First off today, The BBC is reporting that France’s Grand Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, has resigned his post amid a scandal that has him not only facing allegations of plagiarism but also allegations of lying on his resume. The scandal began in early April when Bernheim was forced to admit that his book, “Quarante Méditations Juives” (Forty Jewish Meditations), contained several plagiarized passages in it. However, Bernheim, who also had to admit to lying about his educational qualifications, refused to resign from his post, saying that to do so would be a dereliction of duty. He also claimed that the plagiarism was from an assistant or ghostwriter that helped him compile the work. However, the scandal refused to die down. Eventually, members of the Central Consistory of France, the governing body for Jewish organizations, held an emergency meeting in Paris, during which he resigned. According to the Consistory, Bernheim recognized his faults, offered apologies and gave explanations. Prior to his appointment to the position of Grand Rabbi in 2009, Bernheim was rabbi at the largest synagogue in Paris.
Analysis: Bernheim’s story is all-too-familiar. A person with a great deal of promise rises to an important position, one where many others depend upon and look up to him, only to have their trust broken as their star is dragged through a prolonged plagiarism scandal that harms the entire organization. Whether it’s cabinet members in Germany, superintendents at school districts or leaders in religious or social organizations, these incidents damage not just the careers of the individuals caught up in the scandals, but also the organizations and the people they represent. In these cases, the plagiarism doesn’t just endanger the career of the plagiarist, rather, it endangers the causes that he or she supports and, perhaps most importantly, the people who trusted the plagiarist in the first place. It’s easy to look at plagiarism as a purely selfish crime, an individual looking to further their career and are willing to risk their reputation to do so. However, that view ignores the broader damage and disgrace that many plagiarists can cause, spreading the risk of the plagiarism to every person who supported them while reaping all of the potential rewards. Hopefully, Bernheim will offer an apology not just to the Central Consistory but to all of the people that looked up to him and were represented by him. Such scandals provide a distraction, bring bad press and generally hurt the reputation of organizations that many count on.
Next up, Erica L. Green and Yvonne Wenger at The Baltimore Sun report that Towson professor Benjamin A. Neil is facing allegations of widespread plagiarism in papers that he has published. According to reports, plagiarism has been detected in many of Neil’s papers but what has raised the most eyebrows is that at least one of the papers, which has since been retracted, was in a journal on business ethics. Neil himself was the chair of the Baltimore City Schools ethics board, a position he held since July 2012. He recently resigned that position saying that, while he wasn’t worried about the allegations, he felt that they would be a distraction. The allegations came to light when Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, alerted Towson to uncited passages in Neil’s works. An analysis done by The Baltimore Sun found unattributed passages in at least 5 of Neil’s papers. Neil, however, is dismissive of the allegations. Both he and his attorney agree that the allegations are signs of “inadvertence at worst” and that Neil did nothing maliciously wrong. Neil has said he will cooperate with the investigation.
Analysis: Neil, both as an academic publishing in the field of ethics and as the chair of the ethics committee, has a higher standard to his work than even other researchers. If anyone should be closely following the rules of ethics in publishing, including plagiarism, it would be him. For Neil to dismiss the uncited passages as being mere accidents or mistakes, belies his role as an expert in this area. Neil is not a freshman unfamiliar with the rules of citation but a researcher who publishes papers on ethics and (now former) chair of his school’s ethics committee. Pleading ignorance or carelessness simply does not work, especially given that the plagiarism is spread across so many papers. Though Neil says he will cooperate with the investigation and doesn’t fear the charges, his dismissiveness and oversimplification doesn’t give the appearance of cooperation. Instead, it gives the appearance that he is trying trivialize the findings and understate the importance of his role in this. Simply put, researchers and professors that have prominent roles in the ethics field have to serve as examples to others in academia. If other researchers can not excuse plagiarism as being “inadvertent”, then certainly someone in Neil’s position can’t either. Hopefully Towson will investigate the claims thoroughly, determine the full nature of Neil’s actions and, in the end, respond appropriately.
