Academic institutions

Published on 23/10/2013

Carrying out an investigation

If mediation between the parties was not possible within the academic institution, an ad hoc investigating committee will be required to examine the facts objectively and to then issue conclusions and recommendations.

The protocol that we like to use when we are called upon to act as an expert or as chair of a committee has already proven its worth at the FNS in Luxembourg, at universities in France and Italy, and at the EPFL and the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, among other institutions.

Please share your comments and experiences with us.


1 – When a complaint is filed

Contrary to popular belief, a complaint for plagiarism can be submitted by anyone, not just the victim.

Plagiarism constitutes, after all, an infringement of the original author’s rights in the product of his or her intellect, a deontological fraud in that it prevents readers from having access to the source of the knowledge, a fraud on the academic system as the plagiarist may steal the job or the status of someone who has fewer publications.

Denial on the part of university administrators often stems from a lack of understanding of the nature of plagiarism and the fear of damaging the university’s image. In some countries, administrators are not actually academics and, as a result, do not fully grasp how plagiarism affects the core of our work.

The problem is that if cases are not investigated, the complainants may see themselves as the victims of injustice, criticize the code of silence surrounding these cases on social networks, and harm the reputation of the institution involved.

• Our advice: Always request that the case be quickly investigated by an expert with an eye to mediation. If the case reveals real signs of plagiarism or if the attempt at mediation fails, an ad hoc committee should be created.

2 – Setting up an ad hoc committee if mediation fails

The most common mistake made by research directors and university heads is to put the entire investigation into the hands of an internal committee (in the spirit of not “airing your dirty laundry in public”). Even if an internal committee’s investigation is honest and objective, doubt as to its partiality will always stain its conclusions. In addition, its members are likely to feel “political” pressure from their colleagues.

• Our advice: Include experts from outside the institution. The appointed committee will be disinterested and impartial. From the moment of its creation, each member and all parties present will be held to a duty of confidentiality. This protects those involved and the institution from potential media inquiries.

3 – Choosing the members of the committee

We recommend that one member of the investigating committee be a jurist or lawyer experienced in putting together case files. In most cases today, the accused has an insurance policy that covers legal assistance and makes good lawyers available to him or her. The lawyers should not, however, be specialists in property law, as they could be influenced by their specialty and would tend to influence the committee. They might, for example, adopt a cause-based approach (focusing on the facts alleged) instead of the consequence-based perspective (which focuses on the impact of those facts on the parties and on knowledge) that is required for conceptualizing plagiarism.

One or two experts from the discipline involved must also review the file and examine the elements in dispute point by point. They are the only ones who are in a position to distinguish a true case of plagiarism from a simple oversight. An established habit of plagiarizing can also lead the perpetrator imperceptibly towards scientific fraud (faking data, doctoring analyses, etc.).

The third expert should be an expert in plagiarism and scientific fraud or, if that is not possible, a specialist in academic ethics and deontology.

• Our advice: Include three to four members: one jurist (who is not an expert in property law), one specialist in the discipline (who does not work in the same institution and, above all, not in the same same department or school), and an expert in plagiarism and scientific fraud.

4 – Sticking to the facts

The committee’s ability to carry out high-quality work depends on the file having been put together well. It is not uncommon for us to receive truncated files that highlight emotional elements, such as e-mail exchanges (with strong words used) that illustrate the deterioration of a relationship. These are “smokescreens” that prevent us from seeing the facts on which we have to base our decisions.

If an objective file, with appropriately referenced documents, is prepared by the legal department before the committee convenes, the committee’s work will be easier. In preparing these files, these legal departments must keep in mind that, if there is an appeal, the lawyers will ask to remove all pieces of evidence whose sources cannot be authenticated.

It is also very common for the parties to ask to be heard, as they confuse the committee’s role with that of a court or believe that it is an administrative investigation. However, the investigating committee’s role is not to hear the specific circumstances that either party will raise. Its role is to establish the facts and to make recommendations to the body that convened it. To our knowledge, whenever a committee has agreed to hear the parties, subjectivity has become a problem and the committee has been suspected of being partial.

