First off today, Kristin Rushowy at the Toronto Star reports that Margaret Wente, who writes a 3 times-per-week column for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s biggest newspapers, has been disciplined for plagiarism. The allegations were first brought to the surface by blogger and University of Ottawa visual arts professor Carol Wainio, who, in her blog, wrote about uncited passages in a 2009 column by Wente entitled, “Enviro-romanticism is Hurting Africa.” The public editor for The Globe and Mail, Sylvia Stead, performed an initial investigation and responded to the allegations by placing a footnote on the article acknowledging that some of the paraphrased material was “not always clearly identified.” However, the response brought an outcry from the public and from other journalists, which blasted it for being too soft. This prompted a second follow-up from the paper, which announced it had “disciplined” Wente for the act, but kept the nature of that discipline secret.
Analysis: The allegations against Wente, which focus on a few poorly-cited and uncited passages from a three-year-old column, are not that serious by themselves. However, the newspaper’s response to the allegations gave the impression of a coverup and an attempt to protect their columnist rather than to learn the truth. This sparked outrage against Wente, who was already a lightning rod due to the political nature of her column. This means that the scandal is likely to drag on for some time, regardless of whether or not Wente is a serial plagiarist. This puts the Wente scandal in stark contrast to the Fareed Zakaria one, which has already faded from the spotlight.
However, even as Wente’s scandal has been dominating the headlines, Andrew Beajon of Poynter reports that another author is still working on the Jonah Lehrer scandal, finding still more evidence of plagiarism and other unethical behavior. After reading an article about Lehrer, Greg Beato, a columnist for Reason Magazine, decided to investigate the matter deeper. Beato discovered that Lehrer had used quotes from an earlier article that Beato had written for a now-defunct magazine named The Rake. Quotes from Beato’s article, which featured an interview with the inventor of Post-It notes, were used in the book without citation. Beato also found a sentence ripped from a Boston Globe account of Super Bowl XXXVI and other misrepresentations and factual errors. Lehrer, through his agent, said he had “no memory” of reading Beato’s article.
Analysis: It’s clear that the Jonah Lehrer scandal had a very strong impact on journalists and readers alike. Even though his reputation is thoroughly destroyed and he is no longer able to write anywhere, people are still tearing through his work, seeking out more unethical behavior. Though there is some waning of the interest in Lehrer, clearly many are still intrigued by or upset with the case and there’s still plenty of motivation to cause some to dig deeper.
In academia news, Brianda Reyes of the Amherst Student, reported that former Amherst professor Carleen Basler resigned from the college after admitting that some of her previously published material contained uncited and improperly cited passages. The material was discovered as her colleagues at the university began to review her previous work as part of the process for considering her for tenure. It was during that review that other faculty members began to notice “irregularities” in her work and raised the issue with the Dean of Faculty at the school. An investigation was initiated and, after several meetings, Basler decided to voluntarily resign. The nature of the plagiarism, however, did not indicate that her research was flawed or plagiarized, but that Basler had used at least some passages from earlier published works verbatim to help provide context. This, according to another professor at the school that worked on the investigation, occurred “Fairly frequently” in Basler’s writing. The allegations of plagiarism in Basler’s writing go back to her dissertation, which she wrote at Yale University to earn the Ph.D. she received there. Yale is now conducting its own investigation before making any decisions about what, if any, action to take regarding her degree.
Analysis: The tale of the plagiarist being caught years after having committed the act is becoming more and more common due to improved technology. However, Basler’s plagiarism and resignation hasn’t just hurt her career, but also the students she was teaching, who held her in high esteem, and her university. The faculty who investigated the allegations said that it appeared she plagiarized more out of a discomfort with her writing than to deceive, further highlighting the importance of providing writing assistance in academic environments and encouraging students and faculty alike to use them if they have any concerns.
