In February, the German Education Minister, Annette Schavan, resigned after her doctorate was stripped due to allegations of plagiarism in her dissertation.
However, this wasn’t a recent plagiarism. Schavan’s dissertation was published in 1980, over thirty years before the allegations surfaced.
While this might seem to be an extraordinary case, Schavan is far from alone. As modern technology is applied increasingly to older works, more and more cases of old plagiarism are being found and are ruining modern careers.
This has led to an interesting question: Should there be a statute of limitations on plagiarism allegations? Should there be a point in which we ignore allegations of discovered plagiarism deep in one’s past and look instead to their more recent deeds?
Though many dismiss the idea quickly, there are real problems and challenges that arise from discovering plagiarism so long after the fact, challenges that don’t arise from quick detection.
In short, by not having one, we may be inadvertently punishing some plagiarists much more harshly than others.
Looking to Copyright
In matters of copyright, as with many areas of law, there is a statute of limitations that determines how long a copyright holder has before he or she can no longer bring an infringement suit.
For copyright, that statute of limitations is three years after the infringement has stopped. However, in cases where the victim was unaware of the infringement, that time frame can be “tolled” and extended to when he or she did learn of the infringement.
While this works fine for legal matters, plagiarism, by itself, is an ethical issue not a legal one. There is no court of law and, apart from a proposed tariff system, no unified system of punishment. The handling of plagiarism can be (and often is) very arbitrary.
What this means is that committing plagiarism can come back to haunt someone at any time in their lives. If one, for example, plagiarizes in an academic setting they can have their degree revoked. If he or she did it as part of their profession they could be terminated, reprimanded or at the very least have their reputation marred.
The problem is that plagiarists who are detected quickly, typically, get punished much less severely than those who are caught much later. If plagiarism is detected in a dissertation during the editing process, depending on severity, the student may be reprimanded or ordered to rewrite relevant portions. However, if it’s detected years later, the same plagiarism can result in the degree be revoked and that, in turn, can but the work the former student has put into their career since college to waste.
This can create a strange situation where a lucky plagiarist is one whose misdeeds are recent but further away one gets from their actions, the worse the potential threat grows.
The Reason There Can’t Be One
While the idea of a decades-old plagiarism, perhaps even a single moment of poor judgment, coming back to ruin someone’s career decades later seems a bit extreme, it’s the reality of the misdeed.
To set a time limit and say that plagiarists who get past this point are “safe” does a grave injustice to those who are working to produce great, legitimate work. It allows others to take shortcuts and escape punishments if they can hide their misdeeds long enough.
It also sends a bad message to those currently working in the field, telling them that if they can get away with plagiarism for a certain period of time, it doesn’t matter how much of their work was built on others inappropriately.
Finally though, not all plagiarism can be detected quickly, especially plagiarism that took place before modern detection tools.
In that regard, plagiarism cases, such as Schavan’s, are actually following the rules of copyright’s statute of limitations.
A statute of limitations is designed to precent a plaintiff from sitting on a lawsuit for a long period of time as so to put the defendant at a disadvantage when they filed. However, due to tolling, the clock doesn’t even start ticking until after the victim learns of the infringement.
What this means is that cases like Schavan, if they were copyright lawsuits and not academic plagiarism matters, would be likely to move forward in court (in the U.S. at least) despite the years that have passed.
So long as the person making the complaint wasn’t aware of the plagiarism and, for one reason or another, sat on it for a long period of time, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that they comply with the legal statutory of limitations for copyright law, even if it isn’t a legal matter.
In the end, the important thing with these types of plagiarism cases is to not sit on them. While the path to discovering plagiarism is not always short nor straightforward, once it’s been decided that plagiarism likely occurred, action needs to be taken quickly.
Not only does it risk causing unfair additional punishment to the plagiarist by giving them even more to lose, it also increases the harm that a plagiarized work can do. For example, a plagiarized research paper can earn more citations and be referenced more and a plagiarism dispute involving copyright issues can accrue more damages.
The unfortunate reality of someone who committed an act of plagiarism is that it can come back to haunt you at any time and anything that was built upon that plagiarism can come crashing down.
In that regard, plagiarism is akin to building a structure on a sinking foundation. Even if the building above it is sold and well-built, it can still come down quickly if the flaw is discovered.
In short, don’t plagiarize and, if you do and are caught quickly, remember that you may well be one of the lucky ones. You’ll have less to rebuild and repair before you can move forward.