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Assignment – Ethics Case 2

DUE ON: Tuesday, March 22
nd

(submitted in Canvas)

Please type your discussion and attach this sheet as cover page

with your name at the top

Instructions: Read the attached ethics issue about plagiarism of a geotechnical report

from “A Question of Ethics, a Case Study” published in ASCE News. Write an essay in

narrative form , 1-2 pages long, addressing as a minimum the questions below and

providing your opinion and discussion on the case and decisions.

1) What actions (by the engineer and supervisor PE) are being questioned in this case?
2) In your opinion, was what they did professionally correct? Discuss.
3) Was it ethical? Discuss.
4) What was the determination and action of the ASCE CPC in this case?
5) Have you seen this problem occurring frequently among your peers? If so, in

your opinion, do those who plagiarize report material written by others know that

this action is likely to be in violation of core ethical principles of our profession?

6) What can we learn from this case? Provide your opinion.

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A Question of Ethics

a c a s e s t u d y

This new column—to appear monthly—will examine

an ethics issue reviewed by ASCE’s Com-mittee on

Professional Conduct (CPC). It is written by a

member of ASCE’s legal staff on issues brought to the

attention of ASCE’s attorneys.

SITUATION: In the process of preparing a

geotechnical report for a high-rise apartment

project proposed by a client, an engineer and

his supervisor plagiarized a report prepared by

another engineering firm for a similar project.

The engineer writing the report in question had

obtained a copy of the report prepared by the

other engineering firm from his supervisor,

who furnished it to him in an effort to assist

him in preparing the report.The engineer liked

the style of writing in that report and decided

to use language from it in his own report.This

language, however, did not relate to or affect

the technical conclusions and recommenda-

tions of the report in question.The time frame

for completing the report was very tight, and

the supervisor, who was listed as a coauthor of

the report, approved it after evaluating the

technical issues but without thoroughly

reviewing the background information.

QUESTION: Did the engineer, his supervi-

sor, or both violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

According to canon 5(e) of the code,“Engi-

neers shall give proper credit for engineering

work to those to whom credit is due,and

shall recognize the proprietary interests of

others. Whenever possible, they shall name

the per-son or persons who may be

responsible for designs, inventions, writings,

or other accom-plishments.”
Plagiarizing, or publishing someone else’s

written work as if it were one’s own, is a vio-

lation of canon 5(e).This is a serious offense,

equivalent to the theft of someone’s property.

DECISION: In this particular case, the CPC—

the body responsible for investigating ethics

complaints against ASCE members and

recommending sanctions, when appropriate, to

the Board of Direction and the Executive

Committee—determined that both the engineer

who authored the report and his supervisor

were in violation of the Code of Ethics. The

fact that the plagiarized material did not relate

to or affect the technical con-clusions or

recommendations of the member is not

relevant to the issue of whether or not the code

was violated. Neither is the fact that the

engineers had little time in which to meet a

deadline. A person simply must not pass off

another’s work as his or her own.The

engineer who authored the report in ques-tion

stated that he considered the language he

appropriated to be verbiage and not a propri-

etary work product.This does not change the

fact that someone else wrote those words.
Because of the seriousness of this offense,

the possible sanctions included expulsion from

the Society. However, in the course of its

investigation of this matter, the CPC did weigh

many of the supporting facts of this case when

determining what to recommend as sanctions

against the engineers. It considered the fact

that, as mentioned above, the plagiarized

material did not relate to or affect the techni-

cal conclusions or recommendations of the

report. The engineers stated that they liked the

style of writing of the other report and were

attempting to adhere to that style, not copy the

proprietary work of the firm that authored the

report. This lack of intent to commit the act

was an important factor in determining what

sanctions were in order, as was the fact that the

engineers took full responsibility for their

actions and took steps to make amends. The

engineers recognized their mistake and sent a

letter of apology to the authors of the original

report.These facts were important in the CPC’s

decision to rec-ommend not that the members

be expelled

but that their memberships be suspended for

one year. Additionally, the CPC reported this

matter to the members’ state licensing board.
This scenario illustrates very well the type of

problems that can arise from a simple act of

carelessness. Not only did the engineers send a

letter of apology;they also lost their bonuses for

that year. This matter brought embarrassment

both to the engineers and to their firm. Engi-

neers, like all professionals, must exercise great

care in practicing their profession and not let

everyday pressures cause them to cut corners or

be careless.These engineers did not set out to

plagiarize the work of their colleagues, yet the

results of their actions affected not only

themselves but also their firm. This case also

highlights the responsibility of a supervisor.

Although the supervisor did not make the

decision to use the language from the other firm’s

report, he was held accountable for that decision

because he approved the report with-out taking

the time to thoroughly review it.

Members who have an ethics question or

who would like to file a complaint with the

CPC may call ASCE’s ethics hotline at (703)

295-6101 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), exten-

sion 6101. This line is staffed by ASCE attor-

neys, who can provide advice on how to

handle an ethics issue or file a complaint.