The Price of Plagiarism

Why bother teaching our students not to cheat when professors can get away with it?

Richard E. Aaron, Redferns, Getty Images

Led Zeppelin
July 25, 2016

Many children of the 1970s, like me, were riveted by the recent plagiarism case against Led Zeppelin. A lawsuit by the estate of a member of the rock band Spirit alleged that the Zeppelin songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had lifted the opening chords of the 1968 tune "Taurus" and made them the opening chords of their rock classic, "Stairway to Heaven." A Los Angeles jury cleared them of wrongdoing, however, safeguarding the estimated $562 million the song has earned the British rockers since its release, in 1971.

Led Zeppelin has sold an estimated 200 to 300 million albums. In academe, by comparison, we hope our monograph sells 350 copies. We have a tiny audience, as measured in book sales, and make barely any money from what we publish. Instead, we write for promotion, prestige, and intellectual curiosity. We write to make an original contribution to our field.

So what happens when our work is plagiarized? Given the low financial stakes, what recourse do we have?

Search your campus website for information about plagiarism, and you’ll find plenty of it. But it focuses on students — defining for them what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and what penalties await should they copy from a source without attribution. Harvard University has a detailed policy on its website, defining plagiarism for students: "It is important for all scholars to acknowledge clearly when they have relied upon or incorporated the work of others. … It is expected that all homework assignments, projects, lab reports, papers, theses, and examinations and any other work submitted for academic credit will be the student’s own. Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term ‘sources’ includes not only primary and secondary material published in print or online, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated."

Why should we bother teaching our students not to plagiarize when professors can get away with it?
Most faculty members have had to punish student plagiarists or turn them in to the administration. In my experience, the guilty almost always admit that they have plagiarized, partly because they are afraid of the consequences — i.e., not being allowed to graduate. Doctoral students, in their dissertations, are often required to include a declaration in which they attest that they’ve read their university’s plagiarism policy, and that the work they are presenting is their own.

Clearly, when it comes to students, we routinely monitor their work for signs of plagiarism, and we mete out punishments for violations.

Is the situation the same for professors?

On many campus web sites, you will find little attention paid to scholars stealing from other scholars. As a professor, do you remember ever having to sign a declaration defining plagiarism before publishing an article or book? The publishing agreements we do sign — such as one I just signed for a forthcoming paper in an academic journal — include only a brief, vague statement that we "represent and warrant to the press and the journal that the article is original." Who wouldn’t think their work is original? I wrote it, didn’t I?

Consider what happens when professors plagiarize other professors. The recourse we have as authors is far different — more limited and more difficult to pursue — than when students plagiarize. All of which raises the question: Why are our students held to a higher standard than we are?

What avenues can you pursue when a colleague appropriates your work? When that colleague borrows, without sufficient attribution, your distinctive and significant research findings and interpretations? When the plagiarist uses your identical language without quotation marks and citation, disguises your ideas in newly crafted sentences, or gives a brief, vague reference to your work early on and then proceeds to use it over and over without subsequent attribution?

All of those violations are spelled out in the American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct available on its website.

So you point out the violations to the academic journal that asked you to review the plagiarist’s book. But the journal may decide not to publish any review of the book at all, rather than publish your review outlining the case against it. The offender’s publisher will deny that copyright infringement has occurred. The accused’s university has no obligation to open an inquiry. The department that awarded the offender a dissertation is also under no compulsion to conduct an investigation. Your own press may condemn the other scholar for "morally reprehensible" actions, but decline to take any legal action.

Both presses may recommend that you contact the plagiarist — who will, of course, deny the allegations and threaten to sue you (!) for defamation. That threat will be made even with evidence that the accused:

  • Copied your published words verbatim.
  • Appropriated your concepts.
  • Borrowed your research findings and interpretations without attribution.
  • Followed your organization of material, covering the same topics in the same order.
  • Made the same claims as you did, and in identical language.
  • Pretended that you had not found long-lost manuscripts in dusty forgotten libraries, translated them into English, and analyzed them a dozen years before.

You can send a letter documenting evidence of plagiarism to your professional association. Until about 10 years ago, the AHA opened independent inquiries into such allegations, published the results, and outed those found to have violated professional ethics. It no longer does so.

You can hire a lawyer to sue the offender’s press for copyright infringement, but the legal fees may well add up to thousands of dollars. In the event you win the case, there is no means to guarantee that the defendant will repay your costs. Bear in mind that your book may bring you no more than a couple of thousand dollars over its lifetime.

In the end, faced with an author who has plagiarized your work you may find you have no recourse whatsoever. You can’t even name yourself, the plagiarizing professor, or the book in question in an opinion piece in The Chronicle, for fear of being sued.

Why should we bother teaching our students not to plagiarize when professors can get away with it? The financial stakes may not be remotely near those involving a rock band. But the anguish that plagiarism causes may be greater in our case, especially if another scholar gets away with earning tenure and building a career based on your original intellectual contribution. And who can put a price on that?

Clark Baker is the pseudonym of a professor of history.