Whistleblowers: Plagiarism scandal returns to haunt v-c

June 21, 2002

The head of one of Australia's leading academic institutions, Monash University, admitted to "a serious violation of scholarly standards" during the early research that launched his distinguished career, The THES has learnt.

The revelations, which have never been reported, that Monash vice-chancellor David Robinson admitted to plagiarism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, have led some academics to question his suitability to head the Australian institution.

Professor Robinson this week said the matter had been appropriately resolved at the time, and Monash's chancellor Jerry Ellis said the vice-chancellor had his full support. But the matter is likely to cause serious embarrassment as the university proceeds with plans to expand internationally, including an intended visit by Professor Robinson to London this summer.

Professor Robinson's admission of plagiarism came with the publication of a book, Drug Use and Misuse: Cultural Perspectives , in 1983, which was based on a study for the World Health Organisation. The publisher, Croom Helm, was obliged to publish an erratum after it was discovered that Professor Robinson had plagiarised another academic's work in his chapter, "Alcoholics Anonymous: American origins and the international diffusion of a self-help group".

The erratum stated: "After this book was printed the publisher learned that David Robinson... had used material from another author. At least 20 sentences of the chapter were taken verbatim, without references and without quotation marks... Dr Robinson unreservedly apologised for this serious violation of scholarly standards."

The THES has also uncovered a separate case, where a chapter by Professor Robinson in the 1979 Croom Helm book Alcoholism Perspective borrows heavily from another academic. Professor Robinson's paper uses large sections from a paper by David Mandelbaum, "Alcohol and culture", in the 1960s book Beliefs, Behaviours and Alcoholic Beverages, a Cross-cultural Study .

Professor Robinson, born and educated in England, was a research fellow in the Addiction Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London from 1971 to 1980, when he joined the University of Hull's Institute for Health Studies before rising to become its pro vice-chancellor in 1989. He left to join the University of South Australia as vice-chancellor in 1991 and joined Monash in 1996.

This week he told The THES : "These matters were dealt with and resolved more than 20 years ago. They were public at the time of their resolution and were discussed in an open and frank way between my then employer and myself. Following my immediate and unreserved apology, no further action was taken by the publishers, the authors or by my employers."

He said he had discussed the matters with the chancellor of the University of South Australia in 1991 before his appointment there. "I do not believe they affected my ability to lead the university. I was subsequently appointed vice-chancellor of Monash University largely on the basis of my performance at the University of South Australia."

Monash chancellor Jerry Ellis said: "Professor Robinson has led the university for the past five years with distinction and success. He enjoys my full support."

Professor Robinson chaired an expert working group at the World Health Organisation in 1988 on health policies to combat drug and alcohol problems.

Carolyn Allport, national president of Australia's National tertiary Education Union, said she was "surprised and disappointed" by the news. "For universities to be seen as public institutions worthy of financial support from the government, their leaders must come with reputations of the highest integrity, and be embedded in scholarly standards."

A spokeswoman for the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards said: "The whole academic project depends on honesty. How else can the public trust the results of research? It is disturbing that someone capable of forgetting that should end up in charge of a university."

A professor at an English university who used to work with Professor Robinson but who asked not to be named, said: "I find it unthinkable that he has major responsibility in this leading university."

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