First off this edition Benjamin Wood at Deseret News reports that, Southern Utah University (SUU) has found itself at the center of a plagiarism scandal after a part-time instructor, Belinda Frost, resigned her position teaching English as a second language (ESL) over what she claims was widespread tolerance for plagiarism in the program. Frost said that she would routinely discipline students for plagiarism only to have the university refuse to take proper action. However, according to Frost, the breaking point came when she accidentally brought home papers graded by another instructor left on her shelf and noticed that the other instructor was passing students who had been caught plagiarizing. SUU has said it is launching an investigation into its ESL program, which it recently took over from an outside company. The other instructor, has been placed on leave pending the investigation but a complaint by that instructor lead the campus police to charge Frost with theft. The controversy, however, has drawn a great deal of attention to the ESL program at SUU and recently the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission has barred Saudi students from entering the program, citing both student complaints and oversaturation of Saudi students in the program. Saudi students, whose tuition is paid by their country’s government, made up 158 of the program’s 182 students.
Analysis: The situation at SUU highlights how serious a plagiarism scandal at a school can become. Even allegations that a school has a relaxed policy on plagiarism can tarnish its reputation quickly, addressing widespread media coverage. On one hand, the school has done a great deal right, bringing in an outside investigator to look at the program and promising to overhaul it completely. However, serious questions linger about how the situation got to the point it did and, to make matters worse, charging Frost with theft, though it was not a move initiated by the school, gives the impression of trying to silence a whistleblower and it deepens the scandal. In the end, it will likely be difficult for the embattled program to survive, even if it is investigated thoroughly and overhauled. Much of the damage is, most likely, already done.
Next up today, Alicia DelGallo at the Central Florida Future, the school newspaper at the University of Central Florida, reports that three of the university’s professors have been investigated by the Federal government over allegations of plagiarism in research proposals they drafted. The investigations were launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and all involved improper citation in the background section of their proposal. The first case involved a professor of optics and physics who submitted similar proposals to three different government agencies. The professor has been barred from receiving federal funds until mid-2013, two years after the case closed in 2011. A professor of nanotechnology was also found guilty in 2011, but was only required to take an ethics course and provide a guarantee that his work the next year was plagiarism-free. The final professor, this one of biotechnology, was found not guilty in his investigation after he said graduate students were responsible for the citation errors. All three of the professors involved are foreign-born, two from India and one from China, raising questions about the role of the school in training international instructors in US research standards. The school has responded to the investigations by sending out a mass email to all faculty saying that the plagiarism checking service iThenticate, which had previously been available as an optional tool, is now being made mandatory on all faculty research.
Analysis: With research budgets shrinking, it’s a natural response for the US government to begin clamping down on duplicative, unethical or wasteful research proposals. This means that the faculty and staff at universities across the nation are going to be under increasing scrutiny and, as schools continue to increase their use for foreign-born professors, the clash between the Federal government research standards and the understanding professors bring with them is going to grow. To combat this, schools need to take many of the techniques, tools and approaches they have used with their students and apply them to their faculty and their research. Even if the problem is less common at the professor level, even a handful of incidents can be a major problem both in terms of the school’s reputation and the school’s ability to earn crucial grants.
In another academic plagiarism scandal, Sara Taguiam of The Star reports that the University of Windsor in Canada has announced that it has suspended its Dean of the Faculty of Education over a plagiarism incident. In a three-sentence statement, the school announced that the recently-suspended dean, Dr. Clinton Beckford, will be placed on an administrative leave and unpaid suspension until June 30, 2014. The school did not provide any details of the incident but did say that they were confident Dr. Beckford would return to work after his suspension was up, though he would not be allowed to return to the same position. A university spokesperson said that the allegations were brought to the school’s attention two months ago and the investigation took place over a number of weeks afterward.
Analysis: When dealing with a plagiarism scandal, transparency is critical. Explaining what the problem is, how it happened, how it was discovered and what is being done about it is the best way to minimize the damage. While we know what is being done about it, namely the lengthy suspension of the dean involved, we have no word as to what brought it about and, given the length of the suspension and that it was handed down after an extended investigation, it’s likely that the plagiarism allegations are very serious. However, without concrete information, those inside and outside the school can only speculate and, unfortunately, speculation on these matters is usually worse than the truth.
