Plagiarism, incompetence and responsibility: a case study in the academic ethos

Nine journals rejected versions of this paper. A tenth journal, Journal of Tertiary Education Administration, invited and published a greatly modified form of the paper. The text is provided here to illustrate a type of paper likely to encounter difficulties in being published. It also contains links to many documents relating to the case involving Michael Spautz and Alan Williams. This version is from July 1983.

See also "A disastrous quest for justice", 29 August 2018

Submission history of this paper

Brian Martin

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Plagiarism and incompetence are not uncommon in academia, but their occurrence has received scant attention in public forums and hardly any in the scholarly literature. One reason for this seems to lie in the implications of the existence of plagiarism and incompetence for the public image of academics and in turn for the maintenance of their professional prerogatives. Another reason is that mechanisms for open settlement of cases of alleged plagiarism and incompetence would pose a severe challenge to academic hierarchies, which are supported by the implicit equating of position and competence.

My aim in this article is to discuss these issues in the context of a particular case study involving an extended open challenge to the credentials of a senior academic. To begin, a brief outline of the case is in order.[1]


In 1973 Dr Michael E. Spautz joined the Department of Commerce at the University of Newcastle as a senior lecturer. Dr Spautz has degrees in psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles; his research and teaching experience has been in the general area of organisational behaviour and human resources management. He held a number of posts in academia and industry in the United States before coming to the University of Newcastle.

In both 1974 and 1975 a second chair in the Department of Commerce was advertised, for which Dr Spautz was a candidate, but on neither occasion did anyone fill the post. The chair was advertised a third time in 1976. Dr Spautz did not apply, and on this occasion the successful applicant was Dr Alan J. Williams. Professor Williams has had research and teaching experience at several Australian secondary and tertiary institutions, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia in 1975.

From the time Professor Williams took up his post in early 1977, there were no special problems between him and Dr Spautz until the second half of 1978, when Professor Williams was made head of the newly created Management Section in the Department of Commerce (one of the two parts into which the department was henceforth divided) and also Master of Business Administration course coordinator. Dr Spautz was also in the management Section, and opposed Professor Williams becoming head of it. Shortly before Professor Williams became section head, Dr Spautz raised with him questions about the methods and conclusions of Professor Williams' Ph.D. thesis.[2] Beginning in May 1979 Dr Spautz in addition questioned the use of source materials in the thesis.[3]

At first Dr Spautz' questioning of Professor Williams' credentials was made in private to Professor Williams, and through letters and memoranda to other members of the Department of Commerce and to University officials.

"By 1979, personal and professional relations between members of the Department of Commerce were severely affected by the tension between the two academics. Further, in the course of 1979, Dr. Spautz started to inform a large number of academics in the University and others outside the University, of his allegations against Professor Williams. In a series of letters and memoranda, copies of which were widely distributed by Dr. Spautz, he accused Professor Williams of incompetence, plagiarism, and fraudulence."[4]

Following two inquiries into the situation, mainly focussing on Dr Spautz' behaviour, Dr Spautz in May 1980 was dismissed from his tenured position. The issues raised by the dismissal are treated in another paper.[5]

The issue of Professor Williams' thesis, though very important to Dr Spautz and apparently a key factor in his later behaviour, has never received any formal and open attention.[6] The object here is not to pass judgement on the thesis, but rather to focus on some of the important issues raised by Dr Spautz' questioning of Professor Williams' credentials. These issues go far beyond the question of the thesis itself, and involve shortcomings in mechanisms for handling academic disputes, and inhibitions posed by academics' public self-image.

The main themes treated here are Dr Spautz' claims concerning the validity of the methods and results of Professor Williams' thesis, Dr Spautz' allegations about plagiarism in the thesis, and the question of responsibility for investigating such claims and allegations.


The thesis for which A. J. Williams received a Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia in 1975 is a substantial work of some 750 pages, entitled 'A Study of the Characteristics and Performance of Small Business Owner/managers in Western Australia'. The thesis was an important factor in Williams' professorial appointment. It is worth mentioning that publication rates in the Department of Commerce at the University of Newcastle are not high. Professor Williams apparently has only a few scholarly publications,[7] and hence his thesis work becomes more important as an indication of his research capability and performance. (It should be said that publication itself is not essential for academic success, and median publication rates are not as high as commonly believed.[8] Lack of publications should in no way be seen as somehow negating an academic's contributions in the areas of teaching, administration, community service or general participation in scholarly life. Indeed, fetishism of research and publication may have serious negative consequences for individual academics and for the academic community as a whole.[9])

Dr Williams reported some of the important findings of his thesis in 1975 in a pair of articles in the Real Estate Journal.[10] The articles present various statistics concerning small businesses, in particular reasons for their failure and success. The key conclusion is that inability by entrepreneurs to psychologically cope with the stress of business life is a prime factor in causing business failures: "individuals who can adapt to and cope with the stress of managing a small firm are the best performers".[11]

Dr Spautz in May 1979 sent a short article to the Real Estate Journal providing ten technical criticisms of Professor Williams' 1975 pair of articles. The criticisms are of two main types. First is the claim that many of Professor Williams' statistics are either unsubstantiated by evidence or else calculated using inappropriate methods (such as using correlation tests inappropriate for bimodal distributions). This is the essence of Dr Spautz' claim that Professor Williams' thesis contains spurious statistics.

