materials, e.g. Hunt (2002) and Hart & Friesnaer (2004). A forceful exclamation of doubt is that "despite all the work done in print culture studies, all the history of authorship that demonstrates the historical contingency of categories like plagiarism and originality, all the hypertext theory and experience that demonstrates the permeability of all notions of the author (whether on line or off), in our classrooms we continue to sustain notions of plagiarism inherited from Romantic literary theory and current-traditionalist rhetorical theory" (Howard 1998).
Moreover, the strong emphasis on plagiarism in the google-era presents a moral dilemma for academics: standards are being imposed on students, in some cases resulting in severe sanctions, in ways that may exceed, or at least be perceived by students to exceed, those that are imposed on academics. The changed context demands re-assessment of plagiarism by academics, and the clarification of attitudes and policies that have hitherto remained to a considerable extent implicit.
The focus of this paper is on academic publishing. Research ethics generally are attracting considerable attention in recent years. Competitive pressures have increased, both for positions and for research funding. Funders are concerned that research be of high quality and be perceived to be performed in a responsible manner. Accusations of plagiarism need to be avoided. High-profile cases have occurred in many disciplines, to the extent that archives exist (e.g. Standler 2000, Heales et al. 2002, Stoerger 2002-), even for prestigious institutions (e.g. HPA 2004-).
Academic publishing is primarily undertaken by individuals employed in 'academic posts' that carry with them responsibilities in relation to both teaching and research. The scope extends to those who are employed in other roles that involve publishing in the formal literature, including full-time and part-time researchers in tertiary institutions, government agencies, corporations and consultancies; and to non-employees who publish, particularly postgraduate students and interns. The scope of this paper is defined not by the author's employment, but by the fact of publication and the nature and target-market of the publishing venue.
Most explanations of plagiarism in the literature consulted during this project are variations on the themes arising in the dictionary definitions. One that usefully articulates several aspects is in Hexham (1992):
Plagiarism is the deliberate attempt to deceive the reader through the appropriation and representation as one's own the work and words of others.
Academic plagiarism occurs when a writer repeatedly uses more than four words [presumably to be understood as 'more than four successive words'] from a printed source without the use of quotation marks and a precise reference to the original source in a work presented as the author's own research and scholarship. Continuous paraphrasing without serious interaction with another person's views, by way [of] argument or the addition of new material [and] insights, is a form of plagiarism in academic work.
The following definition appears in the refereed information systems literature (in Davison et al. 2001):
Plagiarism is the use (or 'appropriation') of pre-existing material by the author of a new work in such a manner that it appears to be claimed to be an original contribution by that author, in particular because of the absence of a citation of the original work
A further definition is significant in that it is provided by an organisation that performs a role similar to an industry association for universities (AVCC 1997):
To plagiarize shall be understood to mean the presentation of the documented words or ideas of another as his or her own, without attribution appropriate for the medium of presentation. ... A researcher or reviewer shall not intentionally or recklessly ... plagiarise.
Analysis of the definitions and usage results in the identification of several elements of the notion of plagiarism:
The notion of a 'deliberate attempt to deceive' has been intentionally omitted from the list, on pragmatic grounds. If it was included, it would necessitate inferring the state of mind of the alleged plagiariser. Effective administrative and legal decision-making is only possible if the criteria are expressed in terms of observable phenomena. The question of intent is re-visited later in this paper, however, as a relevant factor in assessing the degree of seriousness of an act of plagiarism.
The AVCC definition explicitly recognises that attribution is a relative rather than an absolute concept, in that it may be achieved in different ways depending on "the medium of presentation". A later section will consider various categories of academic publishing venue. Further, it will be suggested that a range of factors are relevant in determining whether an act of plagiarism is sufficiently serious to require action.
In the literature on plagiarism, a variety of reasons are advanced as to why it (or some manifestations of it) is an evil that needs to be addressed. The following sub-sections summarise the primary arguments that are put forward, classifying them into ethical, instrumentalist and legal aspects. A further sub-section examines the relationship between plagiarism and copyright.
Most sources on plagiarism simply assume that it is wrong, and that everyone agrees that it is wrong. It is common to see reference to 'integrity' and 'hono(u)r', and to the classification of plagiarism as a form of 'cheating', which everyone agrees is wrong, without any need for discussion.
Where argument is provided, it is often along the lines that plagiarism is morally wrong because the plagiariser both claims a contribution that they are not justified in claiming, and denies the originator the credit due to them. This perspective has gained widespread international recognition in the form of 'moral rights' extensions to copyright laws (although the U.S.A., with its strong orientation towards copyright as an economic weapon, has not conformed).