In journalism news, Julie Moos at Poynter reports that the Chicago Tribune has announced it will resume working with Journatic, a commercial content provider aimed at large media companies, after a 5-month hiatus. In July, the Tribune ended its relationship with Journatic after it discovered plagiarism and fabrication in a story that the service provided for TribLocal, a hyperlocal news network that focuses on Chicago neighborhoods. It was also revealed that Journatic had used fake bylines for some of its other posts, something that the company’s CEO, Brian Timpone, said was an accident. The Chicago Sun-Times and GateHouse also ended their relationships with Journatic at the same time. Chicago Tribune Media Group President Vince Casanova said that the decision came after the Tribune checked “more than 400 stories” and found no other issues of plagiarism or fabrication. Despite that, Journatic will not be writing any reported stories and will be limited only to listings, including, “Park district programs to village meeting agendas to youth sports scores.” The reports will also go through an independent copy editing process. The workers who were brought into the newsroom to fill the gap of Journatic’s dismissal will continue doing the same work.
Analysis: Newspapers are increasingly turning to freelancers and outside organizations to fill gaps left by shrinking staffs. However, this outsourcing comes with an increased risk of plagiarism and other ethical issues, as the Journatic case points out. These issues can be mitigated by having a separate editing and review process that checks the works of outside contractors carefully for any issues. This is not just a good policy for newspapers and magazines, but also for anyone who publishes content from third parties, in print or online. It’s important to remember that, even though a contractor did the work, it’s still the employers name on the final product and it is their reputation that is on the line.
In book publishing news, Polskie Radio is reporting that a Polish professor and Catholic priest, currently only identified as Stanislaw T., has been accused of plagiarism in a recent book entitled “The Evolution of Polish Church Law Until the 19th Century in the Light of Codification”, which he identified himself as the sole author of. However, a professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow has provided numerous examples where Stanislaw T. has seemingly copied other authors’ works without attribution. Stanislaw T., due to the allegations, is already under unpaid leave from his university, University of Lublin. But what makes the case unusual is that the matter is before a district prosecutor in Lublin and the professor may be facing up to three years in prison for the plagiarism. The reason is that, under Polish copyright law, any misuse of copyrighted work can be punished criminally. In 2008, Catholic Priests in the country were warned against plagiarizing their sermons over similar threats that they might face jail time or fines for the plagiarism. Stanislaw T., however, has steadfastly denied knowingly plagiarizing.
Analysis: We don’t often think of plagiarism as a criminal offense but that’s because the nature of copyright law in the US and most of the EU makes it so that it rarely is. Furthermore, even when an instance of plagiarism may technically qualify for criminal prosecution, prosecutors are generally reluctant to take on something that’s seen as a petty crime but that is likely to require a large amount of resources to argue. This is why plagiarism remains largely an ethical issue though, obviously, in Poland, the matter is treated a bit differently with the law enabling such prosecutions and at least some prosecutors eager to push such cases. As interesting of an idea as that is, community and industry standards can destroy a person’s reputation or career with little hope for recovery, something a prosecutor normally can’t do. That seems to be more than enough power for most cases.
Finally today, Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times reports that, on December 5th, CNBC gave the US debut to a new hour-long special “Faking the Grade”, which takes a look at academic dishonesty in the 21st century. The special takes a look at how technology has affected cheating, including everything from how cell phones make in-test cheating easier to the ease of plagiarizing work on the Internet. It also examines low-tech cheating methods and the special explores the broader causes of cheating in general. The special has drawn some criticism for, in the eyes of some, treating academic dishonesty as if it were a new problem and being alarmist in nature. The special is also airing on the CBC in Canada, having first aired there in November and was produced by Merit Motion Pictures in association with CBC-TV.
Analysis: Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are increasingly becoming topics that attract attention from the mainstream media. Where, previously, these topics received little press, now they are the subject of new reports, addressed in major release movies and, most importantly, routinely become the source of major scandals. Not only does this mean it’s important that your institution, publication or business have safeguards in place to prevent a potential public relations issue around plagiarism, but there’s also a responsibility by those involved in dealing with plagiarism to ensure that the coverage is fair and helpful. As with any topic, poor-quality, biased or inaccurate coverage of plagiarism will do more harm than good and that makes this recent upswing in interest in the topic both a risk and an opportunity for those battling plagiarism day-to-day.