The second criticism by Dr Spautz is that Professor Williams had confused cause and effect, and that in essence business failure may be the cause of emotional stress rather than its consequence. This is the essence of Dr Spautz' claim that Professor Williams' thesis is based on inverted causality. Dr Spautz' article was rejected by the Real Estate Journal in August 1979 on the grounds that the editors thought it was unlikely that readers would remember the substance of Professor Williams' findings as reported in 1975.[12]

An article by Michael Batten based on Professor Williams' thesis work was published in the business magazine Rydge's in January 1978.[13] Dr Spautz submitted a rebuttal in the form of a letter to the editor in April 1979. This item is reproduced in the appendix to this paper. Rydge's rejected the letter in July 1979 on the grounds that it was defamatory.[14]

As mentioned earlier, no attempt is made here to judge the merit of Professor Williams' thesis or of Dr Spautz' criticisms. But the issues of possible and alleged spurious statistics and inverted causality raise some wider issues.

First, disputes over the validity of academic work are very common.[15] Furthermore, heated condemnations of ideas and conclusions, and even personal attacks, are also quite common between academics, most visibly in letters columns of journals.[16]

In this context Dr Spautz' article submitted to the Real Estate Journal and letter to Rydge's are relatively tame. The letter (see appendix) could be considered defamatory under only the strictest interpretation, and really only the title might be considered objectionable. The sobriety of Dr Spautz' attempts to reply to Professor Williams' thesis through normal academic channels contrasts greatly with the style he purposely adopted in his later public campaign.

Second, it is by no means obvious what implications would follow if it turned out that Dr Spautz' criticisms could be substantiated. There are numerous pieces of research work that can be severely criticised on the basis of spurious statistics, inverted causality, or both. Dr F. Yates in a presidential address to the Royal Statistical Society stated that "the standard of much day-to-day statistical work is regrettably low. All too frequently there are elementary errors in the presentation and analysis of data by biologists, economists and social scientists, which lead to completely erroneous conclusions".[17] Studies of the use of statistical methods in published papers suggest that errors appear in many, indeed perhaps even the majority, of scholarly papers involving statistics and that serious faults and the drawing of unjustifiable conclusions are not rare.[18] These studies suggest that many researchers do not avoid the numerous pitfalls involved in their work.[19]

Having one's research methods or results shown to be inadequate is, in the normal course of events, not considered sufficient to justify being removed from an academic post or having one's work called 'pseudo-scientific', for example. It is not a venal academic sin merely to be wrong -- normally something much more drastic must be shown, such as conscious bias and manipulation, or systematic and sustained incompetence.

On the other hand, extremely serious scholarly shortcomings, if conclusively demonstrated, might be considered by some to justify the imposition of sanctions, such as denial of tenure or promotion, or even demotion or dismissal. Institutional factors make this a remote possibility in practice, at least in the case of senior appointments, as will be discussed later.

The accepted academic penalty for research that fails to satisfy normal standards is loss of reputation. This may in turn be translated into a reduction in future research opportunities or resources, influence and the like. Likewise, if Dr Spautz' criticisms themselves turned out to be spurious, then it would be Dr Spautz' academic reputation which by rights should suffer. (It is possible in principle that both Professor Williams' thesis could have inadequacies and that Dr Spautz' criticisms could have flaws. It is also possible in principle that Professor Williams' thesis is substantially sound and that Dr Spautz' criticisms are valid; this is conceivable if the criticisms invalidated unnecessary planks in Professor Williams' line of argument.)

To talk as I have of an 'accepted academic penalty' for research which is flawed raises a third issue: the lack of satisfactory mechanisms for handling criticisms like those made by Dr Spautz about Professor Williams' thesis. Neither the Real Estate Journal nor Rydge's would publish Dr Spautz' offerings. This is not too surprising, considering that the editorial preference of most journals and of most academics is to avoid overt controversy. The normal fate of most journal articles is inattention. Most academics do not consider it worthwhile preparing a detailed critique of a paper unless it is of some influence, for example by providing a framework for policies or substantial future research. This is especially the case for 'old' research reports, more than roughly a few years old (depending on the discipline). This feeling seems to have played a role in the Real Estate Journal's rejection of Dr Spautz' paper.

There are several reasons for the academic disinclination to disinter and criticise 'old' research. One is that it is considered more effective and worthwhile to get on with the job. Another perhaps is that a large fraction of academics would be embarrassed by close scrutiny of their earlier work. It is not commonly recognised by non-academics how low the standard or significance of much academic work is.[20] In my opinion this is caused by pressures for publication and for obtaining and justifying grants, by the lack of commitment to and reward for careful refereeing, by the ascendancy of self-interest and advancement over commitment to scholarship, and by the disinclination to publicise inadequacies and criticisms more than necessary.

