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The Institute’s role and mission

Ever more attention is being given to the problem of plagiarism and fraud in academia. Given the danger plagiarism posed to academic knowledge, it was necessary to set up a watchdog fit for purpose in today’s world. The institute, is well acquainted with the numerous stumbling blocks inherent to the present system. It proposes mediation as an alternative way forward.

The Institute does not take the role of a judge, but that of a mediator. It points out and explains the immediate and/or potential risks of taking one position or another. Conflicts may concern individuals (e.g. a person accused of plagiarizing vs. direct victims of plagiarism) or be more systemic (e.g. universities vs. editors or educational establishments vs. civil society.)

The Institute is an independent body with academic and scientific objectives. Its role does not include matters of HR, governance, nominations etc. It never acts for or against the individuals concerned, but only refers to the texts or documents that have been plagiarized. Requests for the Institute’s assistance must be accepted by the Board before they can be considered.

The Institute functions as a research organization. This means that each case is dealt with collaboratively by the Scientific Committee, those working on the case and “country advisors” from the countries in question. All these parties work towards finding a viable and enduring solution for each case. This interaction-based research contributes to creating new knowledge that is firmly anchored to current reality.

The Institute also suggests lines of analysis that enable each person involved, whatever their hierarchical status, to seek true solutions rather than just wanting a rapid decision. In our experience, such “quick fixes” are unsuited to complex individual situations and often result in aggravating problems in the long run.

Situations where the Institute’s assistance is sought

It has been observed time and again that if a conflict involving fraud or plagiarism is not dealt with or is dealt with ineffectively, it will continue to resurface.

The Institute’s involvement occurs within a framework of mediation, which helps keep the interpersonal conflicts inherent in cases of fraud and plagiarism from degenerating into crises. The Institute aims to prevent the conflict from escalating out of proportion to the original problem.

These crisis situations often arise in the contexts described below.

1. When academia’s only answer is to turn to the legal system

• When someone alleges before an academic body that their work has been plagiarized, the almost automatic response is that they should take legal action for copyright infringement. However, in many cases the statute of limitations has run out or the victim does not have the means to retain the services of a lawyer. We have seen that it is often the perpetrator who threatens to sue for defamation the people who reveal his or her fraud or use of non-cited sources. And this occurs even if he or she risks being found guilty not only of copyright infringement, but also of bringing a frivolous lawsuit.

• In all (or almost all) cases where a person brings a complaint of plagiarism to a “scientific” journal or a work’s publisher, it is the journal’s or parent institution’s legal department that responds, and they do so by denying or minimizing the facts. In addition, their “review” will last for several months, during which time the articles or books at issue will continue to circulate, further harming the victims and disrespecting the readership.

The Institute provides objective responses. Its mediation defuses the situation and refocuses the discussion on the core issues, namely the reliability of knowledge and the respect for those who create and disseminate it. Rather than resorting to arbitration, it points out to decision-makers, on the basis of established facts, the path they should follow in order to fulfill their role as the guardians of knowledge.

2. When victims of plagiarism are doubly punished

• Even if no member of their community contests that they created the work, it is natural for a victim of plagiarism to feel violated. The theft of the product of the intellect is unique: it is a serious violation of a person’s basic rights. The feeling of being symbolically eliminated in such a way can be devastating.

• Threats, whether direct or indirect, and attempts at intimidation weigh on persons in vulnerable positions (such as doctoral students and researchers beginning their careers) who expose cases of fraud or plagiarism. In many cases, the direct victims are isolated, do not know who to trust or talk to, refrain from publishing further and experience a spiral of distrust with respect to the academic system.

• Finally, serious emotional distress can also be experienced by dissertation supervisors, research supervisors and friends who find out that someone close to them has committed fraud or plagiarized. This symbolic violence often leads to wanting to shoot the messenger whose exposure of a perpetrator also affects the perpetrator’s immediate professional and personal circles.

The Institute provides a rigorous text analysis methodology that allows victims to objectively put a name to their suffering and as a result to be better heard. Expert analysts review the accuracy of the evidence submitted by the victims or witnesses. We help victims write a letter of complaint that clearly sets out the facts that have established, an exercise which gives them back a sense of self-esteem while respecting the parties affected by the case.

3. When “urban legends” cloud thinking

• For example, the supposed supremacy of similarity-detection software is generally put forward by institutions in order to avoid looking into reliable analyses of plagiarism. However, in certain countries, such as Canada, institutions refuse to use such software so as to avoid violating the constitution (student works are the property of their authors). As a result of the uncertainty regarding the real utility of these software programs, there is a significant variance among countries, among institutions, and within a single institution.

