The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 8

A Proposed Registry of Contested Inventions and Writings

by Ellen McCrady

In conservation, there is a strong urge to disseminate information to the field and to the public. This sometimes builds the temptation to use without attribution material originally written by others, regardless of whether it was published in an institutional handout or a professional journal. Sometimes it is reprinted anonymously, which does no great harm, but sometimes it is reprinted under somebody else's name.

The material may be trivial or it may embody a description of an important invention; it may be a paragraph or two, or an entire book. In any case, it is not the importance or quantity of the copied material that makes this practice wrong; it is the principle involved. The thinkers, writers and inventors whose work is claimed by others as their own should not be denied credit for it.

It does no good to protest; there is no avenue through which they can appeal. The conservation profession does not make use of the restraints and safeguards that are so effective in commerce, namely copyright, trademark and patent laws. No laws can protect inventors who lack the means to hire a patent attorney, pay for a patent search, and then defend their patent in court if necessary. Similarly with copyright issues. It only makes economic sense to use patent and copyright law when a large amount of money is at stake.

Thus the person who considers representing somebody else's work as their own may have the motive as well as the opportunity to do so, without fear of exposure or legal restraint.

This may all be part of an international trend that was described in the AAAS's Professional Ethics Report for Winter 1998 on p. 3-5. In the column on "Ethics, Law and Public Policy," Barbara Mishkin describes a panel discussion on scientific misconduct that took place at a recent meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Under the heading "International Guidelines Will be Needed," it says:

"Incidents of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, several on a broad scale, have been reported recently in Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Brazil, China, and the Netherlands, refuting those who may have hoped or believed that the problem was peculiarly American. Committees to establish procedures for dealing with such problems have been organized in Great Britain, Denmark, Germany, and Poland. A British group of journal editors, convening to discuss responses to research fraud, ruefully calls itself the Committee on Publication Ethics ('COPE')."

Mishkin's column has a 16-item bibliography reflecting widespread reaction to the phenomenon.

Since this topic is so depressing, I will move on quickly to my recommended solution. It does not involve any laws, regulations or mechanisms of enforcement, which are rarely used in ethical matters in any case, because they rarely work. It merely involves a reliable and impartial recording of the facts for each reported incident. This record would of course be made available to the parties involved. Whether it could be made public would have to be decided by the panel described below, or by a larger group of conservators. It might work. Simply knowing that an impartial group is keeping a record would allow a consensus to build about recorded incidents which could have a subtle but powerful deterrent effect.

A public register could be set up to document claims of priority for contested inventions and publications. A panel could be chosen by conservators who have been victimized, or by a larger group. This panel could register and investigate the contested claims. It would probably have to work out and make known the details of procedures by which they propose to operate.

I recommend publishing all unresolved claims put forward, whether old or new, because it may be years before a transgression is discovered.

The purpose of all this, besides maintaining justice, would be ensuring that credit is given where credit is due. If somebody is nominated to receive an award, for instance, this register may keep that person from being disqualified by someone else's false claim of credit for their accomplishments.

Before anything is decided, this plan should be discussed by those concerned, and considered carefully. I have asked two or three conservators who have been victims of plagiarism or other actions for the names of impartial, trustworthy people who could serve as panel members, and they did come up with a few names, but perhaps they should be given an opportunity to propose panel members in a more public forum.

There is a wonderful book that defines these and similar issues.

Developing a Code of Ethics in Research: A Guide for Scientific Societies, by AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), 1997. 42 pp. Order from AAMC, Section for Publication Orders, 2450 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037 (202/828-0416; fax: 202/8288-1123; Web site <>). $25.00 each + shipping ($5 for 1 book, $7 for 2, etc.), prepaid.

A long annotated bibliography is in the back. Eighteen main issues are discussed, of which the last is enforcement. For each issue it recommends questions to consider when drawing up a code of ethics. Six questions that deserve consideration before formulating enforcement procedures, for instance, are:

Establishment of an ethics committee
Creating a review process
Defining when enforcement procedures will be invoked
Considering possible sanctions
Incorrect accusations
The risk of litigation.

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