Mark Twain's ethical perspective on appropriation appears to have been somewhat more discriminating. He regarded the copying of his books for commercial purposes as theft, whereas plagiarism was just 'bad manners' (Spender 2004, citing Vaidhyanathan 2001).
"From the point of view of the abstract 'advancement of knowledge', plagiarism is not a particular problem, since the knowledge is disseminated whoever gets credit for it. But from the point of view of individual scholars, credit for ideas is vital in career terms and, typically, even more so in terms of self-image" (Martin 1994, p. 41). Plagiarism fails to communicate linkages in the train of communal thought that constitutes knowledge within a discipline. And it tends to result in accelerated progression within the discipline for 'less fit' academics, to the detriment of 'more fit' academics.
More broadly, plagiarism may result in individuals having an aura of expertise in an area which causes other people to pay more credence to their statements than is justified: "a plagiarist simply repeats the words and ideas of others without having mastered the basic source materials. ... Therefore, it has to be assumed that the plagiarist is simply a sophisticated parrot who is really fooling everyone by claiming to be an authority when in fact they are entirely dependent on the authority of others" (Hexham 1992).
When reading papers on the topic of plagiarism, it would be easy to infer that it is illegal. General statements are not easy, because of the enormous differences in the substantive details of laws, and even in the frameworks of laws, in the many hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the world. However, the following observations are offered.
The widely-repeated assertion that plagiarism is 'theft' is generally incorrect at law, because:
The claim that plagiarism is fraud is more tenable, but only in those contexts in which the action is intentional, deceitful, and gains benefits that would not have been gained without the action. Proving criminal fraud is challenging.
In many common law jurisdictions, there is a possibility that plagiarism could constitute the tort of 'passing off' (or, more to the point, 'reverse passing off', because someone else's goods and services are presented as one's own). This is a civil rather than criminal matter, and hence lower standards of proof are involved; but it is an ancient and arcane branch of law which has been further developed in recent years mainly in commercial contexts.
Recourse against plagiarism is seldom sought through any of the channels mentioned above. The most common ways in which complaints are pursued are:
In each of these cases, the extent to which copying without attribution is actionable depends on the specific wording of any relevant contract and any applicable codes, the dispute processes specified or implied, and the sanctions that are available within the particular legal context.
One further body of law requires more detailed consideration. Copyright law provides the author or commissioner of a work with a small basket of specific rights in relation to the work. There is considerable commonality in copyright laws across the world, because of their common origin in British law, and the existence of multilateral conventions that are honoured to at least some degree by many countries. There are, however, very considerable differences on matters of detail, and hence it is very challenging to make authoritative statements that are accurate with respect to the law in most jurisdictions. One attempt is WIPO (2005).
Among the basket of rights that constitite copyright are the powers to grant permission to others to reproduce, to adapt and/or to re-publish material from the work. But these rights are qualified. In Australia, for example, the 'fair dealing' provisions ensure that the large majority of relatively small incorporations do not require a copyright licence. A licence only becomes necessary where 'a substantial part' of the original work is to be incorporated (ACC 2004a, 2004b, 2005). The U.S. doctrine of 'fair use' is more extensive and extensible than the limited Australian 'fair dealing' qualifications. See SULAIR (2004).
Between the 1920s and 1990s, it became progressively more common for the economic dimension of copyright law to be supplemented by so-called 'moral rights'. In countries that have implemented the provisions, an author has the right to attribution, and to object to derogatory treatment of the work.
A successful suit for breach of copyright may or may not represent evidence of some form of academic misconduct; but whether it would represent evidence of plagiarism depends solely on whether the content was appropriately incorporated and attributed. If those conditions are satisfied, then the action would not constitute plagiarism, even if it is a breach of copyright. Moreover, the existence of a copyright licence does not in any way absolve an author from the requirements of appropriate incorporation and appropriate attribution.
Even an express denial of permission may not be relevant to the question of plagiarism. A breach of an express denial may be actionable in the courts, and it might represent academic misconduct; but whether it would be relevant to an allegation of plagiarism depends on the circumstances. Moreover, it is clearly in the interests of academic freedom that authors, academic and otherwise, should not be able to suppress analysis of their work by others, simply by requesting that material from their published works not be incorporated into other works.
In short, the presence or absence of permission to republish has no simple relationship to the question of plagiarism, and in many cases may have no relationship at all.
Most of the literature on plagiarism focusses on arguments against plagiarism, although qualifications are found even in works that strongly condemn plagiarism. This section draws attention to reasons why copying without attribution can also be valuable.