For these reasons it is not surprising that universities, like journals, have few mechanisms for resolving disputes over the merit of research work, such investigatory panels or internal journals which could handle such issues. Yet it is by no means obvious that this lack is a good thing. It is possible that if Dr Spautz had been able to air his criticisms through an academic channel such as the journals he first tried, the later conflicts and disruptions might have been avoided. (Alternatively, if Dr Spautz had obtained academic outlets for his criticisms and still pursued matters through other channels, then he could not have as readily claimed to have suffered a grievance.) In addition, Professor Williams would have had a proper forum to defend his thesis against the criticisms. Although some might think such disputes are usually a waste of time, it is also possible that some worthwhile contribution to knowledge might result. Furthermore, the availability of forums for analysis and criticisms of past research might have a salutary effect on the quality of current research. In any case, open and scrupulous disputation is one of the bedrocks of the academic process, and the benefits of this taking place usually would outweigh any waste involved.

Though Dr Spautz did try to air his criticisms about Professor Williams' thesis through academic channels, it may be objected that he should have persisted in this attempt, since surely there would have been some suitable outlet.[21] This is most probably the case: besides journals, criticisms can be presented in seminars, conferences and internal reports. Available evidence suggests that articles rejected by journals are not blocked but merely delayed from eventual publication.[22] If all else failed, private publication of a scholarly monograph would be a suitable course of action which, though somewhat unorthodox these days, has many eminent precedents. Dr Spautz did organise one seminar and circulate one working paper.[23] That he did not pursue these types of channels further seems unfortunate.

Yet to criticise Dr Spautz' failure to persist in pursuing academic channels is not to say that the academic system is blameless. If there were more available and recognised channels for frustrated critics -- some sort of repository of miscellaneous academic disputes, for example -- then it would be much more difficult to feel disgruntled by 'working through the system', and harder to justify resorting to other measures.

Even if academic channels for resolving disputes were greatly extended and improved, there would still remain the problem of appropriately responding to research with social implications. The substance of Professor Williams' thesis, that certain personality and other traits predispose small business owner/managers to success or failure in a statistically predictable way, seems to be an issue of social relevance for which criticism and debate would be encouraged or indeed mandatory. According to the articles about Professor Williams' work, several banks in Perth and Newcastle were at the time using his questionnaire "to help assess a borrower's potential for business success".[24] This use of Professor Williams' work has been of considerable concern to Dr Spautz (see for example the appendix).

The issue of research with social implications leads to consideration of conflicts of interest, of methods for institutional decision-making, of the role of the media, of scientific value judgements versus social value judgements and of political power and ideology.[25] These wider concerns have not been prominent in discussions relating to Professor Williams' research work, as for one reason or another the social implications of his work have largely gone unremarked, except occasionally by Dr Spautz.


Plagiarism has been defined as "the taking and using as one's own of the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another".[26] There are many varieties and degrees of plagiarism. Let me consider a particular example.

The following sentence is from The Broken Connection by Robert Jay Lifton[27]:

"Ruth Benedict suggested that whole cultures could be classified according to the Nietzchean duality of Appollonian stress upon measure, control and moderation; and the Dionysian embrace of excess, of 'annihilation of ordinary bonds and limits of existence' in the struggle to 'break through into another order of existence.'(1)"

Lifton's footnote 1 is to "Ruth Benedict, Patterns of culture (New York: New American Library, 1946)". Suppose I were writing an essay and included this sentence:

"Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist, has proposed that whole cultures can be classified according to a distinction made by Nietzsche: a stress on measure, moderation and control as made by the Apollonians, or a stress on 'annihilation of ordinary bonds and limits of existence' in the struggle to 'break through into another order of experience' as made by the Dionysians.'(1)"

If I were to include the same footnote 1 as above, namely to Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture, without consulting that book, and did not cite Lifton, then I would be guilty of a type of plagiarism. The quotation of the original sentence directly from Lifton naturally would be acceptable, citing Benedict's book as being cited in Lifton's book. Similarly, a paraphrase from Lifton is acceptable, so long as the Lifton source is cited, through many would prefer the paraphrase to be rather less imitative of the original. The plagiarism arises when Lifton's understanding of Ruth Benedict's work, and the manner of expressing that understanding, is used without giving credit to Lifton.

A type of unconscious plagiarism could arise if I were to consult Patterns of Culture, use the same quotes from it as Lifton does and reproduce in my essay a sentence similar to Lifton's without remembering that I had originally read the sentence in Lifton's book. This can happen quite inadvertently, especially to a person with a good memory for words and phrases.[28] Much less excusable is plagiarism in which Benedict's book is never consulted.

It is important to separate out the elements involved here. Paraphrasing is a widespread practice, and is generally considered acceptable so long as the similarity is not too close. (A direct quotation is considered preferable to a very close paraphrase. The assessment of what is 'too close' is a matter of judgement and taste, and deliberately not specified here.) Citation of primary sources (Benedict) is also considered acceptable and indeed is often quite useful. What is not acceptable is lack of citation of the secondary source (Lifton). (Such citation should be done both for the paraphrase and as the source of the citation to the primary source, if the primary source has not been consulted directly.) This sort of plagiarism is well described as use of unacknowledged secondary sources.[29]

It is not always clearcut whether unacknowledged secondary sources have been used in a given bit of suspected plagiarism, especially when the paraphrasing is dissimilar to the text of the secondary source. Two bits of evidence may strengthen the suspicion of plagiarism.

