A look at plagiarism at the Pontifical Gregorian University

Retraction Watch readers may recall the work of Michael Dougherty, who has established a reputation as a sleuth focused on plagiarism. We are pleased to present an excerpt of Dougherty’s new book, New Techniques for Proving Plagiarism: Case Studies from the Sacred Disciplines at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Studies in Research Integrity, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill 2024).

The principles of textual criticism—borrowed from the fields of classics and medieval studies—have a valuable application for plagiarism investigations. Plagiarists share key features with medieval scribes who worked in scriptoriums and produced copies of manuscripts. Both kinds of copyists—scribes and plagiarists—engage in similar processes, and they commit certain distinctive copying errors that fall into identifiable classes. When committed by plagiarists, these copying errors have probative value for making determinations that a text is copied, and hence, unoriginal. 

To demonstrate fully that a text is a plagiarism of another text, one must show how the text is plagiarizing the other text. Many plagiarism researchers, as well as members of institutional research integrity committees, miss this step. They take the mere identification of textual overlap to be the upper limit of analysis. By stopping short, they leave themselves vulnerable to the typical defenses made—sometimes in bad faith—by academic malefactors and their apologists. Those defenses can include: a claim of independent fortuitous discovery; a claim that one was simply recalling a lecture from memory; a claim that one had cryptomnesia from reading many sources; and the like.

The careful application of the principles of textual criticism, however, which focuses on very particular types of copying errors, can in many cases rule out these standard defenses. Complex features of overlapping texts can be used to prove that one text really is a copy of another. A comprehensive approach to plagiarism must incorporate evidence beyond simple verbatim overlap; the identification of new and subtle forms of evidence of plagiarism is critical. 

Distinctive case studies are required to exhibit the efficacy of newly proposed techniques for proving plagiarism. For this role, I have selected monographs in the sacred sciences (e.g., philosophy, theology, canon law) that are the published versions of doctoral dissertations from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. That university is the major degree-granting institution for many clerics around the world who have ascended to high offices in the Roman Catholic Church. The focus on these monographs as case studies is beneficial for two major reasons. 

First, most studies in research integrity today are pursued from the standpoint of the natural, social, and biomedical sciences. The predominant issues in those fields include data fabrication, data falsification, irreproducible experimental results, publication bias, and shoddy or manipulative statistical methods. From such perspectives, the significance of plagiarism is sometimes downplayed. Frameworks for discussing research integrity are typically modeled after the problems and concerns of those disciplines, which are not always adaptable to research conducted in the humanities or the sacred disciplines.

Yet plagiarism remains the central problem of research integrity in the humanities and sacred disciplines, and it should be treated from the vantage of these disciplines. The discussions of plagiarism in this volume are intended to contribute to establishing a more comprehensive and inclusive model of research integrity with applicability across a broader range of disciplines. It is therefore important to offset any disproportionate influence that other disciplines have carried in contemporary approaches to research integrity. 

Secondly, a focus on the research outputs of a major pontifical university provides an occasion for a detailed examination of the lasting and pernicious effects of plagiarism committed in an ecclesiastical environment. That topic only recently has begun to attract serious scholarly attention. By using new techniques for proving plagiarism, we see apparent research integrity failures on a large scale at a major institution of Catholic higher education. 

The Code of Canon Law uses the term disciplinae sacrae (sacred disciplines) to designate academic fields of special significance for the formation of leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. Principal among them are philosophy, theology, and canon law. An advanced degree in one of these disciplines, awarded by an ecclesiastical institution, is required to hold various curial offices and academic positions in Catholic seminaries. The possession of the terminal degree—a doctorate—is regarded as an optimal credential for some of the highest offices, including the episcopacy. It is therefore useful to explore the repercussions for the Church and the academy in cases where the crucial credential of a doctoral degree appears to be unwarranted due to substantial plagiarism in the doctoral dissertation.

Although many ecclesiastical institutions of higher education exist worldwide, the narrow focus on the Pontifical Gregorian University is justified due to the institution’s unparalleled role in the formation of priests who later go on to hold high offices in the Catholic Church. Nearly one out of every four of the more than 5,000 Catholic bishops around the world are counted among its alumni. The institution counts over one-third of the College of Cardinals as former students. Sixteen previous popes are graduates or former faculty members of the Pontifical Gregorian University, including seven of the last twelve.

My work used principles of textual criticism to examine nine published monographs by clerics that originated in doctoral-level dissertations at the Pontifical Gregorian University. These published dissertations, all written in English, are treated as distinctive examples of the quality of the research conducted during a recent period at the university and then distributed—via publication—to the larger world of learning. Chosen from the disciplinae sacrae of theology, philosophy, canon law, and missiology, these published dissertations appeared in print from 1995-2014 under the aegis of the university press of the Gregorian University. Together they represent the major areas of research for which the Roman institution is best known.

A decade or more has passed since each of the nine published doctoral dissertations appeared in print. This extended period allows for an examination of the laudatory reception each has received in the downstream research literature within their respective academic disciplines. This time frame also allows for a consideration of the beneficial effects that high academic qualifications—the doctoral degree and the published dissertation—bestow on their possessors over the span of their careers. A pontifical doctorate and a published dissertation are key credentials for promotion to academic and ecclesiastical leadership positions. The authors of record (or stated authors) for these published dissertations have acquired various positions in seminaries and diocesan curiae throughout the worldwide church. So far, a third of them (3/9) have been elevated to the episcopacy to lead dioceses around the globe. The number seems likely to increase.

Yet culpability is not placed in toto on the authors of record of the published dissertations. Although responsibility rests primarily with doctoral students, plagiarism in dissertations cannot be successful on a wide scale unless it is permitted (either by encouragement or negligence) by those tasked with academic institutional oversight. Rectors, academic deans, dissertation advisors, university professors, and thesis committee members, among others, must be regarded as complicit if plagiarism is found to occur on a significant scale within an institution.

One may reasonably question whether a university adequately mentors doctoral students and genuinely promotes doctoral studies, when substantially defective dissertations are found in proportionately high numbers. Widespread plagiarism is a systemic failure involving lapses and omissions by individuals throughout the hierarchy of an institution who have not provided reliable oversight of doctoral students and who have neglected to provide truthful evaluations of institutional research products.

Michael Dougherty is Professor & Sr. Ruth Caspar Chair in Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University and the author of New Techniques for Proving Plagiarism: Case Studies from the Sacred Disciplines at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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