Plagarism and Double Standards.

I was not going to post on the Witi Ihimaera plagarism scandal, having commented under my own name on another blog that covered the matter. But as I compare my summary dismissal for writing a rude email to an unqualified and underperforming student with the lack of even a cursory reprimand for his theft of intellectual property, and then find out that apparently it is not the first time that Mr. Ihimaera has appropriated someone else’s work as his own, I find myself wondering if indeed there is a double standard at play when it comes to our respective treatment by my former employer. Let me explain why, but first point to the one consistency in the handling of both cases.

The University has, as part of its collective contract with the union representing academic staff, a series of procedures and regulations that have to be followed before an academic staff member can be dismissed for serious misconduct. This includes receiving a formal complaint detailing the misconduct, attempting to mediate the matter using the offices of the Ombudsman, handling the matter within the department, issuing two formal written warnings before dismissal is sought…the requirements are pretty detailed and in fact were made even more so after my dismissal precisely because of the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps Mr. Ihimaera is not a member of the union so other procedures were followed, but that usually mitigates against favorable resolution for the employee.

In my case none of the internal procedures were honoured other than as a facade. No formal written complaint was ever made against me, but without getting my side of the story the Ombuds(person) immediately brought the issue to the attention of my department HOD, who without saying a word to me passed it on to the Dean, who after consulting with the student as to what should be done held a series of brief meetings with me and a union rep in which he shrugged off my apologies and assurances, ignored the fact I had no prior formal warnings, and sent me packing. In fact, he and his HR advisors attempted to use a couple of unrelated events from the past (an argument with a former HOD about managerial practices and an email disagreement with a colleague about a grad student who failed to attend a class) to argue that prior warnings had been given. Those were later found to be irrelevant by the ERA.

In Mr. Ihimaera’s case it appears that, upon hearing that news of the plagarism was about to go public, the University rapidly pushed through an “investigation” of the matter apparently involving his HOD, the new Dean of Arts (who was not the Dean the fired me) and Mr. Ihimaera. No disciplinary board with colleagues outside of the HoD and Dean was apparently convened. Mr. Itimaera  gave apologies and assurances, and the case was closed.

What is consistent in both cases is that the lengthy rules and procedures for handling discipline cases involving academics were circumvented, in his case favourably to him and in my case not. This galls me not because I think that Mr. Ihimaera should be fired–I do not, and think that both of us should have received a final written reprimand about our respective transgressions–but because the University argued that I was fired because of the damage I did to its reputation. This line of argument continued after the dismissal was found to be unjustified, then into the settlement agreement by which formal reinstatement meant no actual reinstatement. But what about my reputation? Not only did the leaked email wind up on the front page of the national newspaper and then went global, but the University did nothing to prevent its release or demand its withdrawal when a student newspaper under its authority first published it (even though leaking the email was a violation of the email policy under which I was ostensibly fired). Moreover, the University knew well what the impact of the dismissal would be. As the Dean who fired me said to the ERA, “in a reputation-based business like academia, summary dismissal essentially means the end of a career.” In my case that seems to be proving true, and perhaps it was that knowledge that made for lighter treatment for Mr. Ihimaera–but I suspect not, simply because his association with academia was one of mutual convenience rather than professional necessity.

My major question is, if what I did was so injurious to the University reputation, what about Mr. Ihimaera’s plagarism? Plagarism is the single worst thing that an academic can do. Working in a genre such as historical fiction does not excuse the lifting of other’s words. Plus, being housed within an academic institution means adhering to its requirements on original work, so he was, in fact, more duty bound than independent writers in that regard. Students get failed and often expelled for plagarism. Academic staff get demoted or fired for plagarism. And Mr Ihimaera did not even merit a reprimand? Now, it seems that the case gets worse, as others have come forth to claim that Mr. Ihimaera has plagarised in his previous work. If so, and if the University knew about those previous incidents, then its absolution of the latest episode is even more alarming.

The University and Mr. Ihimaera say that his plagarism was “inadvertent” and thus excusable. Even if that were true–and it stretches credulity to think that a famous author would not know the difference between his own words and sentence structure and those of others– standard guidelines on plagarism, including those specifically used and distributed by the University to students and staff, state that inadvertent or unknowing plagarism is no excuse for it. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure his/her work is original and properly cited, and the crosses all academic fields and intellectual genres.

Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly. I initially thought that was ludicrous and that there were other mitigating circumstances at play. But the more I learn about the case and think about the differences in our treatment, the more I wonder as to why those differences. Certainly universal institutional standards need to be upheld over and above the specific identity and interests of any individual. That is what the University claimed in my case. Yet, was what I did worse than plagarism? Did my email to an individual student cause more damage to the University than the discovery by a book reviewer in a national magazine of the as of then unattributed passages in Mr. Ihimaera’s latest book? How can he not even receive a reprimand, and how can the University claim that in both cases its standard rules and procedures were followed to the letter?

The real shame is that it is not my actions or Mr. Ihimaera’s that have tainted the reputation of the University. Instead, it is playing loose with the rules and attempts to “spin” both stories in a way that gives the illusion of procedures being properly followed that sullies the brand. That has a negative impact not only on the managerial cadre that are the perpetrators of the double standard but also the staff, alumni, current and prospective students who share association with the University name. Yet, instead of being ashamed and contrite, University managers continue to obfuscate and bluster, refusing to reveal how their “investigation” of the Ihimaera case was conducted citing privacy concerns (concerns they were not so concerned about when my email went public).  It appears that management are blissfully unaware that the ship is sinking beneath them or else are confident that no matter what they do, they will not be held to account by anyone other than themselves. Since the taxpayers ultimately pay the salaries of all involved, that should be a matter of public interest.

32 thoughts on “Plagarism and Double Standards.

  1. I’ve got to say I am a bit disappointed. I started reading Kiwipolitico because I thought it was a general left-wing perspective on New Zealand politics. It seems it has now become the personal blog for a right-of-centre American to complain about the problems of his own life, including employment disputes that are of, shall we be charitable and say, less than general interest.

    Maybe it’s time for the commenters who aren’t Pablo to step up and start posting so comments regarding something other than the long-forgotten and inconsequential employment disputes of an American individual? Don’t we have a whole country to worry about?

    A bit of perspective would be nice, is all I’m saying.

  2. Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly.

    What’s confusing is that Mr Ihimaera has publicly admitted to plagiarism, but the university has not acted on this public admission.

    As you say, the UoA’s plagiarism policy is very clear, and is publicly available here:

    A large number of students at the UoA medical school were reprimanded in late 2007 for what amounted to general academic dishonesty, rather than plagiarism per se( The university and students association publicly cited this episode in launching a new centralised initiative in tracking academic dishonesty and plagiarism at the end of 2008 (

    Since my time as a student at the university, they had been trialling an electronic submission system for assignments which included a report on student’s submissions by Internet-based plagiarism-detection service, ( Perhaps the university could use their own system on Mr Ihimaera’s works?
    This large group of students received a greater reprimand for what amounts to a systematic manipulation of a poorly formulated learning excercise, than what this high-profile author and academic (NB: DCNZM, QSM), has received for outright, publicly admitted plagiarism.

    The claim of plagiarism is not that merely that he used others ideas without attribution, but that he took sections and placed them unedited into his own works- i.e. cut and paste them.

    Maybe the university is afraid of what will happen to one of the heroes of NZ literature if they censure him appropriately? Which given what happened to you Paul, is probably a justified concern.

  3. Sorry daedalus, to disappoint you. You are welcome to go elsewhere. The issues I address here from a personal standpoint are emblematic of larger issues and problems in NZ academe. If you cannot see that, it is because of your own myopia, not mine.

    As for repeated right of centre personal postings by one Yank. Wrong on all counts except for the charge of Yank. This was my first purely personal post and if you think I am right of centre, well, then you neither know me or the Right.

  4. Pablo, I sympathise with you.
    Plagarism is a hanging offence within academia
    and there is a double standard here.
    But for me, it all boils down to the fact that Witi Ihimaera is a national treasure.
    Put bluntly: You are replaceable, Witi is not.

  5. …the long-forgotten and inconsequential employment disputes of an American individual…

    It’s personal information that’s directly relevant to a current issue of wide public significance, and therefore of likely interest to the blog’s readers – not that hard to grasp, surely?

    Paul: I commented on Cactus Kate’s blog that what you were dismissed for was most likely the serious offence of sending a message that could firstly, discourage a full-fee paying foreign student from re-enrolling, and secondly, be widely distributed by the student to other potential customers. That’s what they mean by “damaging the University’s reputation.” To the people who call the shots in the University, foreign students (ie, paying customers) are more important than any staff member. It would be nice if the University’s bosses valued stuff like actually requiring the student to successfully complete coursework more than they value the fact that foreign students pay the full cost of tuition, but they don’t. I hope you gave them a real hiding in the ERA hearing.