From the point of view of the author of a new work, avoiding plagiarism requires a great deal of effort. Far more is being written and published by far more people than ever before in the history of the the human race. It is simply impractical to avoid repetition, uneconomic for every author to deliver originality in every element of everything they write, and a waste of time and energy that could be applied to more constructive activities. Moreover, much writing within a discipline is intentionally cumulative, and hence the incorporation of prior content is an intrinsic feature of almost all scholarly writing.
A counsel of perfection in presentation is unreasonable, and hence "In judging that an author plagiarizes great care must be taken to ensure that careless mistakes, printing errors, inexperience, and even editorial changes made by a press are not used as accusations against an innocent person" (Hexham 1992).
Even in relation to matters of content, it would be unreasonable to urge attribution for every element of a work. For example, "[history] professors often don't know from where they got a particular definition or description of a well-known figure or event. As long as such writing deals with things that are essentially public domain, even though at times specific wordings may be very similar indeed, this is not plagiarism because it does not involve deliberate fraud" (Hexham 1992).
Typical of the guidance provided to students on plagiarism is that in the much-referenced material provided in Northwestern University (2003): "Generally knowledge which is common to all of us or ideas which have been in the public domain and are found in a number of sources do not need to be cited". Similarly, it is conventional for well-known proverbial, biblical, and literary expressions to be incorporated without attribution.
Moreover, citation is not needed for ideas that could reasonably be perceived to be generally known by the audience to which the document is addressed. Generally speaking, the more novel and specific the idea, the greater the importance of including some form of attribution. With well-known ideas, an appropriate allusion to the originator may be as acceptable as a formal citation (e.g. Newton's Laws in physics, Piaget in developmental psychology, von Neumann in computing).
Unfortunately, the vagueness of concepts such as `public domain' and `well-known' force authors and editors to make many judgement calls as to whether particular information is well-known to the intended readership, or sufficiently obscure to require attribution.
In addition to the impact on authors, readers are poorly-served by an excessive emphasis on the avoidance of plagiarism. Citations clutter text. Long reference lists take up space. Defensive wording makes for turgid style. Editorial adjustments (such as omissions signalled by ellipsis - "...", and corrections signalled by square brackets and/or sic) interfere with readability.Moreover, many acadmic writings are longer than strictly necessary, simply because the author feels constrained to write defensively, by pre-countering possible attacks from his peers.
In short, ,many of the recommended techniques for avoiding the suspicion of misappropriation are dysfunctional from the viewpoint of most readers, especially those reading for pleasure, for answers, or as part of a course of study, rather than as a discipline.
Imitation has always been an important element of learning, and it continues to be so. As a result, undue constraints on imitation stunt learning. At the secondary school and undergraduate levels, the solution lies in skilful design and wording of assignments. Questions that are capable of being answered directly from existing publications invite plagiarism. Questions therefore need to encourage candidates to discover and use the old, but then contribute something new, e.g. 'find and present three possible answers to the following question, explaining in what ways the answers differ. Cite your sources'. Or as author Dale Spender puts it, avoid inviting copying without alteration: "the teachers or lecturers who ask their students - 'what can we do about homelessness' - are becoming the professionals of the digital age. In such an assignment, cut-and-paste can only be the first stage" (private communication, October 2004). Marking schemes need to be consistent with that approach, rewarding and being known to reward appropriate behaviour and to penalise inappropriate behaviour. Boehm (1998), Howard (2001) and Martin (2004).
The same principles may have application even at postgraduate level and within a profession or academic discipline. This is further discussed in the following sections.
Excessive emphasis on the evils of plagiarism also works against innovation. By 'innovation' is meant the deployment of ideas in the real world. It is the phase during which an invention is articulated, and integrated into existing artefacts and processes. It involves adjustments to existing artefacts and processes, in order to accommodate the new idea.
Particularly in the information industries, innovation is incremental, because it arises from people standing on the shoulders of others. As the much-used maxim has it, "copying from one source is plagiarism, copying from several sources is research"; or as it was re-stated by Biggs (1999, p. 129), 'conventional academic writing' is "ideas taken from multiple sources and repacked to make a more or less original and relational type of synthesis" (quoted in Bone (2000-2003).
Innovation is heavily dependent upon freedom of movement of ideas and information among many individuals and organisations (Dempsey 1999). Monopoly powers such as copyright and patent constrain that freedom. To the extent that constraints on plagiarism prevent the flow of ideas, they too are harmful. Balance is needed between the harm arising from plagiarism, and the harm arising from barriers to the flow of ideas. Where the ideas of another person are merely republished unadorned, one balance may be appropriate; whereas a different balance-point entirely may be needed where the new presentation embodies added value, through critique, extension, or application in new contexts.
