“Embarrassing and regrettable incident of faulty memory” leads to retraction

aaaIs there any accounting for plagiarism?

A set of educational materials for accounting classes has been retracted for plagiarizing work published a decade earlier.

We spoke to the author of the retracted work, who explained that over the course of ten years of revising his classroom material, he lost track of what was original, and what was written by him or his fellow University of Saskatchewan professors.

Here’s the notice for “Ramm Wholesale: Reviewing Audit Work”:

Douglas Kalesnikoff and Fred Phillips have requested that the American Accounting Association retract their article, “Ramm Wholesale: Reviewing Audit Work,” published in Issues in Accounting Education August 2013, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 629-636, along with the corresponding teaching notes, published in Issues in Accounting Education Teaching Notes August 2013, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 38-46 because the case is based on, but did not provide appropriate attribution to, Maxall Company, AICPA Case No. 2002-02, written by Mattie C. Porter and Robert H. Barr, Jr.

We spoke with author Fred Phillips, who gave us, you might say, an audit of what happened:

This was a set of learning materials that were published in 2002. I had used those learning materials, and adapted them for use in an exam. A colleague took over the course, and assumed the materials and exams had been developed by me. He used them for ten years, and revised them as he was using them.

In 2012 he asked, “Is it ok if I continue using them?” I said yeah, send me the materials, he sent them, I looked at them, said “Hey these are pretty good, you might want to consider publishing these.” We worked for the next year going through the peer review process, and they were published in 2013. At the time that we went through the review process we both thought they were mine. Earlier this year, somebody contacted us and sent us the original source material. When we opened it up, we realized oh my gosh, this must have been the basis of the original materials. We dug in and realized this must have been the source from a dozen years ago.

We contacted the journal and our internal institutional organization. The journal put together a task force, and a few weeks ago allowed us to retract. The moment we saw they were similar to the original source we asked to retract.

It’s an embarrassing and regrettable incident of faulty memory on my part.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

5 thoughts on ““Embarrassing and regrettable incident of faulty memory” leads to retraction”

  1. Hmm, that’s an accounting of plagiarism that I would actually trust, i.e., that it’s really matter of faulty memory.

    Teaching is often not seen as *that* relevant — more so by universities than by scientists. The later often hamper their careers if they invest too much time in teaching than in research. And it’s easy to bend the rules here: Use that photo/story/example — all without giving the source. After all, who’s hurt? And who cares where the material comes from? The goal is that the students understand an issue.

    But of course, it still is plagiarism, even if it’s only done in a lecture/class. The person did not come up with that example, or work out the materials. And it becomes a problem when the lecturer wants to share “his” material.

    So it’s a strong argument to always write down the source, even if it’s “just” notes/material for lectures/classes. Not only can you publish it later (correctly cited), it also serves as an example to the students. And this means that you need a good workflow to ensure that you have the source always available.

  2. The unacknowledged reuse of course content from colleagues, former professors, etc. is something that has not been widely discussed among academics. A situation that readers may find interesting concerns ownership and subsequent use of online course materials:


    This other discussion about using material found on the internet also raises some interesting questions about professional etiquette and attribution:


  3. I completely believe this as I’ve done the same myself.

    I inherited a course from a colleague who kindly provided me with a set of .tex files for the handouts. I changed his name to mine on the top of them as the new contact for the course (putting his name in a footnote to give credit where it was due). It was only much later that I discovered that these .tex files were almost verbatim from the textbook he had been recommending that was (a) out of print and (b) written by a friend of his who had evidently provided the source material in electronic form when it could no longer be purchased.

    As observed already, this sort of thing (accidentally) happens an awful lot.

  4. In my view, there is a world of difference between recycling class notes (often done among colleagues) and then turning around and publishing them as your own work. In particular, I find that “forgetting” where a case came from is sketchy.

  5. I think this is completely believable. Professor Phillips is recognized as one of the best accounting educators anywhere for his innovations and cases. His original contributions to accounting education cases are numerous. In fact, he has been recognized with two CAAA innovation in education awards, and one from the American Accounting Association Auditing section. He’s written so much original material that it is fairly easy to see how this mistake could happen 12 years down the road.

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