Failure to ask permission

Case number:
08-30

Case text (Anonymised)

I am a trainer and author of books on medical writing. It was brought to my attention that a chapter in a German-language book published in Switzerland was based almost entirely on my teaching. The first author is director of a privately funded research institution and the second author a member of staff. The second author attended one of my courses. There is a general statement at the beginning of the chapter where the authors ‘refer to’ me (with a reference to one book and my website) and one other specific reference when they talk about macro and micro editing. However, there is one diagram copied from a course overhead and some original research published without reference, including a table reproduced directly from one of my books without acknowledging the source. Descriptions of several other specific concepts from my work (eg, storyboarding, 2-7-7-6) that appear in the chapter to be theirs, not mine. At one stage they write ‘We recommend’ giving a clear implication that it is theirs to recommend.

The authors did not seek permission from me or the publisher of my book. Their publisher has been contacted, and says that the work is not a piece of plagiarism but a homage, that the two references are sufficient, and that the author’s only mistake is leaving off an acknowledgment on one of the tables, which they will remedy at the next printing.

(1) Have the authors acted unethically?
(2) Do I have an ethical duty to take this further, or should I just continue to enjoy my retirement?

Advice: 

The Forum unanimously agreed that the authors’ actions were unethical. Failure to ask permission is a form of misconduct. Some argued that it would be reasonable to sue for breach of copyright and that the author should contact his publisher and international distributor. The Forum agreed that this is a form of plagiarism but that there are degrees of plagiarism so the question arises as to how much harm has been done. The Forum reasoned that whether or not the complainant takes this matter forward by informing the plagiarists’ employers depends very much on how much he cares about protecting his intellectual property.

Follow up: 

The publishers have now written an erratum in German that will be inserted in all remaining copies of the book. The statement says that the publisher and authors “thoroughly regret not having made it clear” that the chapter in question largely consists of a summary of book and course material. “We did in no way intend to question [the author’s] copyright and apologise to him for not having obtained the required permissions.” The author's institution has not been formally informed in the light of COPE's view that it would not be necessary to do so.

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