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 does not pose itself as a giver of lessons, but as a transmitter of knowledge. It is a matter of reconnecting with a body of concepts around themes as difficult to grasp as trust, integrity, academic freedom, responsibility…, with the rigor in research et calm in debate that such powerful and central themes call for.
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 operates according to a research logic. Thus, each case is treated in a collaborative manner between the members of the Scientific Council, the advisers and the regional correspondents concerned, in a search for viable and sustainable solutions. This methodology of “interactionist research” allows the creation of new knowledge anchored in current realities. When necessary, an open survey is carried out online to collect the attitudes of subscribers.
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. Conferences and seminars are organized to deepen the expertise useful to any referent in academic deontology.
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. 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 “integrity référents” in each university. However, the report does not address the skills that they 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.
• All the universities are building their image and ensuring their attractiveness on a national and international scale. Some institutions have put in place real measures to prevent and deal with plagiarism, at least at the level of students and doctoral students. Ensuring scientific integrity therefore presupposes an institutionalization of integrity practices, rather than a mechanical incentive to ethical behavior. This implies first of all sharing a frame of reference with all stakeholders, and then setting up mechanisms for action.
The Institute, because it relies on the expertise of people with more than ten years of experience in the prevention and treatment of cases of plagiarism and fraud, offers two certifications “Responsible Institution” and “Integral Doctoral School”. The Institute provides support during the implementation of these systems, as well as in the communication of the results of these actions. Publicizing the actions carried out in this way opens the debate between the Doctoral School’s stakeholders and contributes to the collective evolution of rules and practices.
6. Knowledge transfer
• The codes, standards and rules offered on the sites of almost every university in Europe are simply not satisfactory. All prevention and punitive measures are purely behavioral in nature, superbly ignoring the individual “black box”. The question is not how to train our students in integrity, nor even the professors who will teach ethics. For this purpose, train-the-trainers programs already exist, such as the program “The Embassy of Good Science”.
• Educating the wise men of ethics and integrity is an extraordinary field of work, the accomplishment of which could install a true culture of integrity in our institutions and in the interindividual relations within our communities. It is a long way to go, all the more so since the 20th century has seen the upheaval of the university landscape: democratization of access to higher education, massification and exponential increase in the number of teaching staff, redefinition of the missions of the university with the rule of “publish or perish”.
• The beginning of the 21st century saw the arrival of digital technology with the development of distance learning courses, Massive Online Open Courses, but also the arrival of the first generations of digital natives, for whom the free consumption of the Internet constitutes the main, if not the only source of information and creative collage. Faced with them, the only proposal is to ask them to follow a formal ethics course given by a philosophy professor.
During our seminars, we provide people called upon to take on the responsibilities of “wise men of integrity”, referents, presidents of ethics commissions and directors of doctoral schools, with a three-part training course that takes place over two and a half days: the transfer of knowledge: cognitive training, emotional appropriation through communication and theatrical techniques, and democratic debate. At the same time, we have developed a WebTV channel to host our programs and expert video capsules.