First off in this edition, Kristin Rushowy at The Toronto Star reports that Chris Spence, the now-former Director of Education of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has resigned after a growing plagiarism scandal began to call into question a large percentage of his work. Spence, once heralded as an “inspired choice” for the position, began to run into trouble when it came to light that he had plagiarized passages in a January 5, 2013 op-ed piece for the Toronto Star, plagiarism that was later confirmed by the state’s public editor. On January 9th, Spence offered an apology for the plagiarism and agreed to take a journalism ethics course but, by then, other instances of plagiarism from Spence’s career, including other newspaper columns, blog posts and his doctoral thesis, were coming to light. Spence tenured his resignation the next day. The allegations have led to a plagiarism probe at the University of Toronto, where Spence received his PhD and, more recently, Pembroke Publishers, the publishers behind Spence’s book, “Leading with Passion and Purpose” is also investigating reports of unattributed passages that appear in earlier works. In the meantime, the TDSB has appointed Donna Quan as the acting Director of Education of the district and has said that it has severed all ties with Spence.
Analysis: The Spence cases shows that, not only is it possible to get away with plagiarism, it is very possible to build a successful career on it as well. However, the problem with building a career on plagiarism is that it’s impossible to know when the misdeeds will be discovered and it can all come crashing down. This is a trend we’re seeing of past plagiarisms coming back to bite people years or even decades later, serving as a reminder that a past act of plagiarism is a ghost that can come back at any time. Equally striking in this case is the speed with which the scandal broke, taking less than a week from when the last column was published to Spence’s resignation, indicating the Jonah Lehrer’s “slow motion” downfall may be the exception, not the rule.
Next up today, in a contrasting case, Meghan Hodgin of NJ.com reports that Carolyn R. Koos, the Superintendent of Schools at the Bedminster School District will receive no punishment after two letters on the district's site turned out to be plagiarized from other school districts in the country. The plagiarism was discovered on January 10th when NJ.com reported that a letter posted on the district’s site and signed by Koos was originally written by Theron Shutte, the Superintendent of Schools in Bettendorf, IA. Koos had claimed to have received permission from Shutte to use the letter though Shutte claims to have not heard from Koos until after the letter was posted. At the same time, another letter on the school’s site was adjusted after it was learned that it contained material from from a Santa Clara school district’s “School Days” publication in 2011. Despite the allegations and an investigation by the school board, the district will not be taking any action against Koos. The president of the school board, Louis Casellla, has said the board is “satisfied that she understands her mistake and will not repeat it.”
Analysis: The contrast between this case and the Spence case is striking. Where Spence was deeply investigated and eventually forced to resign over his plagiarism issues, Koos seems likely to have no action taken against her. Part of this is likely because Koos is less of a public figure that Spence, who was the head of the Canada’s largest school district. In Spence’s case, it was newspapers in the country took over the investigation and found most of the questionable passages. Still, the plagiarism and the weak response to it raises serious and difficult questions about how plagiarism is treated inside Bedminster’s school district and the allegations can negatively impact the reputation of the schools both in the district and throughout the state. Immediately though, it’s important for officials at school districts to understand that their public roles can have a deep impact on their students and they need to follow all of the best practices in academic and journalistic integrity.
Next up today, Alexander C. Kaufman at The Wrap writes that the Washington Post has suspended the chief of their Mexico bureau, William Booth, after it was discovered he plagiarized four sentences from an academic journal. Booth, who was writing about the expansion of the Panama Canal, took the passages from the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and failed to attribute the source. Booth himself described the plagiarism as a “very serious lapse” but emphasized that it was not intentional, calling it instead a “sloppy mistake”. The Booth case is the second time in a year that the Washington Post has come under fire for plagiarism, the previous involving reporter Elizabeth Flock, who resigned after it was discovered she had plagiarized passages from a Discovery News piece about life on Mars. The paper’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, has been very critical of the paper in both cases, warning that the paper has inadequate guidelines on the use of outside sources and almost no training and mentoring of young reporters. However, according to the paper, Booth will not be fired for the transgression and, instead, will be suspended without pay for three months and allowed to return.