One is the citation of obscure or inaccessible primary sources which could not reasonably have been consulted. For example, if I were to cite a Russian language source and you knew I did not read Russian, you might reasonably suspect me of using an unattributed secondary source (written or spoken). A second indication of the use of unacknowledged secondary sources is the copied mistake. If the secondary source makes an incorrect quotation from the original source, and I were to make the identical mistake, you might reasonably suspect that I had not consulted the original. An apparent example of this sort of copied mistake made by Sir Ernest Titterton has been documented in detail.[30]

This sort of plagiarism -- the use of unacknowledged secondary sources -- is what Dr Spautz has alleged is to be found in a number of places in Professor Williams' Ph.D. thesis. As before, the intention here is not to assess the validity of this claim[31] but rather to underscore some wider issues raised by this case.

First, it is plain that there is a dearth of procedures for addressing cases of alleged plagiarism. It is possible to imagine special committees, review procedures, and even special journals for treating these cases. There would be some difficulties no doubt, such as defamation law, but there would seem to be no insurmountable obstacles. A proper academic procedure should be welcomed by those alleging plagiarism, so that they can see cases given fair, impartial assessment, and by those incorrectly accused of plagiarism, so that their reputations can be cleared in an acceptable manner. The lack of any suitable mechanisms reflects the dominance of social and organisational influences over scholarly ones, as will be discussed presently.

Second, in cases in which plagiarism can be reasonably established, there are few accepted procedures for applying sanctions. Perhaps it is expected or hoped that all exposed plagiarists will automatically resign or otherwise atone for their transgressions, or that the embarrassment will disappear in some other way. Manifestly this will not happen all the time, especially considering the range and varying degrees of plagiarism. The lack of official prescribed sanctions again reflects the influence of social and organisational factors.

Third, the significance of plagiarism can vary widely, depending on its extent, strategic location, and the context in which it occurs. An isolated instance of plagiarism -- one sentence or paragraph for example -- would not usually be cause for concern, whereas a paper copied almost verbatim would be considered a gross violation of academic norms. Strategic location refers to centrality in an academic presentation. Plagiarism in crucial points of argumentation is more serious than in for example a largely extraneous literature review. Finally, the overall context of plagiarism must be considered: the nature of the contribution, scholarly or otherwise. Plagiarism is most serious in what purports to be original scholarly research. The previously cited instance of use of sources by Sir Ernest Titterton involved a synthesis of arguments and evidence, and clearly was not meant to appear to be original research. And in many newspaper and other journalistic articles, secondary sources are paraphrased freely without attribution, and the scholarly apparatus of documentation is normally omitted. (Although this is common practice, it should not be considered 'acceptable' without question.)

In the case of Professor Williams' thesis, a high standard is expected since a Ph.D. thesis is meant to contain original research. But even if plagiarism could be established, it would be necessary to determine its extent and strategic position before assessing its overall significance.[32]

It is also important to assess plagiarism in the context of other violations of official academic morality. Some of these are:

It is worth noting that unacknowledged use of secondary sources is something which, if detected, often can be fairly readily verified. By comparison, many of the above violations of academic norms often cannot be clearly substantiated. So in a way it is somewhat unfair to focus on plagiarism, on procedures for addressing it and on sanctions, when these other sorts of violations are left unrectified,

Finally, so far as may be judged from available evidence,[37] plagiarism is much more widespread than commonly acknowledged. Cheating and plagiarism are endemic at the undergraduate level, even to the extent of being able to support large-scale commercial operations in selling term papers,[38] and it would be surprising if some of this did not persist into higher levels of the academic community. But established academics usually cannot afford being exposed as having plagiarised written passages, and hence the most serious problem probably is stealing of ideas, as in the intensely competitive field of high energy physics.[39]

That many academics feel that their research is not given appropriate credit is suggested by a survey in which 25% of 1309 scientists asked "Have you ever found that another scientist has published results you published earlier without referring to your work?" answered "Yes, probably knew of my work".[40]

Finally, there are the spectacular cases:

"An earlier version of the first five chapters, which I had sent to several professional colleagues for their critical comments some years ago, was published without my knowledge or consent by one of them in a book of his own."[41]

Compared to these bigger problems, the use of unacknowledged secondary sources may be comparatively trivial. For example, it is easy to find examples in which a 'classic' reference is cited in a series of research papers when in actuality it has not been consulted and no secondary source is credited.[42]

All this said, commonness of wrongdoing does not excuse the individual transgressor. And it is here that the academic community closes ranks. Because plagiarism is generally considered a clearcut transgression -- by non-academics as well as academics -- and because it is much more widespread than normally acknowledged, publicity on this topic is assiduously avoided by academics. If regular and aboveboard procedures were established to judge allegations of plagiarism by academics, there would be several important consequences.

First, the public image of academics could take a severe battering if the 'dirty linen' of plagiarism were displayed openly. Indeed, this is happening already due to a number of publicised cases of fraudulent results such as the Cyril Burt case. In the long run such publicity would permit a much more realistic understanding of the human limitations of academics, who after all are people with ethical failings like anyone else.[43]

A second consequence of open and routine procedures for handling cases of alleged plagiarism would be a shakeup of the academic hierarchy. If substantiated plagiarism were considered to warrant stiff penalties -- and as noted above, there are no established sanctions -- then those academics high in status and power would have much more to lose. Because plagiarism of secondary sources, among other types, can be investigated years or decades later, anyone who had once plagiarised would henceforth be vulnerable to exposure. A taste of this is found in exposes of flaws and cheating by eminent figures such as Cyril Burt and Isaac Newton.[44] It is not surprising that plagiarism is treated more as a taboo topic than as a normal albeit undesirable feature of scholarly life.[45] This is unfortunate, since it is through exposure that the incidence of plagiarism and other violations of proper academic behaviour is most likely to be reduced.


