Plagiarism and Defamation

A whistleblower at Indiana University, South Bend has emerged victorious in a protracted legal battle over alleged defamation, but the victory only comes after great expense and years of work proving his case.

The case began in 2012 when Mark Fox accused two business professors at IU of plagiarism. The first, Douglas Agbetsiafa, was the former chair of the economics department and was accused of plagiarizing some 15 papers, four of which have since been retracted or removed.

Agbetsiafa was found guilty of plagiarism and terminated from IU in January 2014. 

However, Fox also targeted one of Agbetsiafa’s co-authors, Peter Aghimien, who was only involved in one of the papers. Aghimien was cleared of plagiarism charges by IU and, after the school passed its verdict, he took the case to the court of law, suing Fox for defamation.

Aghimien took special issue with a blog that Fox had maintained (under an assumed identity) that highlighted Agbetsiafa’s plagiarism. Aghimien claimed that Fox, through that blog and through emails sent to the university, had defamed and caused him emotional distress.

However, the courts sided entirely with Fox. The lower court ruled in a summary judgment that the posts and emails were not defamatory because there was evidence that plagiarism had occurred and that there was no evidence the allegations were made maliciously, which is required to sustain a claim of defamation in the state.

Despite the clear defeat, Aghimien appealed only to have the judgment upheld at the appeals court and then have the state supreme court decline to hear the case. 

While the outcome is about as decisive as any verdict can be, it was still a multi-year battle that Fox was forced to spend 10s of thousands of dollars on. It’s no wonder that, in the article in Retraction Watch, Fox described the experience as “somewhat disillusioning and demoralizing”. 

However, the case is a warning for researchers and whistleblowers alike. 

For researchers, it’s a reminder of the perils of co-authoring papers with the wrong partner(s). If a work comes back as plagiarized or has some other issue with academic integrity, the blight falls upon all of the co-authors, unless one specifically steps up to take the blame. 

While Aghimien’s name was cleared and no action was taken against him, his name is still connected legitimately to plagiarism and there isn’t much he can do about it.

For whistleblowers, it’s a reminder to be careful about how you handle such allegations. While public claims of plagiarism have been a major force in some recent scandals, doing so is risky, especially if the person accused didn’t actually commit plagiarism.

While the courts stood behind Fox and found that his evidence was adequate to avoid a defamation claim, it was still a major expense and years of worry. This is a burden that might have been avoided if not for Fox’s blog, which likely had little to no impact on the actual investigation.

It seems that IU, after seeing the evidence, took the appropriate action. While it’s definitely possible that Fox would have been sued without the blog, it’s also less likely.

So, while taking a scandal public can be a useful tool, especially when the process for handling plagiarism breaks down, it shouldn’t be used as a replacement.

Doing so risks lawsuits and, as this case shows, even when they are won, they are still very costly.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of Turnitin.