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The Boundaries of Accidental Plagiarism

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Feb 21, 2017 3:22:58 PM

Christopher S. Collins from Azusa Pacific University is an interesting case study when it comes to accidental plagiarism.

In April 2014, he published an article entitled “Can funding for university partnerships between Africa and the US contribute to social development and poverty reduction?” in the journal Higher Education. In May 2015, the article was retracted after editors discovered that it contained plagiarized sentences from work presented at a 2012 conference.

When Retraction Watch reached out to Collins about the incident Collins wrote back a lengthy and contrite apology for the incident. Taking full responsibility for the plagiarism, Collins explained that it was a simple error, a matter of him writing verbatim notes from the conference and then pasting them months later, forgetting they were copied.
Collins went on to describe how difficult the incident had been for him both personally and professionally but that he used his oversight as an opportunity for self reflection.

This seemed like it would be the end of the story for Collins, who had already gone on to do other work with the journal.

However, since then, two additional retractions of Collins’ work have been discovered. One in The Journal of Asian Public Policy and the other in Excellence in Higher Education. Both of the retractions due to plagiarism with the latter involving material copied from five different sources.

The story highlights one of the more difficult challenges in dealing with accidental plagiarism. While many people who plagiarize don’t do so out of malice, many cases of plagiarism blur the lines between accident and negligence. This is especially true at the higher levels of academia.

From a practical standpoint, there isn’t much difference between negligent plagiarism and intentional plagiarism. Both involve taking shortcuts in research and writing that lead to plagiarized passages being in a work. The only difference is whether it’s a direct result of the author’s actions or an inevitable and foreseeable side effect.

However, we far too often phrase the ethical question of plagiarism solely within the prism of stealing work or ideas. From that perspective, accidental plagiarism, no matter how negligent, seems to be a much less serious issue.

But when you look at plagiarism from the perspective of taking responsibility and ownership for your writing, negligence in plagiarism becomes much more severe.

This is already how we view other issues of academic integrity. Fabricated data is seen as egregious whether it was malicious or came about due to extreme negligence. There’s no reason for plagiarism to be treated any differently.

When we stop looking so hard at why plagiarism occurred and focus more on the act itself, we not only get a clearer picture on the severity and importance of plagiarism, but we also strip away a common excuse those caught plagiarizing use to deflect blame.

After all, Collins isn’t the first to claim to have accidentally plagiarized. It’s an excuse that is as old as the act of plagiarism itself. However, if we make the crime of plagiarism not merely about the theft, but about author responsibility, that excuse weakens.

In the end, words are powerful and important, especially for researchers. Just as we expect due diligence and care when operating a motor vehicle, we should expect the same from researchers who are publishing work that could change human knowledge and understanding.

In short, if we believe in the importance of academic work, negligence should be just as offensive as malice when it comes to plagiarism, something that Collins’ case highlights very neatly.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.