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Topic: Plagiarism in Grant Proposals
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Plagiarism in Grant Proposals
Posted: Jan 13, 2013 5:29 PM
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From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, December 14, 2012, p.
A 31. See
Plagiarism in Grant Proposals

By Karen M. Markin

If you watch true-crime television shows, you know that technology
has made it harder for culprits to get away with their misdeeds. The
bad guy is nailed after being captured on the bank's surveillance
video or is identified as the killer through DNA. The bad guys of
academe-at least the ones who plagiarize in grant proposals-are now
subject to the same technological scrutiny.

It's not news that software exists to check undergraduate papers for
plagiarism. What is less well known is that some federal grant
agencies are using technology to detect plagiarism in grant proposals.

That variety of research misconduct is a growing problem, according
to federal experts I talk with in my work as a university grant
officer. The National Science Foundation, in its most recent "Agency
Financial Report," said allegations of plagiarism and data
fabrication in grant proposals and reports had more than tripled
during the previous 10 years. Agencies take such misconduct seriously
because their reputations are on the line when they finance the
research. They can and will impose penalties that could derail your

It is important for scholars to understand that copying information
or text from someone else's grant proposal is considered
plagiarism-just as if the document copied had been published in a
scholarly journal-whether or not that proposal received money.

And it's not just young scholars who need to take that lesson to
heart. Plagiarism in grant proposals is happening among academics at
all levels of experience, from assistant professors to seasoned full

Some faculty members are simply unaware that the practice constitutes
research misconduct. In one case, a full professor asked a colleague
for a copy of a proposal that had received federal funds. The
colleague, thinking the request was for informational purposes only,
provided a copy. The borrower then lifted sections verbatim, put them
in a new proposal, and gave it to the author of the borrowed proposal
to review.

Not surprisingly, the colleague who wrote the original was unhappy
about this, and the new proposal was revised to eliminate the
plagiarized passages before it was submitted to a grant agency. The
most surprising thing about the incident, to those familiar with it,
was that the full professor who did the plagiarizing saw nothing
wrong with his behavior.

Government agencies generally define plagiarism as the appropriation
of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without
giving appropriate credit. It is prohibited by federal regulations.

With federal agencies receiving tens of thousands of grant proposals
every year, you may think that it would be easy to get away with
plagiarism. And some scholars certainly do. But you can't be sure
that you'll be among the successful thieves.

As a university grant adviser, I would caution you: Do not
underestimate the power of plagiarism-detection software or the keen
memory of a scientist. The same software programs that some faculty
members are using to detect plagiarism in student work and in
journals are also being used by grant agencies to crack down on
research misconduct.

They don't screen every proposal they receive, because they don't
need to. Scholars who review grant proposals detect quite a few cases
of plagiarism without using software. In the small world of an
academic specialty, the researcher whose work you plagiarized may be
the one evaluating your grant-and will certainly recognize his or her
own words.

Procedures for investigating an allegation of plagiarism are set out
by regulation. If investigators determine that plagiarism has
occurred, they will make a recommendation for action. Agency
investigators will work with your university, which very likely has a
policy on research misconduct and may mete out additional punishment.

Investigators won't fall for a high-tech version of "the dog ate my
homework." They have heard as many excuses for plagiarism as you have
heard for late assignments. So don't bother saying you submitted the
wrong version of the document.

Nor will blaming your graduate students work. That's a common but
unacceptable excuse. If you are listed as the principal investigator
on the grant, you are responsible for its content. "All too often
students become a convenient scapegoat for faculty members," stated
an NSF report to Congress in 2011 on the agency's civil and criminal

As a trained researcher, you are expected to know the difference
between information that is common knowledge ("The sky is blue") and
information that is in the public domain, such as text on a
government Web site. You must provide a citation for information you
obtain from the Web site. "I thought it was common knowledge" as an
explanation for plagiarism has been tried and has failed.

Plagiarizing from an unfunded proposal presents an additional
problem. Unlike funded proposals, which are in the public domain,
unfunded proposals are confidential and typically available only to
reviewers, who are expected to maintain that confidentiality. If you
take text from an unfunded grant and use it in your own document, you
are breaking confidentiality, which threatens the integrity of the
grant-review process and will sully your reputation with grant

Some of the excuses that faculty members have used when accused of
plagiarism are humorous, but the consequences of a finding of
misconduct are not funny. If your proposal contains plagiarized text
and is recommended for federal financing, the stakes are high. In one
incident reported by the NSF, a program officer said plagiarized text
in a grant proposal had influenced his decision to support the work,
"which meant the plagiarism amounted to fraud" and thus was a crime.
The NSF referred the case to an assistant U.S. attorney, who
ultimately declined to pursue it in light of the administrative
penalties that had been imposed against the scholar.

Most universities and grant agencies provide plenty of guidance on
their Web sites about what constitutes plagiarism. They also discuss
what to do if you encounter a case of apparent research misconduct.
You can eliminate the career risk by simply following that guidance.
Careful research and note-taking are, of course, essential. But here
are some other key points that may seem obvious to composition
instructors but apparently aren't obvious to faculty members writing
grant proposals:

. Don't forget to use quotation marks when you copy text verbatim
from a source. Many researchers neglect to insert quote marks when
electronically copying portions of an electronic document into one of
their own files, and then lose track of which words are their own.

. Paraphrasing means restating a concept in your own words. Just
changing a few words does not qualify. Also, be sure to cite the
original source of the idea.

. Carelessness and time constraints do not excuse plagiarism. Leave
enough time to review your proposal before submission to ensure you
haven't pasted in a paragraph without attribution. If students are
assisting you with proposal preparation, leave enough time to review
their work as well, since you will be held responsible for the
finished product.

. Additional guidance on avoiding plagiarism is plentiful.
Universities that receive federal money must provide grantees with
training in the responsible conduct of research. Take advantage of
the training, which may consist of Web tutorials or workshops. The
Web sites of university research-compliance offices also contain
useful advice on plagiarism.

In a worst-case scenario, agency penalties leveled against you for
plagiarism can harm your prospects for tenure and promotion. And you
could be prohibited from submitting any more grants for several
years, barred from reviewing proposals for an agency, and required to
take an ethics class. Your employer may go even further: Some faculty
members who have been reprimanded by a federal agency have lost their

It's a high price to pay for a hasty cut-and-paste in a grant proposal.
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: Brian Taylor for The Chronicle
Karen M. Markin is director of the office of research development at
the University of Rhode Island.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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