An academic paper co-authored by a university dean –  Andrew Azzopardi – displayed "lazy writing" but was not "wilfully plagiarised", a disciplinary committee has found.

However, its investigation and an accompanying letter by the university rector recommended an apology be made to two fellow academics who requested disciplinary proceedings against the dean.

The Committee for Safeguarding the Code of Professional Academic Conduct investigated whether a paper titled Risk and Protective Factors in Violent Youth Crime, published in October, plagiarised the work of other academics Saviour Formosa and Janice Formosa Pace.

It found the paper contained segments of inappropriately referenced text from material by other academics but ruled that the authors were not attempting to take someone else’s work and pass it off as their own.

"Thus, this was a case of failure to adhere to some academic writing conventions, rather than wilful plagiarism," it said. 

It found that the paper was clearly the first attempt of Andrew Camilleri, who is listed as its first author, in writing a literature review and that he may have been “naive” or careless in writing it, but not wilfully attempting to steal other people’s work.

“In our view, this is clearly a case of lazy writing, rather than ‘wilful plagiarism’,” the committee said.

The committee did not issue sanctions or reprimands to Azzopardi or Camilleri but said an apology “may go some way in closing the issue”.

In an accompanying letter to Azzopardi, University of Malta rector Professor Alfred Vella said that in order "to restore serenity to your work environment, I would strongly suggest that you comply with the fifth recommendation by issuing an apology to Professor Savour Formosa and Dr Janice Formosa Pace."

It also pointed out that Azzopardi should have mentored Camilleri more closely to ensure such mistakes would not make it to publication.

Paper retracted

The paper was published in the first edition of a journal called Studies in Social Well-being and was then retracted.

In November, one of the academics quoted in the paper, Saviour Formosa, argued that Camilleri and Azzopardi had plagiarised his and his colleagues’ work, tarnishing the university’s reputation and placing “all academics within the faculty in questionable repute”.

Formosa also called for Azzopardi’s resignation as the dean.

Azzopardi and Formosa are colleagues at university but had clashed on the issue of prison management, with Azzopardi repeatedly calling for serious reform of the state's prisons and for its former director Alex Dalli to step down.

Dalli was eventually removed from prison in December, after a report into prison practices proposed a major overhaul of his regime.

When the accusations about the academic paper emerged, university rector Alfred Vella tasked the committee with establishing whether there was, indeed, plagiarism, and therefore misconduct in research, and whether that seriously affected the reputation and good name of the university.

‘No intention to take credit’

The committee noted that several segments of text from papers that had been published by Formosa and other authors were not placed within quotation marks or indentations.

“However, the committee fails to be convinced that [the authors] had any intention to take credit or ownership from other authors’ ideas or research findings,” the report said.

“This is because all the material taken from [Formosa’s] work is cited and their significant contribution to the field is acknowledged, and this paper in question was a literature review, which, by nature is built around previously published research.”

The committee said the vast majority of papers quoted were indeed cited correctly, with minor errors in some page numbers and dates.

Azzopardi had argued that as the paper's secondary author he was well within reason to assume that the first author “knew about and therefore had adhered to the conventions of academic publications”.

The committee concluded that his reasoning was understandable, even more so because such assumptions between co-authors were acceptable common practices in academia. But this did not “completely exonerate him” from responsibility.

The committee also noted how the paper was not submitted for similarity checks before going for publication.

On the allegation that the paper had an impact on the reputation of the university and other academics, it said this was “very difficult to assess and is, in its nature, subjective”. However, “if it goes unchecked, it could have that effect”.

The first author of the paper, Camilleri, refused to attend any of the committee’s questioning sessions and only sent comments by e-mail.

‘Say sorry’… and other recommendations

The committee issued five recommendations.

  • A key recommendation was for an apology. The committee found that the findings could be considered as "just satisfaction" for the complaint by Saviour Formosa. It said: "An apology, in line with the conclusions, may go some way in closing the issue."
  • The committee also recommended that a forum be organised between representatives of university institutions “on the oversight of academic journals hosted by the university’s entities/academics”.
  • This forum should then lead to a dedicated board or committee “to provide clear guidelines to such journals to enhance quality assurance and ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are in place”. Such guidelines would require that all co-authors acknowledge and declare their responsibility in the final version of the papers.
  • The disciplinary committee also recommended that in the case of other such accusations, “academics should refrain from making statements to the media and social media outlets until the due process had been undertaken”.
  • It also recommended that whenever possible, such issues should be sorted out internally, “without involving complex legal procedures”.

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