Don't miss a special, 1-hour online event next Thursday, November 1st:
"What's Mine is Mine": Self-plagiarism, Ownership & Author Responsibility -- featuring Kelly McBride from Poynter, Rachael Lammey from CrossRef and Jonathan Bailey from Plagiarism Today. Register today, free
First off today, Reuters is reporting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered at least limited support for one of her ministers who is facing allegations of plagiarism. Earlier this month, Der Spiegel magazine reported that an examination of Annette Schavan’s doctoral thesis,had count indications of a “plagiaristic approach” on 60 of the 351 pages. Schavan is the country’s Education Minister. The examination was performed by the University of Dusseldorf, Schavan’s alma mater, at her request in a bid to silence allegations of plagiarism that have been circulating since May. Schavan has strongly denied the allegations and said that she plans on responding to the report as soon as she sees it. For Merkel, this is the second Minister this term to face allegations of plagiarism. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to resign in March of last year after it was revealed he had plagiarized much of his doctoral thesis. Merkel had originally stood by Guttenberg but as the plagiarism allegations began to mount, she distanced herself from him. Though Merkel’s support of Schavan was more tepid than her earlier support of Guttenberg, she indicated that she has “full confidence” in her.
Analysis: Plagiarism, in particular of doctoral theses, has been a hot topic in Germany in recent months. This interest has been largely spearheaded by the VroniPlag Wiki, which sprang up to crowdsource the discovery of plagiarism and draw attention to suspected cases. The wiki and its members have been successful in getting doctorates rescinded of many prominent German politicians. It seems that the movement to root out plagiarism is not dying down and, if anything, is growing in strength and intensity making Germany an especially dangerous place to be a prominent plagiarist.
Next up, Margaret Murno of Postmedia News reports that Stephen Matthews, a researcher at the University of Toronto, has been censured for “self-plagiarism” and “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system.” According to a retraction in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Matthews and two colleagues at the university reused text from five other reports they had worked on in a 2005 paper they submitted to the journal. A representative for the university said the issue was detected by software used by the journal’s editors. The projects the report was on received more than $10 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The agencies and the university, however, are not commenting on if they are treating the case as a matter of research misconduct.
Analysis: Self plagiarism and duplicative publication remain some of the more controversial and difficult aspects of academic misconduct. Because there is widespread debate about the ethics of self-plagiarism, with many believing it isn’t an issue at all, detection and enforcement of self-plagiarism is much more challenging. Meanwhile, as this case shows, millions are being spent on duplicate reports and projects, diverting funds away from research that could be breaking new ground and expanding human understanding.
Also this month, Deakin University, a college in Victoria, Australia, announced that it had expelled 9 international students over plagiarism allegations in a group plagiarism assignment late last year. In all, the school’s Business and Law college investigated about 100 students over the assignment and had lodged formal allegations of misconduct against 30 of them. The university declined to say what had happened to the other 21, citing privacy concerns. The 9 expelled students will, most likely, have their academic visas revoked but that process takes time and the students may be able to register at different schools before it takes effect. A follow up report found that, so far, there had been no findings of plagiarism this year. After the investigation, the school launched an education campaign on academic integrity and the increased use of plagiarism detection software.
Analysis: Deakin is not the first university to have been caught up in a large-scale plagiarism scandal this year. A recent plagiarism probe at Harvard involved 125 students who were accused of collaborating inappropriately on a take home exam. These mass collaborations with students are almost certainly not new but what has changed is both the willingness of universities to aggressively go after these cases and to do so publicly. Still, as this article points out, many cases of plagiarism, especially among international students, still go unreported for many reasons, though a more open atmosphere to talking about plagiarism can help both prevent plagiarism and help deal with cases as they arise.
In the United States, Dan Kane of the News and Observer reports that the football team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is finding itself embroiled in another academic dishonesty controversy involving plagiarism. The football team is already on a one-year bowl suspension following an academic dishonesty scandal involving the African and Afro-American Studies Department, which gave players credit for classes that never took place. The latest one involves a senior wide receiver, Erik Highsmith, who allegedly plagiarized blog posts for an assignment in a communications class. However, what makes Highsmith’s case a particularly embarrassing to the college is that one of the posts he plagiarized was taken in part from a website written by 11-year-olds for their peers. It is unclear what grade Highsmith received in the class, but the classes instructor, J. Nikol Beckham, said that she gave Highsmith a zero for the assignment. Allegations of plagiarism helped open up the original scandal in 2009 after it was revealed that former defensive end Michael McAdoo had plagiarized a paper submitted for a Swahili language class that was found to be a no-show class.