Plagiarism seems not to have been an issue in Dark Ages monastic scriptoria, which copied not only Scripture but also secular works. The same can be said about oral traditions, such as those of Middle Ages bards and tellers of sagas. Such traditions are not dead. Aboriginal societies place value on the repetition of traditional stories. And Larkham & Manns (2002, p. 339-340), in the context of Martin Luther King's PhD thesis, draw attention to "cultural acceptance in the American oral preaching tradition ... of widespread borrowing from unacknowledged sources".
The first authors of what was to become a mainstream genre, that of novels or fiction, encountered criticism for uttering what the 'literary critics' of the early 18th century perceived as nothing more nor less than a sustained lie (Spender 2004). The same accusation is being levelled at contemporary authors of investigations of social issues that are fictional but are represented as though they were true stories. The Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition and the Wikipedia entry both suggest that "plagiarism is a concept of the modern age and not really applicable to medieval or ancient works". Brynn (2002), citing Mallon (1989), suggests that "plagiarism came to be regarded as a problem in the seventeenth century, when writing became an occupation".
Viewed another way, the strong bias against copying in academic work is a western intellectual preoccupation. It appears to date from the rinascimento of the 14th-16th centuries, and it appears to reflect humanism's strong emphasis on the worth of individuals. East Asian cultures are imbued with centuries of Confucianist pressure to submit to authority, and place less value on individuality. Perhaps cultures such as those are less concerned about what western European tradition calls 'cheating' and 'plagiarism'.
Meanwhile, the 500-year-old tradition of individuality is under challenge in two conflicting ways. Large-scale multi-media works (such as feature-length videos, and games) have large teams of originators rather than `an author', and the large corporations that produce them are hyper-sensitive to plagiarism. Meanwhile, the digital era has enabled sampling, adaptation and mixing on a scale and at a speed that was never previously possible. Consumer-producers, particularly in the world of music, regard appropriation as no longer an evil, but rather an art-form. The valuation that cultures place on individuality is in flux, and hence so are the notions of `cheating' and `plagiarism'.
Context is also important. For example, many statements have been interpreted differently since 11 September 2001. Words extracted from one work and reproduced in another may have a quite different impact on many readers than they did have, or would have, in their original setting. This can arise even with quotations as short as Hexham's boundary test of four words: consider a work which has the statement "I had a dream" uttered not by Martin Luther King, Jr, but by Adolf Hitler, Kim Il-sung, or Osama bin Ladin. The re-contextualisation is not merely artistic, but also potentially instructive. The war against plagiarism must be waged sufficiently carefully that ideas are not caught in straitjackets, but remain free to cross-fertilise one another.
Finally, it may be appropriate to consider the implications of post-modernist perspectives, which assert that meaning is a construction by the reader, not an invention by the author. A text is interpreted differently by each reader. An instrumentalist interpretation of post-modernism (which may, admittedly, be a conflict in terms) is that any value that derives is partly due to the stimulus provided by the work, but substantially due to the perceptive and cognitive apparatus of the reader. If post-modernism is anything more than intellectual fairy-floss, is there sufficient justification for authorial monopoly on even the presentation of an idea, let alone the idea itself?
In short, the approach adopted to plagiarism needs to reflect a comprehensive appreciation of the perspectives of different cultures over time, and different cultures across space. Deeper insight into these issues could be provided by a literature on the cultural relativity of cheating; but searches have to date unearthed no such literature.
The preceding sections have identified tensions between purist and tolerant views on plagiarism. The resolution of that tension requires deeper consideration of the realm of authoring and publishing by academics than has usually been applied. In order to provide greater depth in one particular context, this section presents a case study in which the author of a text-book was accused of plagiarising a number of works. The author of the present paper was commissioned to conduct the investigation. The presentation below is expressed in the passive voice, for ease of reading.
The case study in question arises from a consultancy assignment, and cannot automatically be regarded as action research. The research rigour of the work is not high when tested against the stringent criteria for Canonical Action Research (Davison et al. 2004). On the other hand, applying Baskerville's five criteria for distinguishing action research from consultancy (Baskerville 1999), the undertaking scores poorly only on the fifth, in that the process did not involve an iterative, organisational learning approach, but was instead an independent, critical analysis. But the analysis was conducted within a university context, and as a result was motivated in part by scientific prospects, and was in part committed to the academic community. Further, rather than merely reflecting the consultant's experience, the analysis draws heavily on the available literature, and the outcomes are founded on a theoretical framework.
