Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a colleague at another institution that prompted me to write this blog entry about stealing in academe. The e-mail asked me to look over a syllabus that a colleague of his had “developed” for a class on historically Black colleges and universities. He wondered what I thought. As I am pretty sure I teach the only class on this topic in the country (please correct me if I’m wrong as I’d love to talk with you), I was curious to see what his colleague had put together. I opened up the Word document that contained the syllabus and found my course syllabus — word for word — but with someone else’s name on it. My course syllabi are all available on my Web site: www.gse.upenn.edu/~mgasman. I put them there for my students and as a reference for others who might want to develop similar classes. From time to time someone will ask if they can model their class on my syllabus and I always say yes — and they always credit me for the work I’ve done.
But this time, that was not the case. The instructor stole my work and gave me no credit. I was particularly angry because I worked for a year developing the course with the help of a grant from Penn’s Center for Africana Studies. This is not the first time this has happened to me so I thought it was time to say something to those young people who plan to be professors (and perhaps even to the professors out there).
The first time I had my work stolen was about three years ago, when I opened up a book and found 10 pages lifted directly from one of my articles. I was mad but I didn’t say anything. The second time involved a practitioner who took one of my books and several of my articles and copied from them verbatim (with no citations) and presented the work as his own in PowerPoint presentations, all the time receiving an honorarium for his talks. He made the mistake of posting these presentations on the Web and one of my students sent them to me. This time I found a way to politely tell him what he was doing was not right. I figured that as a practitioner he might not know there are ethical rules about this kind of behavior in the academy. He didn’t stop. The third time was when I was asked to review a potential book for a publisher. I was reading and critiquing the book manuscript when I came across an entire section lifted in full from my work with no citations. I told the publisher and they rejected the book — but it was published by a less-regarded press and still has my work in it without attribution.
I understand when people fail to cite or write similar sentences but what I have experienced and described is blatant stealing and I fear it happens too often in academe. I’ve talked to faculty colleagues across the country about this problem and they, by and large, say, “Don’t say anything, just let it go.” But, if we continue to let this thievery continue aren’t we encouraging it? What kind of example are we providing to our students? Are we telling them that it’s OK to steal the work of others?
I have always been generous with my research, syllabi, bibliographies — my intellectual property — and I want to continue to be generous as I dislike the idea of living in a world where sharing isn’t the norm. However, people need to ask when they use the work of others. I would have gladly let the syllabi thief use my syllabus if he had asked and included a line at the top that said I developed the syllabus in full.
The most ironic thing about the theft of my syllabus is that the syllabus contains a strong plagiarism clause in it. I guess the thief didn’t read it.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).