Analysis: The response by the Washington Post was, without a doubt, swift and severe. Though Booth wasn’t fired, a three month suspension without pay for a few confirmed lines lifted is fairly severe, especially compared to Fareed Zakaria, who plagiarized a similar amount in a column and was only sidelined for a week. However, the strong reaction by the Post was the best thing for both the newspaper, already in the spotlight for plagiarism issues, and possibly Booth himself. As the Margaret Wente scandal showed, a weak response by a newspaper can give the impression of protecting a reporter and that can make the cloud of the plagiarism hang much longer than it should. This gives Booth the chance to return to work in three months with the scandal largely behind him.
In the academic and research arena, CTV News reports that University of Waterloo professor Dongqing Li and a PhD student have been found guilty of plagiarism following an investigation by the school. Li, who teaches mechanical and mechatronics engineering, published the plagiarized paper in the journal “Microfluidics and Nanofluidics”, which is a journal that Li was the highest editor on and remains on the editorial board for. The university has announced that Li will be suspended without pay for four months beginning April 1st and will not have access to the school’s equipment and resources during that time. Li will also be stripped of his duties during that period, including the supervision of graduate students. Li has been one of the biggest grant-winners at the school, having been received some $2 million in grants previously and having been promised another $700,000 worth. Due to privacy regulations, it is not known what punishment was handed down on the student.
Analysis: What makes the case striking is that Li published the paper in his own journal, raising serious questions about the ethics of self-publishing papers and what guidelines one should follow when seeking to do so. Given the tight niche many journals and researchers are working in, it’s natural that some will want or need to self-publish papers, but guidelines on doing so are sparse and inconsistent. As journals diversify and target smaller and smaller niches, these issues are going to grow in importance and relevance, making it important for journals to address the issue now with a clear policy that’s both public and followed closely.
Next up, in an update to a story we previously covered in CTRL+V, Lindsay Whitehurst the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Southern Utah University has completed its audit of its English as a Second Language program and found that, while the program was flawed, plagiarism was not the norm as some perceived. The audit was brought about after Belinda Frost, a former instructor, alleged that the program routinely passed students who had been caught plagiarizing. She made the allegations after she accidentally took home papers belonging to another instructor in the program, Nina Hansen, and found that she had passed students who had plagiarized in the papers. Hansen charged Frost with plagiarism of the papers but those charges have since been dropped. Hansen was also suspended over the allegations but has since been reinstated. The audit, which was performed by professors from Utah State University, found that the program had serious issues, including students being passed largely on attendance and instructors providing inadequate guidance on the use of outside sources, but they failed to find any evidence that the program had a widespread plagiarism problem. As part of the audit, the professors conducted 20-minute interviews with eight teachers, half of the program’s staff, as well as with four students and other officials at the program and school.
Analysis: Regardless of the effectiveness of the audit and its findings, the spectre of plagiarism is likely to hang over SUU’s ESL program for a long time. Even if the school is able to perform a revamp of it and address the issues the audit highlighted, the reputation of the program may have been marred beyond repair by the very public, and at times very ugly, battle. Given that the Kuwaiti government, the organization that sent and paid for most of program’s students, has backed away from it, the school is going to face some great challenges in trying to revamp and restart the program in the coming months.
Finally, in copyright news, Lucy Shaw at The Drinks Business writes that the US wine magazine Palate Press has accused well-known wine critic Natalie MacLean of copyright infringement. Maclean publishes a subscription wine newsletter that reaches over 145,000 members. As part of that newsletter, Maclean includes both her reviews and reviews by other wine experts that are routinely attributed to the “Vintages Wine Catalogue”, which is a publication of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario that prints fully-accredited reviews. Palate Press, whose reviews have appeared in Maclean’s publication repeatedly, said that the inclusion was copyright infringing and a violation of “journalistic ethics”. Maclean replied on Palate’s website saying that she was in the process of adding the information, including names and publications, beside the quotes she used. Palate also contacted other wine writers who had been featured and none said that they had given permission. One author, Jancis Robinson, demanded that Maclean remove reviews from her site immediately, citing the lack of attribution as being especially egregious.
Analysis: When it comes to copyright, attribution may not make a great deal of difference as to whether or not a copy is an infringement. Most infringements are just as infringing when they are properly cited as when they are not. However, it often makes a great deal of difference as to how people react to an infringement. Creators are much more likely to get upset about an unattributed plagiarized use of their work than they are an attributed one, making them much more likely to take legal and other action. It’s unclear if these authors would have reacted so strongly if the reviews had been properly attributed, but it seems like given that the attributed reviews had been featured in the “Vintages Wine Catalogue” publication without incident.