Is defining plagiarism “like catching smoke in a butterfly net?” Towson professor under investigation

Benjamin A. Neil

Earlier this month, we brought you the story of a paper in a journal about business ethics being retracted for — wait for it — plagiarism. The paper that seemed to be the one in question — see the post for why that was a bit unclear — was by Benjamin A. Neil, a professor at Towson University in Maryland.

Today, the Baltimore Sun reports that Neil is under investigation by Towson for more alleged plagiarism, and has “resigned his post as the head of the city school system’s ethics panel.” From the Sun:

A Baltimore Sun review of five papers published by Neil shows passages with identical language and others with close similarities to scholarly journals, news publications, congressional testimony, blogs and websites. In many cases, there was no attribution.

Neil, who has taught at Towson for more than 20 years, says he properly attributed work from other authors.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” said Neil, 62. “The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes. But I’ve given attribution to people.”

Towson was made aware on March 18 of the potential plagiarism by University of Colorado, Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall, who first wrote about Neil’s paper in The Journal of Academic and Business Ethics in late February. What he found in that paper prompted him to look at others. Three have now been retracted, in addition to the JABE paper:

According to the Sun, Michael P. May, Neil’s attorney

described the professor as an “honest, ethical guy.” He said there was no “universally acceptable definition of plagiarism” and that “attempting to pin this down is like catching smoke in a butterfly net.”

What an interesting turn of phrase. We wonder if we’ve heard it before.

13 thoughts on “Is defining plagiarism “like catching smoke in a butterfly net?” Towson professor under investigation”

  1. If your reference to “we’ve heard it all before” is to the poem you’ve linked by Eric Stepian, then you muddy the waters. “Catching smoke in a butterfly net” is a vivid and compelling image, and it does appear in the poem. But to accuse someone of plagiarism on the basis of 6 contiguous words is not bold; it’s heedless and rash.

    I’d be surprised if the Stepian poem is the first place the phrase appears. Rather, it seems the sort of phrase that many speakers or writers might conceive independently.

    Plagiarism, to my knowledge, does not have a quantitative definition, though I understand some journals don’t consider a paper to be duplicated until there’s 30% overlap with a prior paper by the same author. It might be nice to have some sort of quantitative definition of plagiarism, otherwise we risk sliding down the slippery slope of calling everything plagiarism (Did I just plagiarize the phrase “slippery slope”?). An approach to developing such a definition of plagiarism might be to search a large sample of papers on the same subject to see how many words overlap without attribution. I suspect that number is rather large….

    In the meantime, a 6-word overlap should only count as plagiarism in the case of the 6-word short story by Ernest Hemingway (“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”).

  2. Plagiarism in most cases requires judgment. I (and I think most people) would say it is taking someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution. Clearly almost every component of that definition is subject to some degree of interpretation. To me, not putting quotes around someone else’s writing (like this guy), whether you cite it somewhere else or not, is plagiarism, because quotes are how we indicate “someone else said this.” As a reader, I assume you wrote anything that is not in quotes.

    The concept of plagiarism is no more nebulous or “smoky” than many other kinds of judgment calls we make in academia, ethics, or the law. Implying that if a standard cannot be rigidly defined it is meaningless or unenforceable is ridiculous.

  3. I define plagiarism as “falsification of the fact of authorship”. So, you take some “item” and check if the authorship of this “item” stated correctly or falsely. The “item” can be anything that should have authorship, i. e. it is not a common knowledge. Therefore, there should be the name of the author attached to the “item”. If the name is absent, the authorship is deemed to be that of the author of the paper. Next, if it is found that the “item” had known authorship and it is not the authorship of the author of the paper, you say – plagiarism.

    Depending on the area where the authorship is created, the plagiarised “item” would have very different values. In literature, high value is in the words and in the plot. In science, high value is in ideas, approach and technique. In science, a plagiarised idea expressed in as little as three words must cost the perpetrator his job. Of course, the judgement is needed to evaluate the “item”.

    The only defence against plagiarism is no-knowledge of the true authorship, i. e. coming to the same “item” independently.

    Of course, the attribution of the “item” must be clear and complete, not partial or obscure. Of all kinds of plagiarism, plagiarism of “item” unpublished by the author is not only most unpardonable but also the most damaging to the victim. This kind of plagiarism is separated into the category of “piracy” by the Council of Science Editors.

    There are many definitions of plagiarism. The worst is by Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE):
    “Plagiarism ranges from the unreferenced use of others’ published and unpublished ideas, including research grant applications to submission under “new” authorship of a complete paper, sometimes in a different language. It may occur at any stage of planning, research, writing, or publication: it applies to print and electronic versions.”
    This “definition” does not say WHAT it is, they only give a range of examples. No wonder that many are confused and say that there is no clear definition.