• Even within the French-speaking world, different countries use different terminology to designate individuals who expose fraud or plagiarism, but who are not themselves the direct victims. In France, this act is regularly referred to as délation, even though this carries the negative connotations of being an informant. In Switzerland, the term used is information or revelation, and in Canada, the person is called a lanceur d’alerte (whistleblower). The formal designations must therefore be clarified in order to be able to develop an international discourse on fraud and plagiarism.

• Another indication of the presence of “legends” about academic fraud and plagiarism is reflected in the varying stances of academic associations. While some have established rigorous mechanisms for countering fraud and plagiarism, others refuse to address the issue and claim not to be “disciplinary bodies.” However, at its core, their mission is to ensure that knowledge that is created and published is reliable[HM2]. As their role with respect to fraud is to protect readers from false information, it is also their role to call on publishers to take a formal stand on established cases of fraud or plagiarism and to withdraw the offending works from their catalogs.

The Institute provides answers in the form of an analysis of each point of disagreement identified regarding these “urban legends.” The Scientific Committee draws up briefs a few pages long, and these are then sent to the Country Advisors for approval before being translated and posted on the Institute’s website. Members are then able to comment on them.

 4. When frameworks for academic integrity are too culturally marked

• For example, in France, plagiarists are entitled to legal defense through their institutions and in Switzerland, it is the State (their employer) that provides that defense. As a result, taxpayers are called upon to indirectly assist plagiarists and those guilty of fraud. The perpetrators can therefore, without any bother to themselves, threaten to sue anyone who troubles them for defamation, especially since institutions generally do whatever is in their power to avoid cases of misconduct involving their staff coming to light “outside.”

• In Switzerland and Canada, for example, individuals who have been reprimanded or dismissed for plagiarism sue in court and often win their cases. This was the case when a student who had plagiarized the work of previous students was able to have her expulsion overturned in court with the excuse that others had done the same before her. It also happened in high-profile case at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, which made headlines for acts that the university president described as “plagiarism by lack of rigor.”

The Institute is in a position to express its views–not on the acts but on the proper stance to adopt–in order to assist the institutions’ administrators. The administrators, in effect, guarantee the degrees that they bestow and the academic integrity of their staff to the society at large. Through the participation of the Institute’s Country Advisors, perspectives can be exchanged and general positions reached.

5. When inappropriate mechanisms are put into place

• Some countries advocate the establishment of national mechanisms. For example, in France, a report commissioned by the French government proposed setting up a system of “liaisons for academic integrity” in each university (i.e., the Corvol report[1]). However, the report does not address the skills that the liaisons should have or should acquire, nor does it discuss the role they would play, if any, in exposed cases of fraud or plagiarism. In committees set up to investigate cases of fraud or plagiarism, each member bases his or her analysis on his or her personal experience, which is often limited to one or two key cases. These multiple subjectivities exacerbate the lack of consistency in sanctions and, therefore, increase the uncertainty of stakeholders in the academic system.

• These days, all organizations engage in image-building and seek to increase their appeal both nationally and internationally. Some institutions have put genuine mechanisms into place to prevent and handle cases of plagiarism, at least among students and doctoral candidates. The SGS [2] (the first worldwide certification organization) has developed an “anti-plagiarism” label that allows institutions who wish to become involved in the movement against harmful practices (such as plagiarism, fraud and the use of ghostwriters) to equip themselves with the appropriate mechanisms. The SGS does not, however, offer any assistance and only becomes involved after the mechanisms have been implemented.

• With respect to academic associations, the French Foundation for Management Education (FNEGE), an entity that brings together all associations working in the field of management, requested our assistance in setting up a mechanism to handle cases of plagiarism. This mechanism has been in place for four years. The lessons drawn from this experience can help other associations understand their role in the chain of knowledge.

The Institute, drawing on the expertise of individuals with more than ten years of experience in the prevention and handling of cases of plagiarism and fraud, offers training workshops for people who will be involved in preventing those practices, in monitoring for them, or in disciplinary procedures. The Institute is also in a position to provide assistance during the implementation of institutional mechanisms by universities or academic journals.

[1] http://cache.media.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/file/Actus/84/2/Rapport_Corvol_29-06-2016_601842.pdf

[2] Formerly known as the Société Générale de Surveillance. Website: http://www.sgsgroup.fr/fr-FR/Our-Company/About-SGS/SGS-in-Brief.aspx