US war on plagiarism takes first UK scalp

April 15, 2005

An escalating war against academic plagiarism in the US looks set to spread to the UK after claiming its first English scalp.

Following a spate of claims of plagiarism by academics in the US, The Times Higher has learnt that a senior Leeds University lecturer was forced to admit he copied another scholar's work when a Harvard University undergraduate uncovered evidence.

Leeds University this week confirmed it had disciplined - but not dismissed - Neil Winn, senior lecturer in European studies. It says in a statement that Dr Winn has "not denied" plagiarising from a journal article for his 1996 monograph European Crisis Management in the 1980s .

A backlash by academics and students against plagiarism in the US, in which scholars are increasingly ready to inform on one another, appears to be spreading across the globe. British academics predicted this week that more international plagiarists would be identified.

In the Leeds case, Harvard undergraduate Tod Fine discovered that part of Dr Winn's monograph was nearly identical to parts of a 1992 journal paper by Steve Livingston, associate professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University in the US.

Up to five pages of Professor Livingston's paper, published in International Studies Quarterly , had been lifted, with American spellings changed to British ones. Professor Livingston informed Leeds of the plagiarism last year.

Dr Winn declined to comment, but a Leeds spokeswoman this week said: "The university immediately set in train an investigation. The allegation of plagiarism was upheld and was not denied by Dr Winn."

Professor Livingston said this week that although Leeds had acted quickly and had informed the book's publishers, which pulped unsold copies of Dr Winn's work, he was concerned the university had not taken the issue seriously enough.

"I'm told he's teaching and at the same rank, and continuing to publish," he said. "Students typically face grave sanctions for this behaviour. What, exactly, is the point of these sanctions if plagiarism is but a modest concern when committed by their professors?"

Leeds said that the two pro vice-chancellors who decided on disciplinary action agreed that dismissal was not appropriate, "having regard to all the circumstances - including, in particular, Dr Winn's evident contrition and his personal circumstances at the time of the offence.

"The university is satisfied that that was a reasonable decision, properly taken."

So many accusations of plagiarism have surfaced in the US after initial disclosures involving famous historians that the American Historical Association announced that it could no longer invest the "time, energy and effort" to investigate any more of them.

But universities appear to be taking a tougher line.

These accusations began to snowball after Civil War scholar Stephen Ambrose conceded that he had borrowed passages from other people's work, although he insisted that he had used footnotes.

Then historian Doris Kearns Goodwin acknowledged that she had "unintentionally" copied passages from a book by another author, to whom Ms Goodwin paid an undisclosed financial settlement.

Mr Ambrose and Ms Goodwin frequently appeared on UStelevision and were well-known to the American public. Their cases have since received extensive publicity.

Dozens more cases have emerged in the US, resulting in several academics being removed from their posts, some losing tenure and others being demoted.

Professor Livingston said: "What has changed is that the media is beginning to focus attention on the issue so that public and academic awareness of it is rising."

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said that the "heightened awareness" of plagiarism in the US would inevitably filter across the Atlantic to Britain and elsewhere.

He said: "Publication is now so crucial to a university's reputation that people are actively looking to test the quality.

"If they detect excess borrowing, they will bridle at it and are more familiar with what to do about it and less inhibited in doing so."

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