One symptom of the present attitudes to incompetence in scholarship and to plagiarism, and the lack of procedures for investigating them, is the avoidance of responsibility for looking into allegations about them. When Dr Spautz raised criticisms of Professor Williams' thesis with the University of Newcastle administration, he was informed this was a matter for the University of Western Australia which had awarded the Ph.D.[46]

The logic behind this passing off of responsibility is not good, as way be demonstrated by some hypothetical examples. If evidence were brought forward that an academic at the University of Newcastle had been involved in bribery or embezzlement at a previous institution, it would hardly seem credible that the University of Newcastle would say this was only the concern of the other institution, even if the previous institution declined to take action. Likewise, if proof positive were brought forward of plagiarism of entire articles, committed at another institution, a denial of responsibility for investigation again would seem unlikely even if the other institution found nothing amiss. But if intervention in these cases were considered warranted, it is not clear how lack of responsibility in less extreme cases is to be justified.

This point, while apparently unexceptionable, is a key one, since apparently it is the primary rationale behind the University of Newcastle's lack of any formal action in response to the substance of Dr Spautz' charges regarding Professor Williams.[47] Certainly the rationale that the thesis was the responsibility of the University of Western Australia has been expressed by a number of University of Newcastle staff members.[48] The existence of a rationale is important, since the University Council apparently has the formal power to investigate professors should it so desire.[49]

When Dr Spautz approached the University of Western Australia asking that action be taken about the thesis,[50] responsibility was placed on the examiners of the thesis and on observation of formal procedures.[51] It is possible to interpret this as another illustration of bureaucratic refusal to accept responsibility. The issue could not be taken up with the examiners since they are anonymous, at least officially. Anonymity is a source of and cover for a number of abuses in academia.[52] From Dr Spautz' view this abdication of responsibility was an attempt to suppress his criticisms and hence contributed to the vociferousness of his public campaign.

More fundamentally, the apparent reluctance to take responsibility for investigating Dr Spautz' charges in an open forum reflects an academic taboo on questioning senior academic appointments, as well as on plagiarism. Since plagiarism is seldom mentioned publicly, and hence publicly is seen as a gross transgression, then by association those who may have allowed plagiarism to pass unexposed have also transgressed. The same applies to thesis examiners and to selection panels for academic appointments in respect to the quality of credentials.

In theory this is the proper view: referees and examiners should be held at least partly responsible. Examining and refereeing are the essential points of quality control in academia, and slackness in this area is a major factor in the development of 'shoddy scholarship'.[53]

More realistically, anyone familiar with refereeing or examining procedures knows that usually one can only assess the general competence of the researcher indirectly; detailed checking of methods, results or conclusions is often out of the question. To blame an examiner for overlooking plagiarised passages frequently will be quite unfair. By the same token, certification by referees or examiners is hardly an invariable indication of adequate or valuable scholarship.[54] This points again to the weakness in the rationale for refusing to reexamine theses or other scholarly work on the basis that the original referees or examiners are responsible, or that formal procedures have been satisfied.

Until standard and open procedures for handling claims of scholarly incompetence or plagiarism are established and accepted, it seems that rigid and unrealistic attitudes toward these occurrences, to their significance, and to responsibility for them, will prevail. The above comments apply equally whether Dr Spautz' charges are sustainable or significant or neither. Indeed, in the present climate in which incompetence in scholarship and plagiarism are virtually unmentionable publicly, allegations can be very damaging even in the absence of convincing proof. Open adjudication procedures and a more realistic attitude to the frequency and significance of shoddy scholarship and of plagiarism would help overcome this unfair consequence for those accused.


The issue of Professor Williams' thesis points to limitations in academic attitudes towards incompetence and plagiarism and towards sanctions for transgressions. But neither improved rules and procedures by themselves, nor changes in attitudes by themselves, would be sufficient to remedy the situation.

It has been argued here that it would be desirable to establish formal procedures for addressing cases of alleged incompetence or plagiarism, for example the formation of investigatory panels to look into suitably presented allegations, in a way not permitting responsibility for investigation to be avoided by referring it to others. But until attitudes towards plagiarism become more realistic, in terms of recognising the actual extent of and the degrees of plagiarism, and their significance in relation to other violations of standards of scholarly behaviour, such investigations could well be unfair for those accused. So perhaps what is first needed is more openness and publicity about plagiarism and similar issues. But then again the establishment of formal procedures and some exemplary investigations would help in attaining this.

A strong force restraining any of these developments is the vested interest most academics, and especially leading academics, have in the image of scholarly activity which is free of the slightest taint of scholarly 'sins' such as incompetence and plagiarism. As long as university administrations, and academics generally, avoid openly mentioning and avoid taking responsibility for 'taboo' topics such as plagiarism, cases such as that which arose over Professor Williams' thesis will continue to occur -- though seldom with the same intensity.