The Vice-Chancellor of an Australian university received a letter alleging plagiarism by a staff-member in an eCommerce text-book he had authored, and which he was using in a unit taught at that university. Although the allegations were anonymous, they were detailed; and a preliminary investigation suggested that an arguable case existed.
A full investigation was sought by an independent person with appropriate expertise in the topic-area. The Terms of Reference were carefully negotiated, in order to ensure that the university would get the information it needed in order to take any further steps, that no imbalance or unfairness to the accusee would arise, and that the interests of the investigator were protected.
The AIS Code offered only a little of direct relevance to the investigation. In particular, text-books appear to be beyond its scope, because the Code "offers guidance in matters directly related to research and publication of scholarly works ... [and] does not purport to ... guide members in areas of professional activity such as teaching ..." (Davison et al. 2004b, p. 9). A text-book is generally not regarded as a 'scholarly work' (although text-books designed to support advanced, postgraduate studies might be an exception).
The relevant definition of plagiarism for the purposes of the investigation was that published by the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee (AVCC) and reproduced in section 3 above. This required tests firstly of the nature and extent of any appropriation of content, secondly of the nature and extent of any claims of originality in the material, and thirdly of the nature and extent of attribution. Finally, to the extent that evidence of plagiarism was found, the investigation needed to consider its degree of seriousness, and in particular whether it was intentional, reckless, careless, or merely accidental.
A process was devised, commencing with a literature-search and analysis in order to inform the process, establish the criteria to be applied, and guide the assessment activities. Analyses were to be undertaken of the work and of the various items that were alleged to be sources that it plagiarised. Further testing was to be performed, with a view to establishing whether the instances drawn to attention appeared to be isolated, or to be indicative of a wider problem. The findings of fact were then to be assessed using the criteria established at the commencement of the investigation.
The literature search yielded a disappointing quantity and quality of guidance. Very few references directly addressed text-books, and very few had other than very narrow scope. The preponderance of the available papers addressed plagiarism by students, and those that addressed plagiarism by academics were almost entirely focussed on refereed papers and scholarly books. Other researchers appear to have conducted similarly fruitless searches: " ... where that leaves the textbook writers I dare not contemplate" (Biggs 1999 p. 130, quoted in Bone 2000-2003). It was therefore necessary to undertake some meta-analysis, interpolation, and extension of existing thinking about both assessment criteria and processes.
A text-book is generally not authored in order to express original ideas, nor as a means of communicating research results, nor even as a primary means of demonstrating suitability for tenure or promotion. The intentions generally are to make existing knowledge accessible, to address a particular market need, and (less convincingly) as a supplementary source of income.
Moreover, a text-book is usually intended for a particular audience, such as candidates within particular kinds of courses, within particular disciplines or domains of study, and even at a particular stage of their studies (e.g. introductory, intermediate, advanced undergraduate, postgraduate). The primary function of a text-book is therefore pedagogical, and the criteria used in assessing it need to reflect that fact.
One source offers the following: "Of course, historical knowledge is cumulative, and thus in some contexts--such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, or broad syntheses--the form of attribution, and the permissible extent of dependence on prior scholarship, citation and other forms of attribution will differ from what is expected in more limited monographs. As knowledge is disseminated to a wide public, it loses some of its personal reference. What belongs to whom becomes less distinct. But even in textbooks a historian should acknowledge the sources of recent or distinctive findings and interpretations, those not yet a part of the common understanding of the profession, and should never simply borrow and rephrase the findings of other scholars" (AHA 2003, my emphasis).
The only other directly useful document located was Hexham (1992), which includes the following passage (my emphases): " ... many basic textbooks contain passages that come very close to plagiarism. So too do dictionaries and encyclopedia articles. In most of these cases the charge of plagiarism would be unjust because there are a limited number of way in which basic information can be conveyed in introductory textbooks and very short articles that require the author to comment on well known issues and events like the outbreak of the French Revolution, or the conversion of St. Augustine, or the philosophical definition of justice. Further, in the case of some textbooks, dictionaries, newspaper articles and similar types of work both space and the demands of editors do not allow the full acknowledgment of sources or the use of academic style references. ... It ... therefore seems necessary to distinguish between academic and other types of writing and to ask what is the reader led to believe an author is doing. If a book or thesis contains academic footnotes, is written in an academic style, and is presented as a work of original scholarship, then it must be judged as such and measured against the accepted rules for citation".
