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Plagiarism and Academic Fraud
Logic, Rhetoric
and Philosophy
Textual Studies
Research Ethics and Fraud


Irving Hexham
Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary

© Copyright Irving Hexham 2000 and 2005

1. The high cost of plagiarism
2. The Hidden Costs of Plagiarism within Academia
3. The Hidden Costs of Plagiarism outside Academia
4. Plagiarism's Hidden Time-Bomb
A Cost Too High

1. The high cost of plagiarism
Plagiarism is a form of theft that costs the taxpayer millions of dollars a year through the payment of salaries and salary increases to people who do not merit them. Measuring the cost of plagiarism in the USA is difficult because of America 's size and the complexity of State and Federal regulations.

Therefore, it is useful to look at America 's northern neighbor Canada . For example, if only 5% of Canadian academics employed in faculties of the Humanities and Social Sciences engage in the practice this still means that the Canadian taxpayer is losing, on a very conservative estimate, $162,500,000 a year in salaries paid to people whose qualifications are fraudulent. Actually, the evidence suggests that between 10% and 15% of academics are blatant plagiarists who practice a type of fraud that can be seen immediately by anyone who cares to check their references against the text they claim to be citing.

The average starting salary of a Canadian assistant professor in Western Canada is around $45,000 per year. This rises to about $80,000 after twenty years for a full professor. In Central Canada salaries are between $5,000 to $25,000 higher for equivalent ranks while in the East they are slightly lower. Approximately 25,000 professors teach in faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada . Assuming that 10% of these are plagiarists, and a random sample of the evidence suggests that this is a low figure, that means 2,500 people are drawing salaries on the basis of qualifications that they obtained through fraud. Assuming that the average salary for these people is $65,000, which again is a low figure given the mean age of the professorate, then each year the Canadian taxpayer is cheated out of $162,500,000. When it is realized that over the course of a career the average academic earns well over $1,000,000 then the problem comes into even sharper focus. In the United States , where there are far more academics than in Canada , the amount of money lost through plagiarism is clearly far greater. Since the population of the USA is 10 times that of Canada imagine it is reasonable to assume that the costs in America are in excess of $5,000,000,000 per year.

2. The Hidden Costs of Plagiarism within Academia
The most immediate hidden cost of plagiarism is created when deserving individuals, who have earned the right to teach in universities, are forced to find alternative employment because the places they deserved were given to cheats. Given the great sacrifice that genuine scholars make to obtain their Ph.D's this in itself is enough of a tragedy to demand action from both the academic community and the Government.

The practice of plagiarism also directly undermines the academic enterprise itself by allowing unqualified people to teach and make decisions that affect the entire careers of thousands of students every year. A plagiarist is by definition a failed academic. Yet once they obtain a university teaching position they are entrusted with making critical decisions that shape the lives of those they teach.

At the undergraduate level where a student may only take on course among many from a plagiarist they my not do too much damage although the extent of the damage should not be underestimated. At the graduate level plagiarists are deadly. Because the plagiarist has not done their own research they do not appreciate the realities of writing a sound thesis. Therefore, they are likely to base their grades upon their feelings about a student and whether the student is sufficiently deferential towards them not on the true quality of the student's work. Consequently, they often destroy the careers of good students, whom they find threatening, by awarding low grades while promoting poor students who affirm them in their role as a mentor.

Further, out of self-interest, fraudulent scholars often work hard to gain positions of authority where they can protect their turf. Consequently, once hired a plagiarist is unlikely to support the hiring of a competent scholar in their own or a related field nor will they support good graduate students in areas related to their own work. Similarly, a plagiarist who manages to get onto an editorial board, or conference organizing committee, will not give a fair hearing to academic papers, articles, or books, that they see as threatening. This is because once they obtain an academic position it is in their self-interest to undermine serious scholarship in their own and related areas. As a result plagiarists encourage hiring downwards. That is hiring people who are less qualified and less confident than existing faculty.

