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Literally Paying for Plagiarism

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Aug 7, 2014 7:30:00 AM
When David Fleishman, the superintendent of Newton public schools in Massachusetts, was found to have plagiarized several passages during a June 9th address at the Newton South High School graduation ceremony, the school district took unusual action.

Rather than suspend or terminate Fleishman, the district decided to dock him a week’s salary, worth roughly $5,000.

While it is debatable whether the punishment is fitting for the nature of the plagiarism, the idea of issuing a fine over a plagiarism allegation raised a few eyebrows.

To be clear, Fleishman wasn’t the first person to be fined over plagiarism. However, most cases of a plagiarist being fined have come from the courts and, usually, for legal issues related to the plagiarism and not the plagiarism itself.

For example, in France, Christine Marchal-Sixou was fined 5,000 euro and ordered to pay another 20,000 euros in compensatory damages to a student she was found to have plagiarized her thesis from.

In Connecticut, Christina Duquette, a former grad student at Central Connecticut State University, was ordered to pay a total of $26,100 in damages for plagiarizing the paper of a fellow student. In that case, Duquette was ruled to have lied about her authorship of the work involved, resulting in another student, the original author, being expelled from the school. The original author was later re-admitted.

Still, cases where plagiarists are fined purely for the act of plagiarism are still rare. This includes cases of research fraud which, in the United States, typically only results in suspensions or bans from receiving grants, not fines or other criminal action, and book publishing, which can result in contracts being cancelled, but not usually fines beyond that.

This is because, in most cases, the body that’s prosecuting the plagiarism claims lack the authority to hand down fines. Editors at a journal, instructors at a school, etc. don’t have the ability to force a plagiarist to pay anything. Even if a journal wrote into their agreement that plagiarism would be subject to a fine, which few, if any, do, enforcing that statute would likely cost more than any fine would be worth.

The Newton school district was in something of a rare position. Being Fleishman's employer, they could take punitive action against him that included docking his pay, thus having the same effect as a fine. A publication doesn’t have that kind of relationship with a researcher nor does a school over a student.

Still, the idea is an interesting one in places where such a relationship does exist, such as with publishers that have their own writing staff. But it raises a series of difficult questions including how does one determine when a fine is appropriate? And how much should the fine be? Furthermore, should the fine be based on income, or be a flat fee?

But if these questions can be resolved, fines and levies could be a powerful tool for responding to plagiarism. While severe cases of plagiarism, especially ones that are recurring, should be dealt with using more harsh means, a monetary penalty can be a way to send a strong message over a one-time issue that might not warrant a suspension or termination.

But given the relationship between most plagiarists and their accusers, it’s unlikely that fines will become commonplace as a means for dealing with the problem. Fines are much more easily levied by courts as they already have the authority to do so.

So, until research fraud and other forms of plagiarism are treated as criminal matters for the courts, it’s unlikely we’ll hear about more cases like Fleishman's.

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of iThenticate.