Given how savage Hexham is in his condemnation of plagiarism in scholarly work, the distinction he draws between criteria for scholarly and text-book writing is very significant.
Due to the paucity of sources, reference was also made to a sample of text-books in fields cognate with the text-book in question. Combining the various considerations, the set of criteria in Exhibit 1 was developed, against which the allegations of plagiarism could be tested.
Exhibit 1: Evaluation Criteria for Plagiarism in a Text-Book
The approach to incorporation and attribution in a text-book should:
Generally, incorporation should avoid the use of quotation marks, because these intrude too much. On the other hand, the use of verbatim, near-verbatim and close-paraphrase passages imposes yet greater expectations on the author in relation to attribution.
In the case of generic attributions to well-known authors (e.g. Piaget, von Neumann, Newton), and of well-known and well-documented quotations used in section and chapter headings (e.g. Keats, Martin Luther King), it may be reasonable to name the author, but nominate no specific work. Generally, however, attribution should be achieved through one of the following mechanisms:
Precise descriptions of all works to which attribution is given need to be provided. The alternatives are listed below, commencing with the most preferable:
Applying the process and criteria, the findings in relation to matters of fact were as follows:
The findings as to whether plagiarism occurred were as follows:
The findings as to the seriousness of the plagiarism were as follows:
The evidence provided in the preceding sections has a range of implications, which are presented below in a series of sub-sections. The first identifies a category of plagiarism that can be conveniently referred to as being 'necessary or inherent'. The second relates to the question of the seriousness of the act of plagiarism. Later segments discuss the investigation of allegations, and enforcement aspects.
The case study of text-book plagiarism has relevance beyond text-books alone. Parts of many other kinds of publications are intended "to make existing knowledge accessible" and to "address a particular market need" or "a particular audience". In particular, various sections of scholarly works such as refereed journal articles and conference papers, theses, and academic monographs, have an expository purpose, in relation to pre-existing knowledge.
The preliminary sections of many works comprise the recitation of existing bodies of theory, in order to set the stage for extensions to, criticisms of, and/or testing of, that theory. If such recitations stray too far from the words used by prior theorists, then the author of the new work would be subject to accusations of misrepresentation or at least inaccuracy. Hence it is very challenging to 'use one's own words' while being faithful to the sources. Paraphrasing and generic attributions are therefore tolerated. The context in any case implies that little or no originality is being claimed. There is accordingly tacit acceptance of practices that would otherwise be castigated as plagiarism.
In addition, papers commonly present explanations of the research method used, and the rationale for the selection of particular techniques, and applications of techniques, rather than others. Within each specific research domain, there is a great deal of similarity among research methods adopted. This is especially marked during periods of 'normal science', when very similar studies are undertaken in successions of marginally varying contexts. There is also only a limited research methods literature, and a limited number of key texts and exemplars. (How many ways is it possible to phrase the statement "Responses were gathered using a 5-point Likert scale"?). Hence there is tacit acceptance of plagiarism in these segments of refereed works as well.
Further, the reporting of research results is constrained by conventions, and by the commonality of inferencing techniques. ("The data supported all of the hypothesised relationships, in all cases in a statistically significant manner"). Because the scope for variation is limited, and close similarity of expression is unavoidable, members of the discipline are permissive of what might otherwise be criticised as plagiarism.
The instances cited above are all entirely apparent to members of the discipline. On the other hand, they are seldom made explicit; and students might be excused for not appreciating that academics have good reason to permit one another latitude that is denied in students' assignments.
This suggests an opportunity. Perhaps the discipline has matured sufficiently that recognition could be given to some fixed points in the research methods arena. For example, the AIS could formally promulgate and publish statements about various research techniques. Authors could then invoke the relevant document, and declare their conformance with the `authorised version'. This should enable many papers to be shorter and simpler, resulting in time-savings for authors, reviewers, editors and readers alike.
There are many insufficiently careful discussions in the literature, which make statements such as 'plagiarism is theft', 'plagiarism is fraud', and 'plagiarism is a grievous act'. As discussed in section 4.3, the first is incorrect in law, and the second is in most cases unlikely to be correct in law. The third may or may not be true, depending on the circumstances.
Acts of plagiarism vary in the degree to which they do harm and warrant sanction. This section draws on a variety of published works to construct a framework within which the seriousness of plagiarism can be judged. Especially influential were Hexham (1992), Martin (1994) and Davison et al. (2001). Five factors are argued to be the primary determinants of the seriousness of an act of plagiarism:
This section provides guidance intended to be applicable in several circumstances. It should be useful in the practical training of graduate students, who can be challenged to explain how the material that they produce should and should not be used. Authors should find it of value in ensuring that they deal properly with material from other sources, and thereby avoid being credibly accused of impropriety. It should also serve individuals and organisations that need to evaluate accusations of plagiarism.