Analysis: There is a perception among many students, and the general public, that athletes at universities are given preferential treatment over other students due to their high profile status. Whether this perception is accurate or not, it makes it important that athletes be held to the same academic standards as other students, including for plagiarism and other forms of dishonesty. Failure to do so can create scandals like the one at UNC, which can put the entire school and all of its students in a very bad light.
In other news, Maria Elena Baca at the Star Tribune reports that a Minnesota school board member has been censured by the rest of his board over plagiarism discovered in a column he wrote for The Courier, a monthly publication delivered to residents in his district. The case against the member, Matt Rustad, began when a student journalist noticed similarities between Rustad’s column, which was about paperless schools, and an earlier comment on a blog comment from a New Mexico specialist on the topic. The school board, voted unanimously to censure Rustad. This included Rustad himself who both made the motion and voted in favor of censure as a way of admitting his “mistake”. However, other, school board members were not as charitable saying that the reuse of content went well beyond simple error and many wondered if censure was an adequate response.
Analysis: Those who sit on school boards and other elected/appointed positions related to education are in a strange position on matters of academic integrity. Often times, they are not academics themselves and, as Rustad claims, may not have had much in the way of formal training on academic integrity. Yet, their titles put them in a position of being a representative of their schools, making it important that they follow their work and live up to the standards of their field. This makes it crucial that school districts, universities and other education institutions more closely monitor and address issues with the work of their officials, even if that can be very difficult to do.
Also, as other plagiarism scandals come to light, another seems to be reaching its close. Roy Gleenslade at The Guardian reports that Margaret Wente, the Globe & Mail columnist has returned to work for the paper after her column was put on hiatus following allegations of plagiarism. Wente became the center of a plagiarism storm following allegations that she had plagiarized or inadequately cited material in a 2009 column. Initially, the Globe and Mail’s response was seen as an attempt to cover up the allegations, prompting a public outcry, but the paper did eventually put her column on hold while they investigated the matter more deeply. However, Wente recently returned to work after posting a third public apology for “careless mistakes”. Most of the comments to her column we positive, welcoming her back, but there were many who continued to criticize the controversial columnist, who is known for being a staunch conservative.
Analysis: Wente proves that a plagiarism allegation by itself is not a death knell for the career of a journalist. Despite the paper’s questionable response to the issue, Wente was able to survive more intense scrutiny and show that the case was, most likely, an isolated incident. As such, though it will be a black mark on her reputation and her legacy, it won’t be what ends it. In this regard, the Wente case is similar to that of Fareed Zakaria in the U.S., who faced similar plagiarism allegations but has since been allowed to return to work after an investigation showed the act to be not a systemic problem.
Finally today, Alexandra Tilsley of Inside Higher Ed reports that Michael Lissack and his colleagues Alicia Juarrero and Carl Rubino are accusing Terrence Deacon, the chair of Berkeley’s anthropology department, of plagiarizing an earlier book by Juarrero and Rubino. According to the trio, Deacon either plagiarized ideas from Juarrero and Rubino’s book or failed to perform an adequate literature search on them. Deacon denies the allegations and has said that he was unaware of the other material. But what makes the case unusual is not the allegation but the way it is being pursued. Lissack and his colleagues have taken the case public, even setting up a website to publicize their allegations. This pressure has prompted Berkeley to investigate the matter though the school made it clear its decision to investigate is to “clear the air” and not because the trio presented what the school considers adequate evidence. Lissack, however, has a history of going public with allegations of unethical behavior. In the 90s, Lissack rose to prominence as a Wall Street whistleblower who publicized accusations that Smith Barney had been earning illegal profits at the from municipal governments and the Federal government. However, Berkeley’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, Robert Price, said that this is the first time he’s seen this kind of campaign to deal with a plagiarism or other research misconduct allegation.
Analysis: With the Internet making it trivial or anyone to publicize any allegation of plagiarism or other unethical behavior, it will be more and more difficult to ensure confidentiality of such proceedings. Universities, journals and other investigative bodies need to accept that the process of dealing with ethical violations will become an increasingly public affair with more and more of the battle being waged in the court of public opinion rather than the traditional review process.