Fine Lines in Academic Integrity


Plagiarism is often discussed in absolute terms; an author did or did not properly cite a source. But what happens when ideas aren’t cited? Is it even necessary to cite an idea? These are two of the questions being asked by a group of scholars. In November 2011, Terence W. Deacon, professor of anthropology and department chair at the University of California at Berkeley published Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter. Now, some academics are arguing that the core ideas of his text are heavily borrowed from at least two other scholars.

On one hand, two philosophy professors, Evan Thompson from the University of Toronto and Alicia Juarrero from Prince George’s Community College, each wrote texts on ideas that are core themes in Deacon’s book. Both argue that the overlap between Deacon’s work and their own is too great to be a coincidence. Supporters of Thompson and Juarrero claim that if Deacon was unaware of texts addressing his topic, an internet search would have drawn his attention to both Thompson and Juarrero’s works.

On the other hand, Deacon claims all ideas were his own and he was unaware of Thompson and Juarrero’s publications. He also initially argued that the similarities are superficial and don’t warrant citation. As he learned more about Thompson and Juarrero’s work, Deacon has acknowledged that while he hasn’t read either book, his citations don’t go deep enough.

This situation brings up several questions that don’t have easy answers. Is it possible to claim an idea? Can more than one person take credit for the same idea? Are Juarrero and Thompson justified when they claim to deserve credit in Deacon’s book? Or is Deacon, who says he was unaware of their work correct? Does your answer change when you learn that Deacon heard Juarrero speak about her work at a conference four years before his book was published? What would you do if you found yourself on either side of this situation and what would you do to resolve the issue?

Sometimes issues of academic integrity don’t have simple solutions. To help students better understand some of these fine distinctions in academic integrity, the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Office of Graduate Studies, Office of Research & Economic Development,and the Center for Teaching & Study of Applied Ethics are co-sponsoring Academic Integrity Week at UNL September 10-14. Sessions throughout the week will address why academic integrity matters, ethical dilemmas and understanding plagiarism. More information will be available online in the coming weeks.

Bartlett, T. (2012) Stolen Ideas? Or Great Minds Think Alike?. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved June 25, 2012 from