Also today, Chloe Fedio at the Ottawa Citizen reports that Veldon Coburn, a PhD candidate, is suing, J. Kevin Barlow, the former head of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) over alleged plagiarism. According to Coburn, in 2005 he worked for CAAN and was approached by Barlow for work on a side project, namely a grant proposal to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) on the subject of health issues among residential school survivors in prison. Coburn claims he worked approximately 100 hours on the project on the understanding that, if the project were funded, he would be remunerated. However, while doing research for his dissertation, Coburn discovered an academic paper that was based on that research and writing but only carrying Barlow’s name. Coburn claims he was unaware that the project had been funded and that he has not been paid for his work. This prompted Coburn to sue for copyright infringement. Barlow and the CAAN do not deny that Coburn’s work was used in the research, but they do claim the legal issues have no merit, saying that there was no infringement and that the matter was part of an earlier settlement on harassment Coburn claims to have received while at CAAN. In his lawsuit, Coburn is seeking $25,000 in damages plus legal fees.
Analysis: Legally, much of this case comes down to a contract issue between Coburn and Barlow. Coburn claims he didn’t sign away any rights and was never intended to be a ghostwriter, but the matter will be one for the court to decide. However, ethically the case raises much more serious questions. If both Barlow and the CAAN admit that Coburn’s research was used in the report, why was he not credited? Though it’s clear they are claiming he worked as a ghostwriter, which raises ethical issues unto itself, it seems that Coburn’s activities go well beyond what one would expect a ghostwriter to do. Given the fact that public money was used to fund this research, there needs to be an investigation into what exactly happened. If government funds were wasted on plagiarized research or awarded on the grounds of a plagiarized proposal, there needs to be action taken. Simply put, on issues as important as these, the government can not afford to waste funds on unethical research.
Also in this issue, Bongani Fuzile at The Times Live in South Africa reports that the now-former head of the political science department at the University of Fort Hare is raising questions about the academic integrity of the school. Dr. Zoleka Ndayi has raised concerns with her school about the work of three political science postgraduate students, that she claims heavily plagiarized their dissertations. According to Ndayi, up to 99% of the work was copied and pasted from other sources, with font differences clearly indicating that the material was not original. She also claimed that, when confronted, the students said plagiarism was normal at the school and had been since they started their studies. Ndayi first raised her concerns with her superior, Professor Michael Somniso and the supervisor of the students involved, Valery Ferim. However, the faculty management has recommended that Ndayi be terminated and Ferim continue supervising students. Ndayi, for her part, is no longer head of the department According to the school, her term at the position ended in December but was extended to February. It is unclear what further action the University will take as the issues that were raised by Ndayi were done so within a week of graduation.
Analysis: This is the type of case that can be disastrous for a university. A school as relatively unknown, at least internationally, as the University of Fort Hare does not get a great deal of news coverage. It’s possible this story could be the only story about the school another university or prospective employer reads, harming students’ chances of employment or moving forward with their academic career. The reason schools spend so much time and resources fighting plagiarism is not just because they want to ensure fairness to all students and that they are giving the most accurate grades possible, but because the reputation of the school is extremely important to those who graduate from it. Students who spend their time at a university doing good work do not deserve to have their degrees devalued because of the actions of a few cheaters. The only way schools can prevent that is by being aggressive on issues of academic integrity. However, when a school earns a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as being a haven for cheating and plagiarism, all of the students suffer. What’s most unfair about this scandal is not that three potential plagiarists were given their degrees, but that the students who worked hard and did legitimate work will have their degrees tained by those who didn’t.