  6. @daedalus: it’s one of the great things about the Internet that if you don’t like what a blog is producing, you are entirely free to not read it. Lew and Anita do not owe you posts nor are they obliged to publish at a rate you deem acceptable.

  7. daedalus x,

    I can’t speak for others, but the reason I’m not posting very much at present isn’t to deprive you of the shining nuggets of my wisdom — it’s because my wife and daughter barely recognise me as it is, and until my workload diminishes, something has to give. It’s not permanent (though it does sometimes feel like it), and it’s certainly not that I don’t have anything to say. I’m relieved Pablo’s continuing to write; and the diversity of perspective, ideological alignment and institutional experience is part of what this project is about.

    If you think there’s a lack of worthwhile content here, don’t just sit there and whinge — do something about it. If you have a burning issue you’d like raised, perhaps you’d consider raising it yourself, or inviting others to discuss it? I recently made such an invitation, and it stands: see here.


  8. Well, I sure got my commumpance on this one. Not only am I a whiney rightwing Yank who is expendable/replaceable, but double standards are in fact a NZ way of life (or so it seems) and should be accepted as such.

    I stand chastened and corrected.

  9. Pablo, I don’t see as you have anything to feel chastened about. Your post was on a legitimate and important matter of current affairs, and from a unique perspective.


  10. Here is another thought. If we accept the fact that there is a double standard in NZ by which famous or rich people receive one type of treatment and the rest of us receive another, no matter the institutional setting or the fact that a basic tenet of democracy is equal treatment not only in law but in our institutional practices as well, then can NZ rightfully lay claim to being the least corrupt nation? Or, for that matter, can we truly proclaim NZ to be a “mature” democracy?

    More to the point. It is bad enough that the principles of equal treatment and universal standards are breached in practice in NZ without penalty, but the worse thing is that people seem to be resigned to or accepting of that fact. That is exactly the attitude of people in countries high on the corruption index scale.

  11. It’s about money and added value status – fee paying students are of more value to the university than replacebale academics and rarer celebrity academics add value in attracting fee paying students.

    As to standards applying to all, this reflects the management ethos of one university, or is it all universities when they are kept underfunded and thus dependent on their non government sources of finance, foreign students or the private business sector.

    It would appear that universities are kept underfunded for a reason and this reason has such costs as loss of ethical/professional standards.

  12. I don’t think Uni of Auckland’s behaviour in either case was acceptable, I just don’t find such bad behaviour from an NZ employer at all surprising, having been a union delegate in the past. If we are genuinely the least corrupt nation, all I can say is it reflects very poorly on all the other nations. And as previously stated, hopefully you gave them a hiding when it came before the ERA.

  13. SPC: it’s all universities. Mine has exceeded its TEC funding cap for domestic students, which means any additional NZ students we take on have to be heavily subsidised by us, which is a serious financial burden. Foreign students are pure income. You bet that has deleterious effects on the institution.

  14. Pablo: I was admitting a shameful opinion that was not based on the application of a principle (equal justice), but on the balance of outcomes.
    PS. The innocent cannot be pardoned.

  15. pablo – do you really think he got special treatment because he is famous? Or was it because he is maori?

    there are double standards in this country and usually maori come out second best IMO or do you disagree?

  16. It’s about money and added value status – fee paying students are of more value to the university than replacebale academics and rarer celebrity academics add value in attracting fee paying students.

    And this is why I resigned from my academic job. Universities are happy to take money from foreign students who have limited competence with English, and in order to keep more coming they impose grade quotas to make it difficult to fail them. As for plagiarism, 90% of plagiarism cases I have had were foreign students who simply couldn’t write the papers themselves, so resorted to buying them or copying from the internet.

    When I was an undergraduate I was told that the penalty for plagiarism was expulsion. Now you won’t necessarily get a zero fail for the course.

    It’s what happens if you put the inmates in charge of the asylum.

  17. marty: as I said in the post I initially found it ludicrous that Mr. Ihimaera would be favored because he was maori, famous and gay. But after reading, hearing and thinking about why he has been left off without penalty other than his belated apology and promise to re-write the book and buy back (and presumably pulp) all copies the original, I simply asked why the apparent double standard with regard to my case as well as that of others (students, staff) caught plagarising. To date I have not heard of any mitigating factors and, to the contrary, have now read about aggravating factors (i.e. the charge of a prior instance of plagarism).

