Plagiarism in Grant Proposals

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

December 10, 2012

If you watch true-crime television shows, you know that technology has made it harder for culprits to get away with their misdeeds. The bad guy is nailed after being captured on the bank's surveillance video or is identified as the killer through DNA. The bad guys of academe—at least the ones who plagiarize in grant proposals—are now subject to the same technological scrutiny.

It's not news that software exists to check undergraduate papers for plagiarism. What is less well known is that some federal grant agencies are using technology to detect plagiarism in grant proposals.

That variety of research misconduct is a growing problem, according to federal experts I talk with in my work as a university grant officer. The National Science Foundation, in its most recent "Agency Financial Report," said allegations of plagiarism and data fabrication in grant proposals and reports had more than tripled during the previous 10 years. Agencies take such misconduct seriously because their reputations are on the line when they finance the research. They can and will impose penalties that could derail your career.

It is important for scholars to understand that copying information or text from someone else's grant proposal is considered plagiarism—just as if the document copied had been published in a scholarly journal—whether or not that proposal received money.

And it's not just young scholars who need to take that lesson to heart. Plagiarism in grant proposals is happening among academics at all levels of experience, from assistant professors to seasoned full professors.

Some faculty members are simply unaware that the practice constitutes research misconduct. In one case, a full professor asked a colleague for a copy of a proposal that had received federal funds. The colleague, thinking the request was for informational purposes only, provided a copy. The borrower then lifted sections verbatim, put them in a new proposal, and gave it to the author of the borrowed proposal to review.

Not surprisingly, the colleague who wrote the original was unhappy about this, and the new proposal was revised to eliminate the plagiarized passages before it was submitted to a grant agency. The most surprising thing about the incident, to those familiar with it, was that the full professor who did the plagiarizing saw nothing wrong with his behavior.

Government agencies generally define plagiarism as the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. It is prohibited by federal regulations.

With federal agencies receiving tens of thousands of grant proposals every year, you may think that it would be easy to get away with plagiarism. And some scholars certainly do. But you can't be sure that you'll be among the successful thieves.

As a university grant adviser, I would caution you: Do not underestimate the power of plagiarism-detection software or the keen memory of a scientist. The same software programs that some faculty members are using to detect plagiarism in student work and in journals are also being used by grant agencies to crack down on research misconduct.

They don't screen every proposal they receive, because they don't need to. Scholars who review grant proposals detect quite a few cases of plagiarism without using software. In the small world of an academic specialty, the researcher whose work you plagiarized may be the one evaluating your grant—and will certainly recognize his or her own words.

Procedures for investigating an allegation of plagiarism are set out by regulation. If investigators determine that plagiarism has occurred, they will make a recommendation for action. Agency investigators will work with your university, which very likely has a policy on research misconduct and may mete out additional punishment.

Investigators won't fall for a high-tech version of "the dog ate my homework." They have heard as many excuses for plagiarism as you have heard for late assignments. So don't bother saying you submitted the wrong version of the document.

Nor will blaming your graduate students work. That's a common but unacceptable excuse. If you are listed as the principal investigator on the grant, you are responsible for its content. "All too often students become a convenient scapegoat for faculty members," stated an NSF report to Congress in 2011 on the agency's civil and criminal investigations.

As a trained researcher, you are expected to know the difference between information that is common knowledge ("The sky is blue") and information that is in the public domain, such as text on a government Web site. You must provide a citation for information you obtain from the Web site. "I thought it was common knowledge" as an explanation for plagiarism has been tried and has failed.

Plagiarizing from an unfunded proposal presents an additional problem. Unlike funded proposals, which are in the public domain, unfunded proposals are confidential and typically available only to reviewers, who are expected to maintain that confidentiality. If you take text from an unfunded grant and use it in your own document, you are breaking confidentiality, which threatens the integrity of the grant-review process and will sully your reputation with grant agencies.

Some of the excuses that faculty members have used when accused of plagiarism are humorous, but the consequences of a finding of misconduct are not funny. If your proposal contains plagiarized text and is recommended for federal financing, the stakes are high. In one incident reported by the NSF, a program officer said plagiarized text in a grant proposal had influenced his decision to support the work, "which meant the plagiarism amounted to fraud" and thus was a crime. The NSF referred the case to an assistant U.S. attorney, who ultimately declined to pursue it in light of the administrative penalties that had been imposed against the scholar.

Most universities and grant agencies provide plenty of guidance on their Web sites about what constitutes plagiarism. They also discuss what to do if you encounter a case of apparent research misconduct. You can eliminate the career risk by simply following that guidance. Careful research and note-taking are, of course, essential. But here are some other key points that may seem obvious to composition instructors but apparently aren't obvious to faculty members writing grant proposals:

  • Don't forget to use quotation marks when you copy text verbatim from a source. Many researchers neglect to insert quote marks when electronically copying portions of an electronic document into one of their own files, and then lose track of which words are their own.
  • Paraphrasing means restating a concept in your own words. Just changing a few words does not qualify. Also, be sure to cite the original source of the idea.
  • Carelessness and time constraints do not excuse plagiarism. Leave enough time to review your proposal before submission to ensure you haven't pasted in a paragraph without attribution. If students are assisting you with proposal preparation, leave enough time to review their work as well, since you will be held responsible for the finished product.
  • Additional guidance on avoiding plagiarism is plentiful. Universities that receive federal money must provide grantees with training in the responsible conduct of research. Take advantage of the training, which may consist of Web tutorials or workshops. The Web sites of university research-compliance offices also contain useful advice on plagiarism.

In a worst-case scenario, agency penalties leveled against you for plagiarism can harm your prospects for tenure and promotion. And you could be prohibited from submitting any more grants for several years, barred from reviewing proposals for an agency, and required to take an ethics class. Your employer may go even further: Some faculty members who have been reprimanded by a federal agency have lost their jobs.

It's a high price to pay for a hasty cut-and-paste in a grant proposal.

Karen M. Markin is director of the office of research development at the University of Rhode Island.