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November 2013

Credit Where Due is More Than Courtesy


Situation:

An ASCE technical journal publishes an article on highly effective forensic engineering practices authored by an ASCE member and associate professor at a large state university. Shortly after its publication, ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) receives a complaint from another member, alleging that the author plagiarized the complainant’s article on the subject. The complainant, a former colleague of the accused member during the latter’s employment at a consulting firm, stated that his own paper on the subject had been written several years earlier for publication in a conference proceedings volume, and he attaches copies of the two papers in support of his claim.

Upon being reviewed by the members of the CPC, the two papers are found to bear a striking resemblance. Several large excerpts in the accused’s paper appear to have been copied verbatim from the earlier work, and numerous other instances show duplication in word choice and phrasing. Furthermore, a significant number of the recommendations and conclusions presented in the paper in question mirror the earlier work in substance, style, and organization. All told, the CPC estimates that some 60 percent of the paper was copied or paraphrased from the prior work. No acknowledgment of the complainant’s work appears in the body of the paper or in the list of references.

Question:

Did the member’s actions in publishing a paper under his own name that included significant duplication of another author’s work violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Decision:

Canon 5 of the Code of Ethics reads as follows: “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” Category (e) in the guidelines to practice for this canon is particularly apposite: “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.”

Though violations of the duty to “give proper credit” are by no means limited to academia, the pressures inherent in the academic environment make it uniquely susceptible to ethical lapses of this nature. Students with heavy workloads and looming deadlines may be tempted to “borrow” material in order to complete term papers or other projects, and professors and researchers whose career advancement is dependent on grant funding or publication in peer-reviewed journals may look to another’s achievements as a ready means of getting ahead.

Yet while the harm caused by such behavior may not be readily apparent because it may not have such dramatic consequences as undermining public safety or causing heavy financial losses, it is essential for members to recognize that the use of another’s ideas and writings without attribution is a serious ethical breach. Plagiarism and similar conduct in essence involve depriving a person of the benefit he or she is entitled to by virtue of intellectual contributions. As stated in canon 5, parties must not unfairly enhance their reputations. Given this element of unfair competition and the fact that the person whose material is misappropriated may also be feeling pressure to “publish or perish,” it is perhaps not surprising that violations of category (e) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5 are among the most common complaints received by the CPC.

When contacted by the CPC, the member in this case acknowledged that he had made use of the complainant’s work, but he denied having intentionally failed to acknowledge that use. He contended that his original draft had included a title page explaining that elements of his paper had been taken in part from the complainant’s paper but that his secretary had inadvertently omitted that page when copying the draft for submission to the journal. He stated that he had been unaware of the oversight until he was contacted by the complainant after publication.

The member further stated that a copy of the complainant’s paper had been held in his former firm’s reference file for some years but that, given its unformatted and unpolished appearance, he had regarded the paper as a work that had been drafted only for internal circulation. He said that he had assumed the paper’s author had not placed any restrictions on his colleagues’ use of the document and that he would never have used the paper if he had known it was a published piece.

Finally, the member stated that he had written a letter of apology to the complainant, that he was working with the journal to withdraw his paper, and that he was willing to take any other appropriate steps to “clear the shadow from his professional reputation.”

While the members of the CPC appreciated the member’s cooperation with their investigation and believed that he sincerely regretted his actions, they were not persuaded by his
defense. They noted that, even if he had acknowledged his source material, this simple notation would still have been inadequate in view of the extensive use made of the earlier work. They also observed that the ethical obligation to credit a source applies not only to work that is published in a professional publication but also to any use of another person’s “designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.”

Although willing to accept the member’s claim that his actions had arisen from ignorance rather than intent, the members of the CPC felt that ignorance of appropriate practices for using information from other sources was no excuse. The committee held that the member had violated canon 5 of the Code of Ethics, but in view of his efforts to make amends for his actions, it did not recommend harsh disciplinary action. The Executive Committee agreed; the member received a letter of admonition, and notice of the action was published in a Society magazine without naming him.

The proliferation of online and electronic technical material in today’s world may tempt professionals to give short shrift to their ethical obligation to give proper credit to the work of others. But this same expansion of information resources has also made it far more difficult for unethical conduct to escape detection.

With more publishers offering online access to their material, even smaller publications may boast a global circulation, making it difficult for a plagiarizer to limit circulation of misappropriated material. Professionals and scholars can search for material in their fields of interest through their home or office computers, making it easier for peer reviewers or other readers to find material that repeats what they have read elsewhere or authored themselves. And many universities and publishers make regular use of special software that can assess the originality of submitted material. Given these facts, it is of the utmost importance that members know how to properly attribute the work of others, for even a single lapse could cast suspicion on all of a member’s past achievements and threaten a successful academic or professional career. —TARA HOKE

 

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, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s assistant general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

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