AN ITALIAN economist caught up in a welter of plagiarism charges has claimed that newspaper interest in his case was politically motivated because he is close to the government.
The Italian Society of Economists, a hallowed institution with great influence both inside and outside Italy's universities, recently ruled that it could neither condemn nor absolve Stefano Zamagni of repeated acts of alleged plagiarism in scientific publications.
The ruling was described by the authoritative Corriere Della Sera as "the least courageous sentence of the century" and may well say more about the accepted mores of Italian academe than the presumed case of plagiarism itself.
Professor Zamagni is one of Italy's leading economists. He heads Bologna University's economics department and teaches at Milan's prestigious Bocconi University. He is also a friend of and adviser to prime minister Romano Prodi, himself a Bologna economist, and has worked with the Vatican on matters of economic ethics, morality and philosophy.
In early 1996 Federico Varese, an Italian who teaches sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford, noticed that a 29-page publication in 1982 by Professor Zamagni, Methodological Fundamentals of the Austrian School, included seven pages that were direct translations from On Austrian Methodology, published in 1977 by American philosopher Robert Nozick.
There were no italics or quotation marks. Mr Varese then discovered that in another two essays by Professor Zamagni there were passages lifted verbatim from Italy's main economic daily, Il Sole 24 Ore. Mr Varese accused Professor Zamagni of "academic piracy".
His expose was published in the cultural monthly Belfagor, which then carried Professor Zamagni's defence. He admitted that Nozick's work was "incorporated" into his own essay, but said that a note at the beginning of his paper making this clear had "unfortunately" been left out by the printers. Mr Varese responded by pointing out that Professor Zamagni had re-published a virtually identical version of the paper in 1983, but had not rectified the oversight.
Professor Zamagni insisted that "in scientific work there is always an element of joint work. There is the moment of transmission of knowledge, a moment in which it is neither possible nor relevant to establish who thought what first".
At this point, 16 eminent Italian economists wrote to the Society of Economists demanding that it investigate charges, which "if proved would be of substantial gravity". They sought a commission to establish the truth.
Last year, the society held at least two inconclusive meetings. Finally, in March 1997, the society's presidential council said it "cannot express, under the current statutory regime, its opinion on the matter, nor can it charge a commission with this purpose".
According to Corriere Della Sera, the 16 economists became strangely quiet, and the calls for academic justice were replaced by anonymous letters and gossip under what the Corriere, borrowing a Mafia term, described as academic omerta, the law of silence.
The newspaper suggested that the Zamagni affair is typical of the constant "lifting" from foreign publications by Italian academics, and that once the initial storm abated, no society member was ready to cast stones after the first by Mr Varese, who does not work in Italy.
Pietro Alessandrini, a member of the presidential council, said: "For the moment the society feels it need not make any statement." He could not suggest who, if not the society, should judge an accusation of plagiarism by one of its 700 members.
Professor Zamagni told The THES: "I admit to having made a tragic mistake and of having failed to publicly correct it afterwards. But it is not a case of plagiarism, rather of having copied from another academic and of having failed to make this clear. Even my accuser speaks of 'piracy', not 'plagiarism'. Apart from this, I feel that the emphasis given to this affair by the Corriere is far beyond the actual importance of my mistake in itself."
The problem of academics "lifting" parts of foreign publications is widespread in Italy and is rarely punished by what academic authorities exist. The representative of a British publisher in Milan told The THES: "Italy is completely uncontrolled - there are many examples of entire chunks of text being taken, translated, and used as original material. It is a phenomenon which is very difficult to control."