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October 2011

Code of Ethics Applies to Author’s Responsibilities

Situation

A university professor and ASCE fellow prepares a book on the design of nonstructural building elements, and his work is accepted by a large scientific publisher. Upon its publication, a consultant with a private publication business files a complaint with ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), claiming that the section of the book dealing with elevator design contains material plagiarized from the complainant’s manuscript on the topic, as well as from several other published works.

In support of this claim, the complainant submits photocopies of both the professor’s book chapter and his own work, along with three other publications: two standards documents dealing with safety and a peer-reviewed journal article by another author. All photocopies have been marked by the complainant to highlight areas in which the professor’s publication appears to incorporate figures and text from the other publications either exactly or with minor modifications. The complainant states that he contacted the two standards organizations and the journal author to advise them of the publication and notes that they had not received a request for permission to use their material. The complainant believes that the professor deliberately failed to provide proper attribution in an attempt to pass the work off as his own.

The CPC opens a case on this matter and contacts the ASCE fellow to advise him of the investigation.

Question

Did the ASCE fellow’s actions in writing this textbook violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Decision

While the Code of Ethics for the most part concerns itself with the engineer’s responsibilities to clients and the general public, canon 5 emphasizes the engineer’s responsibilities to other professionals. It requires engineers to build their professional reputations on the basis of their own merit and not to compete unfairly with others. The guidelines to practice for this canon describe a variety of ways by which an engineer may attempt to gain an undue benefit in the professional marketplace.

According to category (e) in the guidelines for canon 5, “Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.” While plagiarism may not be as stark an example of unfair competition as, say, bribery, it nevertheless represents an attempt by the plagiarizer to enhance his or her reputation by the theft of another’s work. The person who actually did the work is thereby deprived of recognition.

When contacted by the CPC, the ASCE fellow expressed outrage that he had been accused of plagiarism. He observed that the complainant’s publication was a self-published manuscript that had been distributed on a limited basis in another country, and he contended that he had had no knowledge of the manuscript prior to the complaint. He further stated that the portions of the complainant’s work that he is alleged to have plagiarized were materials derived from other publicly available sources and that the complainant himself had used those materials without proper attribution. Finally, he said that the complainant had launched a campaign of accusations against him both with his book’s publisher and with other professional societies. As the professor saw it, the complainant was trying either to drive a competing publication from the market or to extort some form of financial settlement.

With regard to the other publications, the professor acknowledged that he had used these works as sources in his book, but he felt that he had provided proper attribution. He noted that neither the associations nor the journal author had contacted him to protest his use of their materials.

Upon review of the materials submitted by both parties, the members of the CPC felt that the facts lay somewhere between the complainant’s and the accused member’s account. Both the complainant’s and the professor’s work drew heavily on product literature and other guidelines issued by elevator manufacturers. The similarity in language of the complainant’s work to that of the professor appeared to stem from the fact that both had made only moderate attempts to paraphrase the manufacturers’ language when reproducing information about the manufacturers’ designs.

Furthermore, while the professor had made some effort to acknowledge his other sources, the attributions were sparse and unclear. In several instances, introductions citing a standards document were followed by several paragraphs of text from other works with no quotation marks or other indications to distinguish the reproduced material from the professor’s own words. Likewise, a lengthy discussion of theories propounded by the author of the journal paper was followed by an acknowledgment thanking the journal author for his contributions but failing to specify the exact nature of those contributions.

On the basis of its review of the materials and its communications with the accused member, the CPC concluded that although the fellow had provided inadequate attribution of his source material, his actions did not constitute an ethics violation warranting a formal disciplinary action. The CPC members voted to dismiss the case but sent a letter to the professor advising him of their serious concerns about his failure to acknowledge his sources and directing him to consult recognized guidelines on the proper way to cite sources.

While the CPC’s investigation focused on ethics issues, it is important to note that the ASCE fellow’s actions could very well have raised concerns from a legal standpoint. While he appeared to believe that the manufacturers’ literature and safety standards were “public documents” and thus freely available for his use, these documents were copyrighted, the copyrights belonging to the originating organizations. Even if the professor had provided adequate attribution, his reproduction in a commercial publication of figures, diagrams, and substantial blocks of text from copyrighted materials without permission from the copyright holders could have exposed him to charges of copyright infringement.

Claims that a member has plagiarized material or otherwise infringed another’s intellectual property rights are among the most common complaints received by the CPC, perhaps because the aggrieved party in such cases is typically another engineer and has an engineer’s understanding of the profession’s ethical standards and its enforcement avenues. A wealth of information exists for authors seeking assistance in determining the proper method of crediting sources. Authors preparing a journal article for publication by ASCE are directed to review the guidelines available online at www.ASCE.org/Audience/Authors,--Editors/Journals/Authors/Resources-for-Authors/. Guidelines for prospective book authors are available at www.ASCE.org/Audience/Authors,--Editors/Books/ASCE-Press/ASCE-Press-Author-s-Guide/ .

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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