Also in the news this edition, Paul Jump at The Times Higher Education reports that Turnitin (Note: Turnitin is owned by iParadigms, which also owns iThenticate) is finding approximately 60 percent fewer plagiarism cases in the UK than it was in 2005. According to Turnitin, in 2005 some 7.7 percent of all essays processed in the UK contained more than 75 percent unoriginal content. Today, that figure is down to 3.1 percent. Similarly, works that contained more than 50 percent unoriginal content have fallen from 10.5 percent to 6.6 percent in the same time. The UK is somewhat unique in that they have made a nationwide push against academic plagiarism. The move, through the universities’ IT body Jisc, resulted in Turnitin being made available to all UK schools. This resulted in a 50-fold increase in the use of Turnitin starting in 2005. Currently, 98 percent of all UK schools make use of Turnitin. The move coincided with a nation-wide plagiarism education campaign and advisory service, known as PlagiarismAdvice.org, which initially provided Turnitin free to all colleges. This move helped raise the profile of plagiarism as an academic issue, pushing many colleges to develop policies on the topic where none existed before.
Analysis: The progress that the UK has made in reducing plagiarism is amazing. Such a significant drop in plagiarism over a relatively short period of time deserves to be applauded. More than anything, the progress in the UK is a sign of what can be done with a coordinated and dedicated effort on this issue. Schools, publishers and even whole countries can drastically reduce plagiarism if they raise awareness of the issue, provide education on it and make use of the tools to detect it. To be clear though, the UK still has a lot of work ahead of it. Though the drops are significant, still some 6.6 percent of all papers have less than 50% original content. That means more than one out of every 20 are less than half original. As Gill Rowell, the academic adviser at Turnitin pointed out, this amount is much higher than what could be explained by cheating alone. This shows that there are still students who are not fully aware of how to properly cite the works of others and need help doing so. Though celebrations are definitely in order and it’s clear that the UK is on the right path, it’s still a long road and they have more work to do. In the meantime, others can learn from the example and duplicate the UK’s efforts, likely to similar results.
Finally today, the BBC reports that it’s not just academics who are becoming more conscious of plagiarism issues, magicians are as well. According to the report, magician Jeff McBride recently discovered a Thai magician that was recreating a trick he does involving quick appearance changes through a series of masks. McBride, who saw the copycat in a YouTube video, noted that the magician not only used the same trick, but even the same music and cut his hair to appear more like McBride. Though McBride was able to resolve his dispute amicably by reaching out to the other magician, others have had less luck. This includes Kevin James, who is nicknamed “The Inventor”, who has had many of his tricks copied and resold on knock off websites. However, the issue is thorny from a legal perspective. Though magic routines can be protected by copyright, magic tricks themselves are not. Likewise, trade secret laws don't protect publicly disclosed items, such as tricks, and magicians hesitate to file patents because they would have to publicly reveal the trick. In a similar case, Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, is suing a Belgian magician for copying a routine of his. However, that case has proved difficult as the defendant has both counter-sued Teller for defamation and has remained very elusive.
Analysis: On one hand, it’s easy to say that magic is a performance art like any other deserves the same legal and ethical protection. On the other, magic is clearly different. Magic is an artform built around secrets and mysteries. It’s also an art that has a long history of magicians stealing tricks from one another and repurposing them into their acts. Further, due to its very nature, it doesn’t fit neatly into copyright, trade secret or patent law. Historically, these types of disputes have been handled within the magic community through a code that forbade the revealing of magical secrets and copying one anothers tricks. However, as times has gone on, in particular with the rise of the Internet, the code has been less and less effective at addressing these issues. When the article describes the climate of magic as being something of a wild west, it is very accurate. With no clear laws to protect them and the internal controls largely broken down, magicians are relying more than ever on secrecy to protect their creations. However, it’s hard to keep something truly secret when you perform it in front of hundreds or thousands of people. A keen eye, such as another magician’s, can often figure out how the trick is done. Between YouTube, online resellers and online forums for sharing magic secrets, these issues of plagiarism in magic are only going to grow and, without a clear path to protect secrets legally, it’s going to be tough for magicians to keep their new tricks unique to them for long.