    Perhaps he is cut a large amount of institutional slack because he is a “national treasure” (although I personally think of Edmund Hillary when thinking along such lines). What would be your explanation? Or do you believe that his behaviour, if not acceptable, is unworthy of reprimand?

  18. Paul, you didn’t the boot for the E-mail, that was just the excuse they needed to lever you out.

    You got the boot because you had upset the authorities so many times with your public statements on defence and security issues.

    It’s a very common tactic.

  19. Alan: I agree that the email was the excuse, not the cause (although I have to accept the fact that I handed them the excuse, no matter what were my mitigating circumstances). But I do not think it was so much the public commentary on security matters as much as it was repeated clashes with academic managers about their approach to the enterprise, which included the issues raised by Psycho Milt and AG above.

    That is how something that should have resulted in a formal warning for misconduct was, as the ERA pointed out, escalated into a case for summary dismissal.

    As for daedalus x’s comment that this post is just a personal whinge about an inconsequential employment matter: apparently not.

  20. A large number of students at the UoA medical school were reprimanded in late 2007 for what amounted to general academic dishonesty…

    I’d have been busted in 6th form if they’d had those rules. Most science practical assesments were done by the tried and tested method:
    – write up the instructions
    – calculate the theoretical expected result
    – apply a suitable random error to that result
    – write the adjusted values up as “observations”
    – graph everything and out pops the desired conclusion
    – spend the rest of the alloted time reducing phenylamines under the fume hood

    (ok, maybe the last bit *would* have got me busted).

  21. I have to say, if I had a copy of the offending tome there’s no way in hell I’d let anyone buy it back.


  22. Lew:

    Not sure how that last comment is relevant to my post. Either you are joking (which is not how I read it) or you are saying that you would choose to profit from a famous person’s malfeasance regardless of the ethics involved.

    Which is it?

  23. Pablo – it seems like an apple/orange situation to me. Your situation and witi’s are not similar in my view.

    Would you rather the uni had treated witi like they treated you.

  24. Pablo, it isn’t really relevant. A tangential reflection that the novel — in its original form, including the plagiarised passages — is part of the historical record and shouldn’t be expunged.

    Unsure how you figure I would stand to profit from Ihimaera’s malfeasance, though.


  25. Marty,

    Would you rather the uni had treated witi like they treated you.

    Pablo made clear that this was not his wish, saying that he thought a “final written reprimand” was appropriate in both cases.


  26. Good post Pablo – actually links nicely to the recent post on Is NZ the least corrupt place on Earth. This being about the importance of perception as well as reality in whether institutions have societal respect/consent. This doesn’t detract from NZ’s ranking (impt of relative vs absolute), but illustrates that the long term well being of our society/economy is effected by our institutions and our perceptions of them (as well as the reality). You may or may not have heard that this years Swedish Academy of Science prize for economics is for work that considers these issues.

    I think the personal experience is well used to illustrate the wider point about standards.

    I’m also amused that you are a “

    whiney rightwing Yank who is expendable/replaceable.

    If your upsetting both extremes your probably doing well at using a good analytical framework as the basis for analysis and being willing to see where the evidence takes you.

  27. Lew: I thought you were referring to joining those who want to hold on to the original so as to later sell it. Sorry for the misinterpretation.

    WwHs: It struck me as quite ironic that the Ihimaera story broke the same week the corruption rankings came out. Although I am heartened that many seem to be indignant about his preferential treatment, I am bothered by the fact that many simply believe that is the way things are and there is nothing that can be done about it. As has been mentioned before, each and every corrupt or unethical practice must be resisted if democracy is going to reproduce itself as a cultural norm. I do not think that we can whinge about corruption in high places if we do not take some responsibility for resisting it in our daily lives.

  28. Pablo – your comment reminded me of the quote “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” From either Edmund Burke or Tolstoy’s ‘war and peace’.

    In the case of corruption/unethical practice, I’d suggest this does not mean “the ends justifies the means”, but that it is important in how we organise and transact that the process used is transparent and able to withstand ethical scrutiny (free of real or perceived favour). We ourselves may not have the best ethical standards but our processes should be defended so that at least our own ethics are there for the other party(s) to see.

    So on that basis it worries me, that people that are charged with responsibility for process may have a view that “this is just the way things are”. That is not good enough.

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