Prevention of plagiarism Plagiarism: A Challenge for Libraries?

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How do libraries in Germany handle cases of plagiarism, and what contribution can they make to preventing the practice? An interview with Dr Arne Upmeier, a librarian at Illmenau University Library and chairman of the legal commission of the German Library Association.

Dr Upmeier, is plagiarism a topic that is particularly relevant to libraries?

Yes and no. On the one hand, discussions in society such as the debate about Theodor zu Guttenberg’s doctoral thesis do not leave libraries entirely unscathed. Because plagiarism in the overwhelming majority of cases concerns texts, libraries are of course particularly involved.

On the other hand, libraries are nonetheless not the first port of call when problems of plagiarism arise. In the case of doctoral theses, for instance, action is initially required on the part of the examination committee and university which accepted the thesis in the first place.

The library is not a controlling authority

Quality control, in other words, is not the job of libraries …

No, libraries themselves can only perform quality control to a very limited extent. They can only go into action once it has become clear beyond question that a text has been plagiarized. This is only the case when the situation has been visibly publicized in the press or if the library has been informed in writing by the university concerned or by someone directly affected.

Incidentally, this by no means applies solely to plagiarism. From time to time, books contain legal violations which are only discovered at a later date. Instances of libel or patent infringement, or indeed cases of sedition, are also often detected only once a text is already on the library shelves.

Does any sort of guideline exist in Germany to help librarians in the decision-making process?

No, and there probably never could be any such guideline because the cases differ to far too great an extent. That said, the legal commission of the German Library Association can issue recommendations in individual cases.

One big problem when it comes to generally applicable guidelines is that the term “plagiarism” is not sufficiently clearly defined. Not every plagiarism constitutes an infringement of copyright, and not every copyright violation involves plagiarism. In an academic sense, plagiarism refers to a violation of good scientific practice. For as long as there is any dispute about whether a text or part thereof is plagiarized, libraries cannot anticipate the decision of courts or academic organizations.

Generally speaking, however, libraries must always attempt to make as much information as possible freely available. This applies both to controversial texts and to information about alleged or actual violations.

Identification of plagiarism

How do libraries deal with cases of plagiarism?

Mr Guttenberg’s doctoral thesis showed quite clearly that some books are of particular interest precisely because they are plagiarized. The moment the accusations against Germany’s former defence minister were announced, all libraries noted a surge in demand for his book.

It would be quite wrong and in fact a form of censorship, however, were libraries to attempt to withdraw the book from the focus of research. After all, if libraries removed the book from their collections or locked it away, the public would have no opportunity to obtain objective information about an important political issue.

So what in fact did the libraries do?

Most libraries chose to block Mr Guttenberg’s work for off-premises borrowing. This makes sense for reasons of theft prevention alone given that the second-hand dealer prices for the book have risen considerably in the meantime.

Furthermore, every library user who accesses the book is referred to the particular issues at stake – for example by a note included inside the book or an entry in the library’s catalogue. Any reader who takes the book into the reading room has thus been made aware of the controversy surrounding the text and can view it objectively.

Education through training

Do libraries help uncover cases of plagiarism?

As I said before, libraries cannot conduct any checks of content – that is also not their job. If required, libraries can however act in a consultative capacity – for example helping to select suitable plagiarism software. After all, there is as a rule no-one better versed in handling large quantities of information than librarians. This is precisely the expertise that is needed when dealing with cases of plagiarism.

And what about the question of prevention?

Libraries can make a very important contribution to prevention. To prevent plagiarism, what is needed most is education, and this is certainly something librarians can offer. Because of the Internet, the volume of information we have at our disposal has become so overwhelming and confusing that special courses in information literacy have become part of the services provided by libraries.

There is currently considerable uncertainty among students and academics concerning how information from the Internet can be used. What are they allowed to use? Where are the grey areas? This is where libraries can help. A good library course in information literacy involves not only instructions in how to find this or that particular piece of information, but also how to use it responsibly.