Valuable comments were received from Ann Baker, David Blatt, Mark Diesendorf, Ko Doeleman, Clyde Manwell, Cedric Pugh, Michael Spautz, Graham Walker and others who prefer to remain anonymous.


1 Useful sources of information relating to the case are: M. P. Carter, G. Curthoys and K. E. Lingren, 'Report from the Committee established in reference to the dispute in the Department of Commerce', University of Newcastle C.128:79, 4 December 1979; M. D. Kirby, K. R. Dutton, L. Gibbs and A. Oliver, Committee of Inquiry into the Conduct of Dr. M. E. Spautz, Senior Lecturer, Department of Commerce, 'Report of the Committee', University of Newcastle C.55:80, 30 April 1980; G. C. Curthoys et al., Executive of the University of Newcastle Staff Association, 'Report of the Executive to the members of the Staff Association on the recent dismissal of a tenured member of the academic staff of the University', The University of Newcastle Staff Association, 11 July 1980; anonymous, 'Lecturer dismissed!', Opus 4 (University of Newcastle Students' Association), no date (ca. June 1980), pages 4-6; M. E. Spautz, 'How I got railroaded from the University of Newcastle for blowing the whistle on the fraudulence of Al Williams', 1 February 1981(a). Dr Spautz has produced hundreds of documents relating to his case; a 'condensed catalog' is contained in M. E. Spautz, 'Memo', 18 June 1981. These may be obtained from Dr Spautz, 31 Scott Street, Flat 16, Newcastle NSW 2300. Contributions toward costs of reproduction would be appreciated by Dr Spautz.

2 Curthoys et al. (note 1), paragraph 2. According to Dr Spautz, the alleged shortcomings of the thesis were pointed out to him originally by others. See for example Spautz, 'How I got railroaded' (note 1), paragraph 3.

3 M. E. Spautz, letter to A. J. Williams, 8 May 1979.

4 Curthoys et al. (note 1), paragraph 4.

5 Brian Martin, 'Disruption and due process: the dismissal of Dr Spautz from the University of Newcastle', Vestes, volume 26, number 1, pages 3-9 (1983).

6 Professor Williams' thesis has been the subject of numerous memoranda by Dr Spautz. The only official attention to my knowledge was by Carter et al. (note 1), pages 2-3.

7 'Second Professor of Commerce', University News, volume 3, number 3, page 3 (24 March 1977).

8 See for example Peter Blunt, 'Publish or perish or neither: what is happening in academia', Vestes, volume 19, pages 62-64 (1976).

9 Morris Kline, Why the Professor Can't Teach: Mathematics and the Dilemma of University Education (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977).

10 A. J. Williams, 'Uni expert tells -- why small businesses fail; size and age are critical factors', Real Estate Journal, pages 16-18, 22 (April 1975); 'Entrepreneurs -- a neglected national resource, says lecturer; factors which make for success', Real Estate Journal, pages 14-16 (May 1975). See also Alan J. Williams, 'The independent entrepreneur', in Allan Bordow (editor), The Worker in Australia: Contributions from Research (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press (1977), pages 113-147.

11 Williams, Real Estate Journal, May 1975 (note 10), page 16; see also University News (note 7).

12 B. A. Quigley, Real Estate Institute of New South Wales, letter to M. E. Spautz, 2 August 1979.

13 Michael Batten, 'Are you really suited to run your own business?', Rydge's, pages 67-69 (January 1978).

14 A. R. B. Smith, Rydge Publications Pty. Ltd., letter to M. E. Spautz, 25 July 1979.

15 Robert K. Merton, 'Priorities in scientific discovery', American Sociological Review, volume 22, pages 635-659 (1957), reprinted in Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pages 286-324.

16 Michael J. Mahoney and Terrence P. Kimper, 'From ethics to logic: a survey of scientists', in: Michael J. Mahoney, Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1976), pages 187-193 give the following figures for the 'mean estimated percent of individuals in the field who had criticized a colleague's character' as estimated by physicists (10%), biologists (15%), psychologists (34%) and sociologists (34%). See also Ian I. Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Psychology of the Apollo Moon Scientists (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1974).

17 F. Yates, 'Theory and practice in statistics', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, volume 131, pages 463-477 (1968).

18 Leroy Wolins, 'Responsibility for raw data' (letter), American Psychologist, volume 17, pages 657-658 (1962); Stanley Schor and Irving Karten, 'Statistical evaluation of medical journal manuscripts', Journal of the American Medical Association, volume 195, pages 1123-1128 (28 March 1966); Sheila M. Gore, Ian G. Jones and Eilif C. Rytter, 'Misuse of statistical methods: critical assessment of articles in BMJ from January to March 1976', British Medical Journal, volume i, pages 85-87 (8 January 1977).

19 Theodore Xenophon Barber, 'Pitfalls in research: nine investigator and experimenter effects', in: Robert M. W. Travers (editor), Second Handbook of Research on Teaching (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1973), pages 382-404.

20 Jerome R. Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), page 50.

21 Kirby et al. (note 1), page 34.

22 William D. Garvey and Belver C. Griffith, 'Scientific information exchange in psychology', Science, volume 146, pages 1655-1659 (25 December 1964).

