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Student Publishes Paper Plagiarizing Professor’s Lecture Notes/Thesis

Situation

A member of asce wrote a paper that was subjected to peer review and then published in one of the Society's journals. Shortly after publication, the Committee on Professional Conduct (cpc) received a letter alleging that the author of the paper had committed plagiarism and violated copyright laws. The complaint contended that the published paper contained verbatim excerpts from lecture notes that a professor had used in teaching a course in which the author had been enrolled. The lecture notes were drawn from sections of the professor's doctoral thesis, which the professor had published and copyrighted several years earlier and had presented at an international congress.

The cpc received evidence indicating that the author had been a student of the professor's in the class in which the lecture notes had been distributed. Further evidence indicated that the student had checked out the professor's original thesis from the school library. However, the lecture notes, the thesis, and the presentation at the international congress were not otherwise publicly available; thus the material was not available to the engineers who reviewed the author's paper for publication in the asce journal.

When the author submitted his paper to the Society, he was sent a formal notification of its acceptance and advised that the Society assumed that all papers were submitted on an exclusive basis and had not previously been published. The author did not reply to this letter.

The author did not formally acknowledge any of the professor's earlier work, although portions of the author's paper contained diagrams reproduced exactly from the professor's lecture notes and text taken verbatim from that source. In response to the cpc's inquiries, the author indicated that while he did use the professor's lecture notes, the development of the computer program cited in the paper was entirely his own. The computer program was used to solve complex mathematical equations.

This case was brought to the attention of the cpc by several members of the Society charging the author with plagiarism and breach of copyright in connection with publication of the manuscript in the journal.

Question

Did the author violate asce's Code of Ethics by copying portions of the professor's lecture notes?

At the time of the investigation, article 9 of the Code of Ethics read as follows: "It shall be considered unprofessional and inconsistent with honorable and dignified conduct and contrary to the public interest for any member of the American Society of Civil Engineers ... [to] act in any manner derogatory of the honor, integrity, or dignity of the engineering profession."

The guidelines to practice in category (e) of canon 5 in the current version of the Code of Ethics have this to say: "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."

Decision

The cpc reviewed all of the evidence and correspondence involved in this case and concluded that the author violated the Code of Ethics. Its members voted to send the case to the Board of Direction and to notify the author and invite him to defend himself in person or in writing.

The board concurred with the recommendation of the cpc. After hearing the evidence, the board voted to suspend the author from membership in the Society for a period of two years.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the cpc 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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