AHA Activities

From the Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics

AHA Professional Division, May 1991

In this the second of its reports to the membership, the Professional Division provides three examples of the various complaints that have come before it and how they have been resolved as part of the Division's responsibilities for enforcement of the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The Division hopes this and subsequent reports will encourage more discussion of and attention to issues of ethical conduct.

Since the last report in September 1990, four formal complaints have been referred to the Professional Division for review. Two of these involve faculty tenure and appointments, one focuses on plagiarism, and the fourth charges general unprofessional conduct. The Division has acted on only two of these—one on faculty tenure and one on general professional conduct—finding for the complainant in the former and against the complainant in the latter. In addition, the Division has handled informally seven disputes—five dealing with hiring practices, one on plagiarism, and one regarding the rights of a historian as an author. Of those, six have been resolved satisfactorily, and the other remains on the Division's agenda.

The first two of the following case reports focus on plagiarism, and the Division directs readers' attention to three points. First of all, in both cases, doctoral dissertations were plagiarized, and the Division urges graduate students to keep in mind the potential misuse of their work and the need to secure at least the minimal protection of copyright registration. Secondly, the Division's findings in both instances also make clear that plagiarism cannot be excused as sloppy or careless scholarship. Finally, the Division applauds the publishers of the two books in question for withdrawing the volumes from sale, a step too few have been willing to take in the past.

The third case deals with an entirely different form of dishonesty—the misrepresentation of one's credentials. The Division was appalled to discover that there is any question about appropriate professional behavior in this regard but amended the Statement to eliminate any doubt.

Of particular importance in each of the three cases was the role of the employing institution. In each case, the institution rightly established an internal review body, but only in the first case did that investigation lead, as far as we know, to disciplinary action. The Division emphasizes that upholding professional standards is a collective as well as individual responsibility.

For a copy of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, contact the Publications Office, AHA, 400 A Street, S.E., Washington, DC 20003.

Case I: Plagiarism

A historian charged that a colleague in her field had plagiarized portions of the former's doctoral dissertation in a book published in 1987. The alleged plagiarist claimed that she had sufficiently acknowledged the other's work, even though she admittedly had failed in several instances to employ quotation marks to indicate the use of exact wording from the copyrighted dissertation.

After careful study of materials submitted by both parties, the Professional Division concluded that the complainant's dissertation had been plagiarized in the book in question and so notified both parties. In a separate review of the charges, the plagiarist's university came to the same conclusion and took decisive action, terminating her faculty appointment. Finally, on the recommendation of the Division, the publisher of the book withdrew it from sale.

Case II: Plagiarism

A history department chair asked the Professional Division to review charges of plagiarism brought against a member of his department by another scholar. The last charged that his dissertation and several articles had been plagiarized by the other historian in a book published in 1987. The alleged plagiarist admitted carelessness in note taking and citation of sources but maintained there was no intent to deceive. Moreover, he argued that to a considerable extent the apparent plagiarism actually reflected the use of common sources and that, in any case, the passages in question were descriptive rather than interpretive or analytical and hence did not undermine the publication's merit. Nevertheless, the publisher of the book withdrew it from sale. The alleged plagiarist's department then conducted its own investigation and concluded that he had not intentionally plagiarized and that carelessness or poor judgment should not be the basis for a general indictment of the individual's professional qualifications. The department felt, however, that outside review of the charges was still needed and asked the AHA's Professional Division to take on the case.

The Division carefully reviewed materials submitted by both parties as well as by the history department. It concluded that the accused had indeed plagiarized from the complainant's work but, in reaching that finding, did not assume or imply intent to deceive on the former's part. Both parties were so informed. The Division also expressed to the history department its concern that the department's professional standards would be compromised by the plagiarist's continuing involvement in the training of graduate students.

As a consequence of this and several other cases, the Division proposed and the AHA Council approved an amendment to the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct to eliminate reference to "intent to deceive." Regardless of his or her intentions, a plagiarist cannot be excused from accountability for unprofessional conduct.

Case III: Falsification of Credentials

A historian charged that the chair of his department had misrepresented his professional credentials. He brought the complaint to the Professional Division after his university failed to take appropriate action, despite having concluded through its own investigation that the allegations were accurate. The complainant charged that his colleague misrepresented his previous employment, claimed to have received a grant that had not been awarded, and listed nonexistent publications. His colleague admitted ambiguities and misstatements but characterized the complaint as "a personal vendetta."

The Professional Division determined that the historian had misrepresented his credentials and so informed both parties as well as the university's administration. In reviewing the complaint, the Division concluded that the absence of language regarding credentials was a serious weakness of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. Consequently, the Division developed and Council approved an amendment to the Statement that calls for accurate and honest presentation of one's credentials.