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Profs who plagiarize: how often?

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Imitation may be flattering but copying in the academic world is rarely appreciated - at least, not without citations and footnotes referencing the original.

In recent years, students have been heavily prepped on the perils of plagiarism. But it turns out their teachers, in some cases, have been more lax.

A series of high-profile cases - capped by accusations made last week against e.e. cummings scholar Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, who is also an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - has brought fresh attention to the subject. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the scholar.]

Even if faculty plagiarism is not measurably on the rise - numbers are so hard to come by that it is hard to gauge whether it is - the attention aroused by the recent headlines, coupled with the emergence of antiplagiarism software, has resulted in far more scrutiny of academic research.

"We're seeing the scale balance a little bit," says Tim Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity. Until recently, he says, "we've focused so much on promoting standards of academic integrity among students and assumed that professional scholars knew the rules."

But the rules have become more rigorous in the past three decades. Standards for footnotes in research papers are tighter.

"What was considered sufficient attribution in pre-[World War II] research would almost all be considered plagiarism today," says Jon Garon, dean of the School of Law at Hamline University.

Blatant copying - lifting whole paragraphs from another's work without attribution - is the most egregious form of plagiarism.

But most cases are less flagrant and involve such things as insufficient attribution, such as footnotes referring only to the first sentence when the borrowed material extends to the whole paragraph.

But whatever the level of plagiarism, the damage to an academic's reputation can be devastating - whether the complaint is found to be justified or not.

This ability to taint someone's reputation by charging plagiarism has in the past two years created a minitrend that worries Mr. Dodd, who calls the practice "malicious outing."


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