“Sloppy Scholarship” is Not the Same as Premeditated Plagiarism: A Department Chair Accuses a Professor of Plagiarism and Loses a Nasty Lawsuit
by Richard Fossey & Marc Cutright - February 06, 2009
In higher education, plagiarism is a very serious matter. But a recent Alabama court decision suggests that academia may be viewing plagiarism from a more nuanced perspective. Some scholars recognize that there is a difference between an inadvertent mistake in failing to attribute a source and premeditated plagiarism.
Some scholars think of plagiarism as the cardinal academic sinunforgivable. But that view may be changing, giving way to more nuanced understanding of this issue. Consider the case of Slack v. Stream (2008), in which the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a large damages award against a Department Chair who accused a professor of plagiarism and then published the charge far beyond the confines of his own university.
A Department Chair Reprimands a Professor for Plagiarism
Here are the facts of Slack v. Stream, richly described by the Alabama Supreme Court. Christopher Stream, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) made a speech at local civic club about a proposed amendment to the Alabama Constitution. Stream relied on his graduate assistant to find newspaper articles about the amendment.
Later, another assistant professor, Michael Howell-Moroney, approached Stream about co-authoring a scholarly article on the constitutional amendment. Stream and Howell-Moroney produced a manuscript, which they submitted to the Journal of Politics (JOP).
In late 2003, JOPs editor e-mailed Stream, informing him that the manuscript had been rejected based on the assessments of two reviewers. One of the reviewers charged that parts of the manuscript had been plagiarized. This is completely unacceptable for a manuscript submitted for publication, the reviewer wrote. If one of my students had turned in this paper to me, he or she would have faced serious penalties in the universitys honor court (Slack v. Stream, p. 518).
JOPs editor did not mention plagiarism in his e-mail message to Stream, and the editor advised Stream and Howell-Moroney to revise the manuscript based on the reviewers critiques and send it to a more subject-focused journal (p. 518).
Stream forwarded the JOP editors e-mail comments to co-author Howell-Moroney along with the reviewers comments, which Stream had not read. When Howell-Moroney told Stream of the plagiarism accusation, Stream was stunned, embarrassed, and ashamed (p. 518). Stream apologized to Howell-Moroney and wondered aloud whether the plagiarized material had come from material prepared by his graduate assistant. [B]ut thats no excuse, Stream admitted. It was still my responsibility to check what he had given me (p. 518). Howell-Moroney graciously accepted Streams explanation. I appreciate your apology, he wrote Stream, but dont hassle it. Lets just tighten that puppy up and send it back out (p. 518-519).
A little later, Stream was offered a faculty position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), which he accepted. Howell-Moroney, worried that he might be accused of plagiarism because of the JOP manuscript, told his Department Chair, James Slack, about the JOP reviewers plagiarism charge. Howell-Moroney also gave Slack a copy of the JOP manuscript and the editors e-mail message.
Slack confronted Stream about the plagiarism accusation. Stream admitted that JOP had rejected the manuscript, but said that the rejection was not based on plagiarism. Slack also consulted the Statement on Plagiarism approved by the American Association of University Professors, which stated that a discovery of suspected plagiarism should be brought to the attention of the affected parties and, as appropriate, to the profession at large, through proper and effective channels . . . (p. 519).
On March 18, Slack wrote Stream a harsh letter, which he described as a REPRIMAND for UNETHICAL SCHOLARLY BEHAVIOR (p. 520). After citing his fact allegations, Slack wrote that it did not matter whether the plagiarism arose because Stream had used material submitted by his graduate student. It matters not because plagiarism of any flavor constitutes intellectual theft, instills doubt in our disciplines ability to self-govern scholarship, and ultimately constitutes the rape of the academy (p. 521).
Slack also noted that Stream had accepted a new job at UNLV. What your new employer does with you is also none of my business, Slack wrote. Whether the University of Nevada at Las Vegas considers your actions to constitute an academic misdemeanor or a capital offense will ultimately reflect on its faculty and the value that its faculty and administration places on scholarly integrity and intellectual honesty (p. 520).
Slack Circulates the Plagiarism Charge to Academic Journals and Streams New Employer
Not content with sending Stream a letter of reprimand, Slack notified other parties about the plagiarism accusation. Specifically, Slack wrote the chair of the Department of Government at Florida State University, where Stream had obtained his doctorate, and informed the FSA chair of the plagiarism charge. While I realize that one bad apple does not spoil the barrel, Slack wrote the FSA chair, Im sure you understand that the product of ones program influences the opinion of others about that program (p. 522).