• Our advice: Only agree to work on files that are clear and well prepared, and refuse to hear the parties.

5 – Classifying the plagiarism

(compare the methodology for assessing cases of alleged plagiarism)

The severity of an instance of plagiarism is not determined by its length, but by the established intention of its perpetrator. A novice might see some acts as a minor form of plagiarism–for example, copying a footnote a few lines long without providing precise bibliographic references. Those acts are, however, an appropriation of what has sometimes required hours of work and research. Plagiarists whose actions are consistent only with a “type 1” mode of operation may sometimes save face with the excuse that they had not properly learned the rules of the trade or that it was the result of a simple oversight.

• Our advice: Have cases of plagiarism that have come to light classified in the following categories and validated by our analysts.

1) Repetition of text without sophisticated concealment (for example, copying without quotation marks and without citing the source, translating without citing the source)
2) Concealment with simple or complex techniques, or a combination of both (for example, paraphrasing, skipping or reversing the order of sentences, replacing words)
3) Concealment through sophisticated alterations to the form (for example, following a different structure than the source)
4) Stealing a famous author’s ideas or manner of expression (by, for example, using the style of argument of an essential author)
5) Stealing non-literary elements.

6 – The length and working methods of an investigation

An investigation of this type lasts from 3 to 5 months. Given the members’ differing workloads and geographical locations and the time required to examine the documents (with or without detection software), a shorter time frame cannot reasonably be expected. A longer investigation is also undesirable as it places the parties in a very uncomfortable situation and they must be protected psychologically.

The security of e-mail communications is generally taken care of by the institutions where the experts work. They are more secure, in any event, than Gmail and other private e-mail services. But there will always be the possibility of leaks. There are weaknesses in any system, weaknesses that are first and foremost human and that everyone is susceptible to. It should also be remembered that Google is an American company. From a legal perspective, any data in any file placed on Google Drive, an American company, can be considered the property of the President of the United States.

• Our advice: Try to set a reasonable time frame for examining the documents furnished, for meeting and communicating electronically (making sure to keep the data secure).

7 – Concluding the investigation

When the investigation has been completed, the Chair of the committee drafts a report that is then delivered to the body that had convened the committee.

In its conclusion, the report always includes formal recommendations based on the facts established. A recommendation to extend the investigation–either to other situations of fraud revealed in the documents examined or to co-workers of the incriminated persons–is not uncommon. It is often the case that the direct co-workers of researchers guilty of plagiarism have also adopted the same deviant behaviors out of imitation or habit.

It is, however, rare for sanctions to be proposed against the persons investigated. That is not the role of the investigating committee, but rather of the authorities of the institution that convened it. It is their role to take the necessary decisions, and they must have the determination to do so. It is also their role to make sure that news of the matter does not spread, so as to avoid imposing a double punishment on the guilty party: one in the form of the sanction and the other in the form of the rumor.

• Our advice: Be as precise as possible with respect to the conclusions and give clear advise as to how the investigation can be extended, but do not propose a sanction. The goal is always to bring peace to the community.

8 – Benefits and risks of investigating

The biggest criticism levied against institutions of higher education is the lack of transparency of investigating committees looking into cases of “token” theses or employee plagiarism.

But contrary to what administrators often think when it comes to academic fraud, the “shameful sickness” is not that a certain percentage of its employees are cheaters. Human beings are involved, and there is no reason why there would magically be 0% questionable morality in this specific group. The “shameful sicknesses” are the absence of transparency at the levels of procedures and conclusions, and the minimization of problems of integrity.

An other problem stems from the fact that researchers found guilty of plagiarism are often called upon to resign from their institutions. Rumors of all sorts can then start that cast them as victims of a political witch hunt. This can happen even when the facts are blatant and speak for themselves.

• Our advice: Once a year, distribute a table to all employees showing the number of cases investigated and the number and type of sanctions administered, with a breakdown by school or department if possible.