In an update to another academic plagiarism scandal, Mercer Cook and Rebecca Robbins of the Harvard Crimson report that new information has become available about the plagiarism scandal that has rocked that college. The school announced on August 30th that it was investigating some 125 undergraduate students for suspected cheating on a take home exam. The group made up nearly half of an “Introduction to Congress” class that had assigned the test. According to a letter stamped “Confidential”, the investigation got its start after assistant professor Matthew B. Platt began to notice a series of similarities in the tests. This included shared phrases between the exams and a recurring typo, similar wrong answers and an extra space in the number 22,500 in two exams. Originally, just 13 exams were deemed suspicious but, after more detailed investigation began, that number rose to 125. The suspected students include the captain of the men’s basketball team, who has been sidelined, and members of the football team. All of the students are being given hearings before the Administrative Board and the results of those hearings will remain private.
Analysis: As powerful as originality detection software is, most plagiarism is still detected through intuition and thorough reading. While technology can help detect and investigate allegations of plagiarism, they are only as good as they are being used and they are no substitute for attentive readers and human judgment.
Next up, Elizabeth Pain of Science Magazine reports that, in Romania, a boycott by many of the nation’s prominent scientists has renewed the debate over whether that nation’s Prime Minister plagiarized to obtain his degree. Romania, like many nations, has a large number of scientists that work and live abroad. The country holds a biannual meeting for them, the latest to be held at the official palace of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. However, earlier this summer allegations of plagiarism were levied against Ponta by many of his critics, who accused him of having copied large chunks of his thesis without citation. Ponta, however, has strongly denied the allegations. Though one committee declared the thesis to have followed academic regulations of the time, two others, including the ethics committee at the University of Bucharest, where Ponta received his degree, concluded that the thesis was not cited correctly. The scientists have said they do not wish to attend the meeting, lest it be mistaken for an endorsement of Ponta.
Analysis: When leaders, such as Ponta, are accused of plagiarism, it can hurt an entire nation. Romania, as a country, is struggling to improve its education system and the opportunities it provides for its graduates. However, as the boycott shows, such scandals can actively thwart those efforts, not just by harming the country’s reputation in academics, but also by helping to push away the best and brightest in the country and discourage them from returning.
In research news, Alok Jha at The Guardian writes that a recent meta analysis by Daniele Fanelli at the University of Edinburgh finds nearly 2% of all scientists have admitted to fabricating, falsifying or modifying data at least once and over a third have admitted to other questionable research practices. This comes after a report in the journal Nature, which found that published retractions have increased approximately 1,200% in the past decade though the number of published papers have only risen about 44%. The increase in retractions and ethical issues have caused a wide range of problems, including cancer patients getting incorrect treatments due to a flawed study, wasted efforts by other researchers attempting to replicate bad results and even doubts raised about the future of the field of entire fields of study due to plagiarism and fabrication issues. The blame for the rise is spread out across many factors, including the increased availability of tools to detect plagiarism, decreased government budgets for research, increased competition to publish and publishing system that favors new and novel studies over attempts to replicate results.
Analysis: Plagiarism, fabrication and other forms of research misconduct are poison to the entire scientific process. Most good research is built, in some way, on the research of others and if that work turns out to be flawed, it’s impossible to have a good foundation to go to the next step. Though technology can help a great deal, dealing with these issues, especially when one considers how pervasive they have become, is going to involve a cultural shift in academia in academic publishing. The entire field has to get away from a structure that can, unwittingly, reward bad research if it ever hopes to stop such unethical behavior.
Finally today, Priya Joshi from Digital Spy writes that, in India, the director of the movie Barfi!, Anurag Basu, is defending his movie against allegations of plagiarism. The film, which features several scenes that closely mirror sequences from Singin’ in the Rain, Project A, The Notebook and has music that appears to be influenced by Amelie, is also India’s official entry to the Oscars. Basu has responded to the critics saying, in part, “I did shot-to-shot because they are famous iconic shots and scenes from famous masterpieces.” Basu went on to describe the parallels as homages, not plagiarisms. The chair of India’s Oscar selection committee, Manju Borah, defended the selection saying that “every filmmaker is inspired by some cinema.” The film has been both a critical and a box office success in India, earning approximately $18 million.
Analysis: When it comes to art, the line between homage and plagiarism is often gray. In many cases, when you pay homage to something, you can’t directly attribute it and, instead, you intend the attribution by including something from it in your new creation. As the case with Barfi! shows, the difference isn’t always clear with some people viewing the work as a rip off and others as an original masterpiece.