The AVCC definition underlines a feature of great practical importance to an investigation into an allegation of plagiarism. It recognises that plagiarism has varying degrees of seriousness, depending on whether it is judged to be:
If an act of plagiarism is intentional or is reckless, then it clearly represents misappropriation and demands sanction, in order to communicate to the individual concerned and the community where the boundaries lie. Accidental plagiarism is much less serious; and careless plagiarism that falls short of recklessness occupies the middle ground.
It is very challenging to determine intent, because it requires that the person making the judgement claim to know another person's internal state. Hence the test might be better expressed in terms of `evidence of intent' or `reasonably inferred intent'.
A second factor of importance is the kind of work in which the copying occurs. The greatest degree of concern arises in respect of works published in refereed venues, and the least in unpublished and informal materials. The following list is suggested as providing a set of reasonably distinct categories of publishing venues. It is further suggested that plagiarism in categories higher in the list is generally more serious than plagiarism in categories lower in the list:
The greatest degree of concern arises where an express claim of originality is made, or the context implies it. The following list is arranged in descending order of seriousness:
At one extremity, a whole work may be appropriated, and at the other the appropriation may be of longstanding ideas. The following list is arranged in what is suggested to be the appropriate descending order of seriousness:
Where a formal work draws material verbatim or near-verbatim from a prior publication, the strong expectations exist that quotation marks be used wherever practicable, and that minor adaptations to text (e.g. changes of tense, and omission of superfluous passages) be shown as such within the quotations.
Where a formal work paraphrases material from a prior publication, the strong expectation exists that it contain a contribution. Examples of contributions include additional evidence, extension of argument, adaptation or application of a generic statement to a particular context, genericisation of a specific statement, clarification or simplification of explanation, the demonstration of a relationship to other sources, and integration with other sources.
The final factor is the manner in which the author of the new work draws attention to the earlier work. Clearly, a great deal of concern arises where no attribution at all is provided; whereas a specific attribution is of far less concern, even if imprecise. The following list is arranged in descending order of seriousness:
The strong expectation exists in relation to attribution that:
Appropriate forms for citations and references vary considerably, depending in particular on the nature and medium of the source. Guidelines are available from various sources, such as UCB (2004) and UWM (2004). Printed documents have page-numbers, whereas digital sources may not, or may have uncertain pagination. With current technologies and standards, it is difficult to provide a reliable indicator of the location of an excerpt within a source-document in such cases as images, sound, video and some digital text formats.
When a judgement needs to be made about the seriousness of an act of plagiarism, the five dimensions need to be inter-related with one another. Clearly, the most serious forms of plagiarism are those that are extreme on all counts, i.e.:
Serious plagiarism is harmful to academic endeavour. Misconduct of that nature requires action by an appropriate authority, typically the author's employer, sponsor, or registration or professional body.
But it is also very important to recognise that many instances of plagiarism are mis-judgements or errors that are appropriately addressed in simple ways, e.g. through apology, amendment of the digital `original' of the work, or publication of an errata notice. They should not be perceived or represented as being `misconduct' of a kind that warrants disciplinary measures.
Because of the complexities described in this paper, great care is needed when formal investigations are undertaken into allegations or suspicions of plagiarism.
Few guidelines for the conduct of plagiarism investigations were located in the literature. ORI (1997a, 1997b, 2003a and 2003b) are oriented to the bio-medical sciences, and in any case plagiarism is a small proportion of the scientific misconduct that they are concerned with. George et al. (2003) and some aspects of the documents relating to the AIS Code (Davison et al. 2004a, 2004b) focus on investigations by the editorial team of a journal. Davison et al. (2004c) is written from the perspective of a victim of plagiarism.
Allegations are most commonly investigated by, or on behalf of, educational institutions, and hence a process description is needed that has broad application. Applying conventional business processes, the following phases and tasks are suggested:
The terms of reference must be carefully prepared, in order to ensure that the process results in the information needed to enable determination of the matter, is fair to all parties involved, and is compliant with all relevant law and contracts among the parties. Note too that publication of details about an accusation and the accusee need to be handled with caution, because of the risk of a counter-claim by the accusee, possibly on the grounds that the accuser is the plagiariser, and possibly on the grounds that publication of the details is defamatory.
