First off in this edition, Craig Silverman at Poynter reports that Jonah Lehrer, best known for his plagiarism and fabrication scandal that ended his once-promising science journalism career, gave a speech at an event hosted by the Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to promote innovation in journalism. It was the first speech Lehrer gave since news about his ethical violations broken and his first comments at any length about his actions. However, his speech was widely panned by those who viewed it, both at the event and on the Internet where it was streamed and recorded. Lehrer did not offer a full retelling of his misdeeds and, instead, said that he tried to find the causes of his ethical lapses only to decide that the reasons he came up with were just “excuses”. He then said, if he were allowed to write again, would adopt “Standard Operating Procedures”, similar to those employed by the FBI to prevent mistakes. Controversy around the speech became even more intense when it was learned that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer a $20,000 honorarium to speak at the event, eventually leading the organization to apologize for the move.
Analysis: It’s very easy to track Jonah Lehrer’s responses to the allegations side-by-side with the responses that Jayson Blair gave to his scandal in 2003. In 2004, about a year after Blair resigned, he published a book on the scandal, one where he not only attempted to minimize the extent of his misdeeds and blame them on outside factors, but he was also paid heavily for it. Lehrer too is at that point. One where he is willing to cash in on his infamy, but not yet willing to really face what happened and why. However, where Blair had no intentions of working in journalism again, Lehrer seems to be making an effort to set himself up with another writing career. Still, the major controversy over the speech deals with the money Lehrer was paid. Many felt that this was tantamount to rewarding a plagiarist, especially offensive at a time when so many ethical journalists are out of work. Though the Knight Foundation did not see it that way initially, their belated apology highlights that journalists like Lehrer caught in ethics violations stir up strong emotions, especially among others in the field, making them risky work associates.
Next up today, the CBC reports that Germany’s now-former Education Minister, Annette Schavan, has resigned her position in the country’s cabinet after her alma mater, Heinrich Heine University, revoked her Ph.D following an investigation into her dissertation that found evidence of plagiarism. Initially, Schavan remained resolved to stay in her position and said she had planned to file a legal challenge to the revocation. However, after a few days, she decided to step down from the Cabinet-level post and has since been replaced by Johanna Wanka. Schavan was a critical player in a 2011 plagiarism scandal that resulted in the resignation of Defense Minister Kari-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who had also been accused of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis and resigned. Schavan was critical of Guttenberg during his scandal despite being political allies. After the allegations against Schavan were first brought to light, Schavan herself called on her university to investigate the matter though the panel ended up voting 12-2 to revoke her degree.
Analysis: Though the comparisons between Schavan’s case and Guttenberg’s are understandable, the two cases from a plagiarism standpoint are very different. Schavan is accused of rewriting content from secondary sources to make it appear she read the primary one while Guttenberg is accused, mostly, of verbatim plagiarism. This has led many to believe that Schavan’s resignation has as much to do with politics as plagiarism as elections in the country are coming up in September. Though the scandal isn’t expected to harm Chancellor Angela Merkel, who appointed both Schavan and Guttenberg, a smaller party allied with Merkel to form a coalition government is in danger not not being re-elected into Parliament, possibly forcing Merkel to seek new allies and making the threat of a distraction like Schavan’s scandal potentially very serious.
Next up today, The Moscow Times is reporting that, in Russia, Vladimir Zhirlnovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, has petitioned the country’s top investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, to launch an inquiry into State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov over allegations of libel. Ponomaryov accused Zhirlnovsky of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Zhirlnovsky denies this saying that he has written “hundreds of thousands” of pages that prove his innocence. Interestingly, both men face potential criminal charges in this affair as Zhirlnovsky’s plagiarism is considered fraud and could get him two years in prison and libel is also a criminal offense in Russia (as compared to the U.S. where it is a civil matter only) and is punishable by 480 hours of community service and a large fine. However, Zhirlovsky is not the only prominent Russian politician facing allegations of plagiarism. Another State Duma deputy, Rishat Abubakirov, is also accused of copying much of his dissertation without attribution. In Abubakirov’s case, the allegations come primarily from Dohzd TV, which quoted bloggers saying that approximately 45% of Abubakirov’s 2009 dissertation was plagiarized. Several other Duma members have also faced plagiarism allegations in recent months including Vladimir Burmatov, Nikolai Bulayev and Tatyana Alekseyeva, and Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
Analysis: The trend of politicians having their dissertations scrutinized by the public for plagiarism may have started in Germany, but it seems to have worked its way eastward and now is common in Hungary, Romania and Russia. This is causing a serious problem in these countries, some of which were seen as being relatively tolerant of plagiarism until much more recently. This is resulting in many politicians who earned degrees during a different era are having their dissertations looked at in a modern light and the results are often not pretty. In Russia the challenge has been especially great. Russians, like Germans, generally favor politicians with Ph.Ds and other higher degrees. This puts pressure on politicians to obtain them if they want to hold high office but, for much of the country’s recent history, Russia had a more communal approach to education and research, which was more tolerant of some forms of plagiarism. In direct response to the spate of plagiarism allegations, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev has called for a major campaign to combat plagiarism. However, it’s unclear how this campaign will help politicians who already have their Ph.Ds and may be sitting on a scandal waiting to happen.