And Slack wasnt finished with Stream. He wrote the editors of eight scholarly journals, informing them of the plagiarism charge against Stream. Whether or not you want this person to affiliate in any way with your journal is your choice (p. 523), Slack wrote one journal editor. And Slack did not neglect to inform Streams new employer about the plagiarism charge. Slack sent a copy of the reprimand letter to Lee Bernick, Streams new department chair at UNLV. He also telephoned Bernick and asked whether he knew he was hiring a plagiarist (p. 522).
Bernick informed his dean at UNLV, Martha Watson, about these developments; and the two invited Stream to come to Las Vegas to discuss Slacks allegations. After investigating the incident, Watson concluded that the incidents of plagiarism in the manuscript constituted sloppy scholarship and . . . found no evidence that Stream intended to plagiarize (p. 523). She also expressed concern about the way UNLV had learned about the plagiarism accusation against Stream, which she said resembles a systematic effort to ruin a career (p. 523). Watson advised against withdrawing UNLVs job offer to Stream, and Stream joined the UNLV faculty in the fall of 2004.
An investigative committee at UAB also looked into the plagiarism charge as well as the manner in which Slack handled it. The UAB committee concluded, that although the manuscript of the article contained verbatim quotes from published newspaper articles without attribution, there were mitigating circumstances surrounding the writing of the manuscript (p 525). UABs provost called Slacks actions callously precipitous (p. 525), and Slacks dean required him to resign his department chairs position.
Stream Sues Slack and Wins a Big Judgment
In June 2004, Stream sued Slack and UAB for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional interference with a business contract. Slack filed a cross-claim against UAB for forcing him to resign as department chair, and he counterclaimed against Stream, accusing Stream of defaming him in communications with journal editors. The trial court dismissed UAB from the case under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Eventually, the case went to trial and a jury heard Professor Streams claims against Professor Slack and Professor Slacks counterclaims against Professor Stream. The jury ruled in Streams favor on his defamation, invasion of privacy and business interference claims. It awarded Stream $212,000 in compensatory damages (including damages for emotional distress) and $450,000 in punitive damages. The jury rejected Slacks counterclaim against Stream. Slack appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which affirmed the judgment against him, including the damages award.
Slack v. Stream: A Teachable Moment for University Scholars
Slack v. Stream provides at least three lessons for the world of higher education. First, the academic community seems increasingly willing to distinguish between sloppy scholarship and premeditated plagiarism in incidents like the one involving the unfortunate Professor Stream. Although Department Chair Slack described Streams misstep as a rape of the academy (p. 521), scholars at both the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, viewed Streams conduct much more sympathetically. Both universities investigated Slacks accusations against Stream, but neither institution chose to censure him.
Todays scholars are pressured to do more and more publishing. They may sift through stacks of printed or web-based materials in preparing their manuscripts, and they often rely on graduate assistants to help them with their research. It is unfortunate but understandable when a scholar inadvertently quotes a source without proper attribution. Such a lapse may constitute sloppy scholarship, as the UNLV dean described Streams manuscript, but such mistakes do not justify charges of dishonesty or the destruction of a career.
Second, when university administrators accuse professors of misconduct, they should make sure they follow their institutions formal policy for handling such matters. University policy at Slacks institution required accusations of academic misconduct to be kept as confidential as possible. In fact, the policy warned that [r]evealing confidential information to those not involved in the investigation shall itself be considered misconduct (p. 525). Slack maintained that he was not aware of this policy until he was informed of it by the universitys provost (p. 525). Had Slack restricted his plagiarism accusation to proper channels within his own institution, he probably would not have been sued.
Finally, all of us in the academic community should remember that in American universities, scholars police themselves. In the first instance at least, it is an accused professors colleagues who decide whether the professor should be disciplined for academic misconduct. Thus, when investigating misconduct accusations against a fellow faculty member, scholars should ask themselves how they would like to be treated if they were standing in the shoes of the accused. Without question, universities should investigate charges of academic dishonesty with diligence and vigoras Professor Slack undoubtedly did. Nevertheless, whether a professor is accused of an academic misdemeanor or a capital offense (to use Professor Slacks terms), university investigators should consider mitigating circumstances and proceed with a proper regard for human decency and compassion.
Slack v. Stream, 988 So.2d 516 (Ala. 2008).