Is plagiarism a problem in economics? Survey of editors says … yes

Gary Hoover

In 2004, a survey of editors of economic journals found 3 out of 10 had seen at least one case of plagiarism within the past year. More than a decade later, has the problem gotten better? Or worse? Gary Hoover at the University of Oklahoma, who co-authored the 2004 paper, decided to revisit the issue by resurveying editors in economics, along with others working in different fields. What he found — and reported in Social Science Quarterly — was plagiarism is still a problem, which economists want to address.

Retraction Watch: Why did you want to revisit the findings from the 2004 survey of editors in economics 10 years later?

Gary Hoover: The number in 2004 was shockingly large. We wondered whether the increased scrutiny that has been brought on by high profile cases would have had any impact on this. The increased attention brought by cases ending up in the popular press might have caused the editors to be more vigilant and thus, the reported cases rise. However, it could have been the case that authors were more reluctant to engage in this type of activity given the increased attention being paid by publishers, editors, and the general public. Our newest results showed that over 50% of responding editors in economics reported one or more cases in a given year.

RW: What were some of the most notable findings from the most recent survey?

GH: The most notable finding is actually an old finding. The general economics community along with journal editors still strongly support the notion of a professional code of ethics. This code would clearly articulate the types of actions that the profession finds objectionable. In 2004, the number stood at 67% of responding journal editors with a positive notion of a code of ethics. In this latest work, that number has risen to 83% of responding editors. However, there has been no movement towards seeing this accomplished by any of the major economics associations.

RW: What were the most notable differences between the results of this survey and the one you published in 2004?

GH: This latest work was able to include responses from not only economics journal editors but also sociology, political science, and other disciplines. That was not considered in 2004. The findings across disciplines are rather consistent. However, within a given discipline, there is a great deal of variation among journal editors.

We were also able to ask editors about their knowledge of websites, such as yours (RePEc Plagiarism page, Airleap, Retraction Watch). This was not possible in 2004 since these websites did not exist then. Amazingly, 60% of editors had never heard of or used the RePEc Plagiarism page [which highlights plagiarism in economics research, including the names of offenders].

RW: Why do you think relatively few journal editors in economics (39%) agreed that plagiarism includes theft of ideas or themes, relative to other fields?

GH: Most editors are simply unaware. It would appear that they have failed to read the statement of their own publishers. On the website of the Modern Language Association this definition of plagiarism can be found “Using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism…. [T]o plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics…. Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another’s wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another’s argument, and presenting another’s line of thinking” (6.1; see also Gibaldi, MLA Handbook, ch. 2).

This seems very clear.

RW: You asked editors about whether or not to issue a public notice. While most said they should when the research had already been published, “journal editors felt that if the act were caught in the review process, a formal notice seemed inappropriate.” Do journals ever publicly note when an unpublished manuscript contains plagiarized material? If so, how?

GH: We have not encountered a case where an unpublished manuscript was given a public notice. However, that allows the potential plagiarist to go unpunished for the attempt. In an academic setting, we wonder if faculty members decline to punish students who attempt to plagiarize in their class.

In addition, the rest of the statement on the Modern Language Association website about plagiarism goes on to say “It is important to note that this definition does not distinguish between published and unpublished sources, between ideas derived from colleagues and those offered by students, or between written and oral presentations.”

RW: How do these findings compare/contrast with your recent paper surveying management researchers about plagiarism and other forms of misconduct?

GH: The most interesting result to come out of [the paper about management researchers] is that management editors and scholars take a strong stance against unattributed work from another scholar. However, they have little problem with taking unattributed work from their own previously published papers. If it does not cross the line on plagiarism (one can not take words from oneself without knowledge) it does seem to cross the copyright line. In most instances, the copyright is signed over to the publishing journal.

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2 thoughts on “Is plagiarism a problem in economics? Survey of editors says … yes”

  1. Although I think this is important work because I have often witnessed these problems in the pain literature that I review, the survey’s results about the magnitude of the problem would be more convincing if the true base (number of article submissions reviewed) was measured. An editor respondent could answer yes if only one of a thousand articles he or she reviewed contained plagiarized material. That would actually indicate that the magnitude of the problem was small, not large.

  2. what William says

    at Energy Economics, we do not publicly report unethical behaviour that comes to light during review

    we do, however, report such behaviour to the relevant head of department or equivalent

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