23 M. E. Spautz, 'Critique of the first draft of Brian Martin's article entitled "The Spautz case"', 2 August 1981, page 2.

24 Batten (note 13), page 67. See also editorial comment introducing Williams, April 1975 (note 10), page 16.

25 Some prime studies treating these issues are found in Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (New York: Basic Books, 1974); Phillip Boffey, The Brain Bank of America: An Inquiry into the Politics of Science (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975); Irving Louis Horowitz (editor), The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship Between Social Science and Practical Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1967); The Insight Team of The Sunday Times (Phillip Knightly et al.), Suffer the Children: The Story of Thalidomide (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979); Brian Martin, The Bias of Science (Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science (A.C.T.), 1979).

26 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of Historical Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

27 Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), page 24.

28 On 'cryptomnesia' see Merton, 1973 (note 15), pages 402-412.

29 On the etiquette of citations see Ravetz (note 19), pages 256-257.

30 Brian Martin, Nuclear Knights (Canberra: Rupert Public Interest Movement, 1980), pages 66-68.

31 Brian Martin, 'A note on some cases of alleged lack of citation of secondary sources in a Ph.D. thesis' (1983; available from the author on request) presents material for evaluating eight of the passages in Professor Williams' thesis which Dr Spautz has alleged are plagiarised.

32 Carter et al. (note 1), pages 2-3 touch on these factors in relation to Professor Williams' thesis.

33 Ron Witton, 'Academics and student supervision: apprenticeship or exploitation?', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, volume 9, number 3, pages 70-73 (1973); Robin Morgan, Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist (New York: Random House, 1977).

34 Mitroff (note 16); Jerry Gaston, 'Secretiveness and competition for priority of discovery in physics', Minerva, volume 9, pages 472-492 (1971); Jerry Gaston, Originality and Competition in Science: A Study of the British High Energy Physics Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

35 Brian Martin, 'The scientific straightjacket: the power structure of science and the suppression of environmental scholarship', Ecologist, volume 11, number 1, pages 33-43 (Jan/Feb 1981); Joan Abramson, The Invisible Woman: Discrimination in the Academic Profession (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1975); Marlene Dixon, Things Which are Done in Secret (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1976).

36 Clyde Manwell and C. M. Ann Baker, 'Honesty in science: a partial test of a sociobiological model of the social structure of science', Search, volume 12, number 6, pages 151-160 (June 1981); Mahoney (note 18); Michael J. Mahoney, 'Psychology of the scientist: an evaluative review', Social Studies of Science, volume 9, pages 349-375 (1979); Samuel S. Epstein, The Politics of Cancer (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978); Samuel S. Epstein, 'Polluted data', The Sciences (New York Academy of Sciences), volume 8, pages 16-21 (July/August 1978).

37 Manwell and Baker (note 36); Mahoney, 1976 (note 16); Mahoney, 1979 (note 36); Eugene Garfield, 'From citation amnesia to bibliographic plagiarism', Current Contents, volume 12, number 23, pages 5-9 (9 June 1980); Ian St James-Roberts, 'Cheating in science', New Scientist, volume 72, pages 466-469 (25 November 1976).

38 Leonard Price Stavisky, 'Term paper "mills", academic plagiarism, and state regulation', Political Science Quarterly, volume 88, number 3, pages 445-461 (September 1973).

39 Gaston, 1971 (note 34). See also Mitroff (note 16).

40 Warren O. Hagstrom, 'Competition in science', American Sociological Review, volume 39, number 1, pages 1-18 (February 1974), page 9. See also Mahoney and Kimper (note 16).

41 Michael Parenti, Power and the Powerless (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), page x.

42 "... bibliographies usually are wafted in their entirety from one paper to the next, except for the insertion of the respective authors' own contributions which, if luck has it, may then accompany, plasmidlike, the standard package in its subsequent passages", from E. Chargaff, 'Triviality in science: a brief meditation on fashions', Perspectives on Biology and Medicine, volume 19, pages 324-333 (1976), quoted and cited in Manwell and Baker (note 36), page 153.

David Blatt gives the following example. In the nuclear physics literature various authors define the Euler function P(u), a particular function of the variable u. There are at least two distinct definition of P(u) in the literature, differing by a factor of 15. In each case the original 1937 paper by Euler, in German, is cited. However, the function P(u) was not actually defined in Euler's paper. (For definitions of Euler's function see references 1, 2, 3, 4, 15 and 16 in D. W. E. Blatt and Bruce H. J. McKellar, 'Three-body force in nuclear matter', Physical Review, volume C11, pages 614-620 (1975).)

43 Magali Sarfatti Larson, The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), page xi: "Yet the implicit assumption that the behavior of individual professionals is more ethical, as a norm, than that of individuals in lesser occupations has seldom, if ever, been tested by empirical evidence". Joseph Bensman, Dollars and Sense: Ideology, Ethics, and the Meaning of Work in Profit and Nonprofit Organizations (New York: Macmillan, 1967) provides a general account of ethics in academia. See also David Lindsay Watson, Scientists are Human (London: Watts & Co., 1938).