  4. Plagiarism is always a THEFT of someone else’s work.
    When published (i.e. reproduced), plagiarism becomes a PERMANENT theft.
    A plagiarist will say anything in order to deny any wrongdoing.
    What is really pity here is that always there is someone who undermines the wrongdoing by deploying different tactics: there is no verbatim copying of the full text; this was unintentional (honest mistake); the overlap is insignificant; the offender is well-known person; nobody is hurt; we should focus on more important things; etc, etc.)
    Some (as, for example, Mr. R Grant Steen above) will try to ridicule those who are pointing out the theft.

    Working solution against plagiarism is the Copyright Infringement.

    According to Australian Copyright Act (1968)
    “Copyright is infringed when a person uses all, or a “substantial part”, of copyright material without the express or implied permission of the copyright owner.”

    “A “substantial part” is any important, distinctive or essential part of the original material, not necessarily a large part. There have been many court cases about whether reproducing part of a work constitutes an infringement of copyright. In one case, a court held that reproducing 6 notes from a piece of music was found to be an infringement.”

    Here is one example of 9 (nine) seconds in a song of 3 min and 35 seconds:

    Here are the full versions:

    The time to apply the same criteria to plagiarism in academic publishing is long overdue!

  5. When I was a PhD student, one of my mentors used to say that good ideas are a dime a dozen. Another one used to say that if you have two people, one who had the idea and did nothing with it, the other who took the idea and did something with it, then it is this second person who should get the credit for the entire thing. So, yes, there is a range of opinions out there. It is not uncommon to see senior scientists at conferences go through poster sessions of junior colleagues or their students, hunting for good ideas to exploit. Is this ethical?

    1. It is not just unethical NOT to give credit to the original.
      What you say is that piracy is a good thing.
      There is a proverb in Europe, which can be translated in English as:
      “Bad guys succeed only because the good guys do nothing”
      Are there any good guys out there?
      Plagiarism should be treated as piracy and plagiarists as pirates.
      This is ethical.

      1. Who prevents reviewers and editors from pirating the ideas of authors? I have witnessed an incident where a reviewer held his comments, postponed rejection until he could get his plagiarized & pirated manuscript accepted and then rejected the original work. The original author could not do anything because reviewing is blind . Unfortunately there is no recourse for such wrongdoings.

        1. The reviewer is a pirate and should be treated as such.
          As first step the pirate should be exposed.
          Please, give here the details and lets see whether the editor who published the plagiarized & pirated manuscript, the publisher, and COPE will Do-the Right-Thing!

          1. That was long before COPE was established more than 15 years ago, when reviewing was blind, it was impossible to name the offender : that is what put me off publishing. In some cases ; the ideas are pirated and it is hard to prove the offence. BTW, which law applies when each member of the publishing equation belongs to a different jurisdiction? Is this question not worthy of a thorough investigation. I have always thought of the publishing world as an anarchical system where injustice prevails and nobody is willing to challenge the status quo, even when some one tries , his/her attempt is shy , wasteful and inefficient.

          2. Also, what is the penalty for pirating? Can researchers keep track and trace their ideas , given the huge number of expensive journals? To whom and where are such wrongdoings reported?

  6. People who plagiarize now get caught by the use of new softwares that can detect their wrongdoings. That said, dead wood who had plagiarized before ( name the year?) those technologies become available will never be caught. It is unfortunate that some fraudsters are allowed to keep their decision making positions, as some of them hold higher positions in Academia (e.g emeritus professors, ministers, universities presidents, deans…etc). Is there any hope?

    1. Yes, there is hope, should the good guys start doing something.
      Retraction Watch is doing something!
      The more good guys start to DO something about exposing high-flyer plagiarists, the less these bad guys will succeed.

  7. Strictly speaking, plagiarism is not theft. There is a court judgement saying that the author cannot be deprived of authorship by plagiarism. Very true, authorship is the fact of the past. The fact can be falsified, but not stolen. Also, authorship does not exist before the subject of authorship is created, so, “assigning” authorship is a misnomer.

    Second, authorship has nothing to do with copyright; violation of copyright can, however, be the evidence of plagiarism. It is wrong that authorship law is only a part of copyright law; authorship is much more important to the society (corporations tell you the opposite). Copyright is merely a commercial right, it can be transferred, bought and sold. Authorship is not transferrable, understandably because that will be a falsification of fact. The right to be named as author of your work is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s a basic human right. (The above considerations made me to come to my definition of plagiarism.)

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