In other plagiarism news from Russia, United Press International reports that the Higher Attestation Commission, a Russian academic authority, has stripped some 11 people of Ph.Ds that the group says were handed out by a network that turned out fake degrees. All 11 of the former Ph.Ds had defended their dissertation at Moscow State Pedagogic University between 2007 and 2012. The commission looked at some 25 dissertations from that time and found evidence of ethical violations, including plagiarism in 24. The most notable person in the 11 is Andrei Andriyanov, a prominent member of the ruling United Russia party. Andriyanov was appointed to the head of Kolmogorov School, a respected Moscow school for mathematics, and came under scrutiny when bloggers challenged his qualifications. Andriyanov denied the allegations but resigned from the Kolmogorov School shortly after the allegations came to light. The decisions has been approved by the Education and Science Ministry in the country and is considered final.
Analysis: Russia is a country that, like most members of the former Soviet Bloc, struggles to establish a positive academic reputation. Globally many still see Russia as a place where plagiarism is rampant, tolerated and even encouraged. However, Russia in recent months has been working to turn the tide. While these types of scandals certainly don’t help the country’s reputation in the short run, they’re the first steps to rooting out the key problems and building a new image. Unfortunately, Russia faces many challenges in trying to root out plagiarism and the perception of plagiarism from its academic community. However, strong action such as this is certainly a good start.
Next up today, MSN Entertainment is reporting that James Cameron, the director and author of the 2009 blockbuster “Avatar”, has been ordered by a court to hand over draft screenplays he had written for the movie as part of a lawsuit that accuses Cameron of plagiarism and copyright infringement. According to Eric Ryder, who worked for Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment Inc. production company, elements of the movie were taken from a script he had pitched entitled “K.R.Z. 2068” and, as a result, Ryder is demanding a portion of the profits from the movie. Cameron says that Avatar had been in the works a full five years before Ryder pitched his idea. This lawsuit is just one of several that have made such claims against Cameron. However, all but this one have been dismissed. In Ryder’s case, however, he is able to prove a relationship with Cameron and has at least some proof that Cameron heard his idea, giving the case a reason to move forward.
Analysis: Lawsuits such as this one are very common in every media industry. Whether it’s movies, books or music, every time a work becomes commercially successful, at least a few people try to claim that it ripped off their idea. However, these lawsuits are almost never successful. First, it is nearly impossible to prove that any plagiarism took place. Proving that an element was copied from a specific source and wasn’t either a matter of independent creation or copying from elsewhere is always difficult, even when true. More importantly though, even if some form of plagiarism did exist, they don’t always rise to the level of copyright infringement. Though plagiarism and copyright have a great deal of overlap, a plagiarism of ideas and concepts does not amount to copyright infringement and that is what most of these lawsuits are about. In truth, many of these lawsuits are filed either in hopes of obtaining a quick settlement or gaining publicity. Most who sue realize that their lawsuit has little chance of succeeding.
Finally today, Connor Simpson at The Atlantic Wire reports that Harvard has released it’s much-anticipated discipline report following a scandal that resulted in 125 students being accused of plagiarism in an Intro to Congress class. The students were accused of plagiarizing a take home exam in the class, one that allowed independent research but forbade collusion. Those students were brought individually before the Administrative Board to have their cases evaluated. The results were that approximately half of the students were ordered to withdraw from the school, a quarter were given a warning with a note in their record and the remainder received no action. However, for the approximately 60 who were ordered to withdraw, returning to school will not be so simple as their return is dependent upon them holding a “full-time, paid, non-academic job in a non-family situation,” for at least six months. However, many of the students accused are already no longer at the school. At least some students withdrew during the investigation out of fear that they could be asked to withdraw at any time, rendering their ongoing work and tuition worthless.
Analysis: Though Harvard’s punishment requiring students to obtain and hold a job for six months is giving Internet commentators some chuckles, Harvard’s message is clear: We only want students with a strong work ethic. However, strong and unorthodox action from Harvard was likely inevitable. The case itself was without precedent. To have a case of this magnitude at one of the nation’s most prominent schools is unheard of. Harvard could not simply respond to this as if it were another case of a student cheating as the reputation of the entire school was on the line. Harvard’s punishment is unusual, but it makes sense in that context. However, the punishment does not answer other questions being addressed to the school including allegations that the course itself was well known for having a relaxed approach to ethics and that many students were confused about the requirements of the test. Despite those additional challenges, Harvard took a major first step in repairing its bruised reputation. If it can take the scandal as a learning experience and improve its programs for preventing and dealing with unethical student behavior, the school could become much stronger for the ordeal.