44 On Burt see Leon J. Kamin, The Science and Politics of I.Q. (Potomac, Maryland: Lawrence Erlbaum. Associates, 1974) and L. S. Hearnshaw, Cyril Burt Psychologist (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979). On Newton see Richard S. Westfall, 'Newton and the fudge factor', Science, volume 179, pages 751-758 (23 February 1973) and also Frank F. Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968) on Newton's falsifications in his priority dispute with Leibniz.

45 For example, the handbook of research methods, Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, revised edition, 1970), apparently has no mention of plagiarism or other related transgressions. Although this omission may stem from a feeling that such violations of scholarly standards are too obvious to warrant discussion, the actual prevalence of such occurrences belies this assumption.

46 D. W. George, Vice-Chancellor, University of Newcastle, letters to M. E. Spautz, 6 March 1979 and 13 August 1979; D. W. George, 'Dispute in the Department of Commerce', University of Newcastle C.109:79, 8 October 1979, paragraphs 14, 38 and 39.

47 See the Carter Committee (note 1), page 2.

48 M. E. Spautz, 'Report on the Carter and Carter Committee investigations into the Williams fraud', 26 November 1979. See also George (note 46) and M. D. Kirby, letter to Brian Martin, 14 July 1981.

49 University of Newcastle By-law

50 M. E. Spautz, letter to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Australia, 21 December 1980.

51 R. Street, Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Australia, letter to M. E. Spautz, 11 February 1981; R. Street, letter to Brian Martin, 28 July 1981.

52 Richard Davis, 'Anonymity: the cancer of academia', Education Research and Perspectives, volume 6, number 2, pages 3-11 (December 1979); Dixon (note 35).

53 Ravetz (note 20), chapter 22. Ravetz introduces the term 'shoddy science' on page 49.

54 Mahoney (note 16), pages 86-107.

Additional information [added August 2018]

Clyde Manwell, letter to Michael Spautz, 25 March 1981

Opus (Newcastle University Student Press), August 1987, "Mismanagement in high places", including Kevin Guy, "Gangbang of a conscientious whistleblower"

Michael Spautz, letter of Paul Landa, Minister of Education, 6 January 1981 (with a chronological summary of events)

Bill West, "Academic was jailed illegally", The Australian, 27 November 1985, p. 17

"Imprisoned lecturer wins compensation", The Australian, 18 December 1996, p. 25

Scott Tucker, "$20m menace: judge attacks sacked academic", Newcastle Herald, 3 March 2001, pp. 1-2

Appendix: 'letter to the editor' submitted to Rydge's, 3 April 1979


by M E Spautz, Ph.D
Senior Lecturer in Management Studies
Dept. of Commerce
University of Newcastle

Michael Batten's article "Are You Really Suited to Run Your Own Business?" has recently come to my attention (Rydge's, Jan. 1978). As an industrial psychologist with considerable experience in diagnostic testing, I was especially interested in the impressive claims made in that article for the effectiveness of certain psychological measures in predicting failure in small business ventures. The statement attributed to Professor A J Williams to the effect that some 90% of small business failures are the result of personal limitations of would-be entrepreneurs is quite eye-catching. If true, this finding must rank as one of the most important in the history of industrial psychology! Coming from a researcher who is not a professional psychologist, such a discovery would be especially noteworthy.

Consider Mr Batten's statement: "The key factor in his findings was that individuals who can adapt to and cope with the stress of managing a small firm are most likely to be successful." Sounds plausible -- but is it true?

I understand that the evidence for this and other statements in Mr Batten's article is contained in Professor Williams' doctoral thesis. (A study of the Characteristics and Performance of Small Business Owner/Managers in Western Australia. University of Western Australia, 1975.) I have studied that thesis, and have found that its main conclusions are entirely unwarranted on the strength of the data presented therein. There are several serious flaws in that thesis, and in subsequent interpretations of its meaning, which invalidate the conclusions and the statements cited above. These flaws include: 1) computation of product-moment correlation coefficients from bimodally distributed and nonparametric data; 2) inappropriate significance testing for the incremental validity of variables added in a stepwise regression analysis; 3) an inverted cause-effect model resulting from the post-criterion (success vs. failure) measurement of an alleged predictor variable (affective reaction); 4) incorrect interpretation of 90% variance accounted for in the criterion, in terms of "90% of small business failures" etc.

If Professor Williams' "key factor" results show anything at all, it is that failure is associated with subsequent verbal stress reactions, such as assenting to the question: "Do you ever regret investing money in your own business?" If causation can be inferred from correlation (overlooking the spurious character of the correlation coefficients in question), a conclusion such as "failure causes stress" would be more appropriate to this research thesis, than the opposite.

Other statements in Mr Batten's article, e.g. as to the superiority of "Protestant owners" might well be challenged at their evidential base, as well as in terms of their socio-political and ethical implications -- but such challenges I leave to another time and place.

Mr Batten informs us that Professor Williams has developed a questionnaire to get at some of these personal characteristics, and that "Several banks in Perth and Newcastle are using the questionnaire to help assess a borrower's potential for business success." It would seem appropriate, from the viewpoint of professional ethics, that those banks (and other individuals and organizations who are similarly involved) consider these criticisms and take suitable action, if action should be warranted.

I would welcome a retort from Professor Williams.