3. The Hidden Costs of Plagiarism outside Academia
The hidden costs of plagiarism, however, cannot be limited to the academic world. An even greater greatest hidden cost of plagiarism comes in the area of public policy and business. For example suppose the Government or a business enterprise employs an academic expert to advise them on an important issue. If the person who is hired is a plagiarist the advice they give will be entirely a matter of luck because their qualifications are fraudulent. Consequently, they are no more qualified to advise on this or any other issue than someone with a high school diploma. Indeed they may get better advice from a honest high school dropout than a plagiarist who has lied about his or her qualifications. Unfortunately, the is no way of calculating just how damaging plagiarism it to the economy, but it is clearly very costly because it confers authority on people who have not earned the right to make the decisions they are entrusted with making.

When someone obtains a Ph.D. they are automatically viewed by the outside world as an expert whose work can be trusted. As someone progresses up the academic ladder the authority of the individual further increases. Consequently, while the media is unlikely to regard Joe Blogs with a B.A. in economics from Back Woods College as an expert on world trade, they are likely to listen to the views of Professor Blogs who teaches at a respected university when he either condemns or promotes policies like outsourcing. Similarly, while the governments are unlikely to consult Joe Blogs, B.A., on an issue of national importance, they may well seek the advice of Professor Blods on how to reconstruct the economy of a devastated area like New Orleans.

Of course, if Professor Blogs earned his Ph.D. as a result of hard work and a mastery of his field then he will be able to give reliable advice to whoever requests it. On the other hand if Professor Blogs is really, Joe Blogs the plagiarists and academic fraud then there is no reason to believe that the advice he gives is reliable. This is because a plagiarist simply repeats the words and ideas of others without having mastered the basic source materials. Someone who has mastered a field has no need or incentive to plagiarize. Therefore, it has to be assumed that the plagiarist is simply a sophisticated parrot who is really fooling everyone by claiming to be an authority when in fact they are entirely dependent on the authority of others.

4. Plagiarism's Hidden Time-Bomb
Every year plagiarists, who have obtained their academic posts on the basis of fraudulent work, pass judgment on thousands of students whose fate they decide on the basis of their own claim to expertise. As a result they play a crucial role in deciding the future careers of numerous people. Because most students simply assume that if someone is teaching in a university they must have obtained their post honestly few question the right of these professors to judge their work. Nevertheless, the potential for punishing lawsuits is huge and affects millions of people.

Imagine a student obtaining an A- or even B+ in a graduate course only to discover at a later date that the professor who awarded the grade is a plagiarist. In all likelihood the A- or B+ grade prevented the student from obtaining scholarships. This in turn meant they had to take extra part time work while studying causing them to give their graduate courses and theses less than their full attention. Later, both the grade itself and the fact that due to work pressures they did not produce the best possible thesis meant that they were only able to obtain an academic post in a junior collage or third-rate university.

Yet the professor who effectively blocked their career was a fraud. In such cases the injured party has a claim against the person who effectively destroyed his or her career as well as the various university administrators and the university itself for allowing an unqualified person to grade their work. Therefore, it seems obvious that universities ought to make a strenuous effort to root out plagiarists and other academic frauds. Yet this is rarely done in most universities today.

5. A Cost too High
Pagiarism is fraud and like all fraud costs the taxpayers and private donors millions of dollars every year. Even worse the practice of plagiarism often helps place people in positions of authority who do not deserve such positions. Further, because they know their own work is weak, plagiarists will strive to ensure the appointment of poor scholars who are unlikely to discover their misdemeanors. Thus a plagiarist is likely to wreck an entire department and undermine the quality of a field or discipline. As a result the overall effect can be devastating. Finally, plagiarists whose work is used by government or private bodies are providing false or highly misleading information on sensitive topics that shape public policy, business, and even personal decisions.

For these reasons plagiarism must be prevented at all levels of academic work from student papers to academic books. Nevertheless, care must be taken whenever one suspects a writer of plagiarism. It cannot be stressed enough that everyone makes a few mistakes and that genuine cases of similar use may often occur. Therefore, what needs to be identified are patterns of behavior, repetitive practices and clear indications of an attempt to deceive.

All texts and graphics on Understanding World Religions are protected by copyright, 1995, 199, 2011. Permission to reproduce material found on this Web Site must be obtained from the appropriate copyright owner. World religions graphic by Christopher Tobias from Irving Hexham's Understanding World Religions, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012, and Roberta Polfus, from the Concise Dictionary of Religion, InterVarsity Press, Carol Stream, 1994.