Investigation processes and reports need to reflect the nature of any sanctions that may be able to be applied. An earlier section underlined the limited extent to which actions in criminal and even civil law are likely to be feasible.
The most common contexts are employment (where contracts may envisage such measures as dismissal, demotion, delayed promotion, and reprimand and notation), registration and licensing (where debarment may be feasible, or more likely reprimand and notation), course enrolment (where cessation and denial of credit may be available), and professional membership (where debarment or reduction of status may be possible). Given the prevalence of plagiarism, even of serious cases, it is noteworthy that few instances of the more severe forms of sanction are reported. The role of moral suasion should not be overlooked; but neither should it be over-estimated.
This leads to the question of the content, and the effectiveness, of Codes of Conduct, such as that of the AIS (Davison et al. 2004b). Codes issued by professional bodies are frequently referred to in disciplinary proceedings, and in cases before tribunals and courts, and hence considerable care is warranted in the phrasing selected.
The current version of the AIS Code does not address all of the elements identified in this paper. It includes the unqualified statement that "plagiarism is a very serious academic and professional offense" (p. 10). The AIS Guidelines for a Victim make similar statements: "plagiarism is a grievous act" and "plagiarism is fraud" (Davison et al. 2004c, p. 17).
The problem with these excessive statements is that the seriousness of plagiarism is highly variable. The statements are true, at most, of only the most serious forms. Moreover, the accusation of a criminal offence would in many cases be incorrect, and is so serious that it could conceivably provide a basis for a defamation action by the alleged plagiariser against the persons and/or organisations that uttered the accusation. The interests of all parties will be best served by addressing questions of plagiarism very carefully. The substantial amount of value in the AIS Code is at risk of being dissipated because of the excessive phrasing of some parts of it.
On the basis of the evidence and analysis presented in this paper, the AIS Code requires revision in the following ways:
Further, the Association has merely approved the Code, and has not done enough to ensure that it is applied generally across the profession. The Association should require all AIS journals and conferences to apply the Code to their contributors, and should communicate to all journals and conferences associated with AIS the desirability of its application to their contributors as well.
Extreme forms of plagiarism justifiably earn the opprobrium of all members of a profession. What may be referred to as 'plagiarism of authorship' or 'appropriation of entire works' does occur, and the perpetrators need to be confronted. However, "there are some dramatic cases in which word-for-word plagiarisers have been exposed and penalised, but there are plenty of contrary cases in which plagiarisers have fashioned successful careers ... for example Martin Luther King, Jr" (Martin 1994).
A decade ago, Martin examined the tension between the naive, standard view that plagiarism is rare, and the realistic/cynical, revisionist recognition that it is commonplace. To the concept of 'institutionalised plagiarism' that he identified, the Internet and Web have added 'copy-and-paste plagiarism'.
Railing Lear-like against the iniquity of the storm will achieve nothing. A mature conception of plagiarism needs to be articulated, the bad forms need to be distinguished from the good, appropriate behaviours need to be encouraged, and sanctions need to be imposed on the seriously bad. The AIS is the appropriate body to perform that function on behalf of IS academics. This paper has proposed enhancements to the AIS Code, intended to achieve those ends.
The research method underlying this paper was largely contemplative and argumentative. A body of theory has been sought out, structured and extended, through a combination of a literature survey and reflection. Boundary-conditions have been tested by means of a case study. The empirical value of the case is constrained by its `convenience' nature, and the fact that the author was directly involved in it. Despite the weaknesses in the method, a considerable body of evidence has been marshalled to suggest that there are important anomalies in conventional approaches to plagiarism by academics.
Stronger empirical methods can be brought to bear on the issues highlighted in this paper. Studies could be undertaken of secondary data, such as the incidence of accusations and media coverage, and the apporaches to plagiarism adopted in tribunals and courts. More disciplined interpretivist techniques could be applied, including action research, and grounded theory applied to the texts of interviews and focus group discussions. Structured surveys and delphi studies of senior practitioners might also prove valuable, particularly in throwing further light on the more obscure circumstances.
With competitiveness continuing to heighten, the importance of ethical behaviour by academics looks set to increase. It is essential that a clear and comprehensive framework be provided, within which authors can judge how to use and attribute existing materials and ideas.
The author of this paper has participated in panels with two of the three authors of the AIS Code, and has co-authored with two of them on matters related to this paper. I did not, however, directly participate in the preparation of the Code.
The author acknowledges the permission of the Vice-Chancellor for whom the investigation was performed to use the material to develop the case study that appears in section 6. He also thanks the referees and Senior Editor for their valuable feedback and suggestions for improvement to the draft.
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