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Court threat to plagiarists

By Domenico Pacitti

International publishers are threatening legal action to try to stamp out plagiarism by Italian academics and authors.

Although common knowledge in Italy, the size of the breach of copyright problem has so far remained unknown abroad. It is particularly prevalent among the publications submitted by candidates for university posts.

Breaches range from the use of copyright material without permission or attribution in books published in Italy to wholesale photocopying for sale to students.

Kevin Hughes, managing director of Longman Italia, said: "If we can substantiate allegations, we will take legal action to defend our rights and those of our authors."

Nicky La Touche, managing director of Penguin Italia, said: "Many Italians simply do not seem to have any sense of copyright. The problem is one of changing the prevalent attitude.

"We shall be taking an in-depth look at the situation and looking for material. Relatively few cases of plagiarism have come to our attention - only those we have come across casually.

"The many honest academics who do original research and the many honest publishers who pay for the use of copyright material must be reassured that the deviant cases will be weeded out."

Cecily Engle, legal director of Penguin Books in London, said: "We were not aware of the nature and extent of plagiarism in Italy. It is of concern and we are looking into it."

Irish novelist Paul Hyde, who has worked in Italy for 11 years, said: "The acceptability of plagiarism within academia is linked to a feudal university system, which places power and practicality above merit and morality. Collective silence (omerta) imposed as a ground rule ensures few disclosures. Legal and moral considerations are often secondary to career advancement and financial gain."

One prominent case was that of Antonio Villani, former rector of Naples's Suor Orsola Benincasa University and president of the Italian Society of Legal and Political Philosophy, who resigned two years ago after a university commission found that five of his seven major works were carbon copies of German texts translated into Italian.

Professor Villani denied personal responsibility, blaming his short sight and reliance on assistants, but resigned after the findings were published. Rather than indignation, the popular reaction was surprise that a man in his position of power had allowed himself to be caught.

In a second widely-reported case Giampiero Posani, associate professor of French at Naples's Oriental University, was given a 14-month suspended sentence for photocopying 185 pages from two books without permission and then selling them to students. He was originally sentenced to three years but this was reduced and suspended in a plea-bargaining process in which he forfeited any right to appeal against conviction or sentence.

Bruno Civello, director of the higher education ministry's department for university autonomy, said: "When candidates for university posts report competitors who have presented plagiarised work, we do take action. We welcome any information from lecturers, students and the general public which can help stamp out this unfortunate practice."

Note: This article first appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on January 3 1997.