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By Tara Hoke


An ASCE member filed a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) stating that another member, a professor of civil engineering, had plagiarized the work of two former students. As evidence, the complainant provided copies of a term paper the students had jointly written while enrolled in the professor's class, along with articles from two technical journals that had been published under the professor's name.

Upon examination, the articles in the two technical journals proved to be almost word-for-word copies of the students' paper. The professor had rearranged some paragraphs and cut some text, and he cited only two-thirds of the original references, thereby possibly plagiarizing the work of other authors as well.

The students provided evidence to the CPC that they had received very little help from the professor in preparing their paper. A member of the Committee interviewed the professor, who did not deny this fact.

The professor stated that he sometimes kept copies of students' term papers for use as examples in subsequent classes. He said that he had been invited to present a paper at a workshop on the same topic as that of the students' paper. The professor did so, using his own notes and visual aids. He was subsequently asked by the workshop sponsors for a written version of his talk. The professor stated that he then gave the sponsors a copy of his students' paper but did not realize that the purpose of the request was to obtain a copy for publication.

The professor stated that his second use of the students' paper had come when he had submitted a paper of his own to a technical journal. The editor of the journal notified the professor that there would be a long delay before his paper could be published but offered to accept a substitute paper on a different topic for an earlier issue. The professor modified his students' paper as described above and then submitted that paper to the journal.


Did the member's publication of two articles that plagiarized work by his former students violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?


At the time of this 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 to the honor, integrity, or dignity of the engineering profession." 

Under the current Code of Ethics, this issue would be covered by canon 5: "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others." Category (e) of the guidelines to practice for canon 5 adds the following: "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." 

Regardless whether the professor's plagiarism had been intentional or merely a negligent or impulsive act, the CPC expressed great concern over the example such conduct might set for future engineers. Its members were of the opinion that persons chosen to instill ethical principles and professionalism into engineering students must themselves uphold the highest standards of conduct.

The CPC held that the professor had violated article 9 of the Code of Ethics and voted to recommend to the Board of Direction that he be suspended from the Society for a period of five years and that his name and an account of the board's action be published in  Civil Engineering . The professor was notified of this recommendation; however, his membership lapsed for nonpayment of dues before a board hearing could be set. Accordingly, the professor was informed of the expiration of his membership and advised that the evidence gathered by the CPC would be considered in any future request on his part for reinstatement of his membership in the Society.

The Society's current Rules of Practice and Procedure allow for publication of notice that an individual has resigned or allowed his or her membership to lapse for nonpayment of dues while under investigation for a possible violation of the Code of Ethics.

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

© ASCE, ASCE News, November, 2006