First off today, Paul Jump at the Times Higher Education reports that, in the UK, the High Court has ruled that, while the courts or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) do have the ability to overturn rulings on plagiarism, they can only do so in rare cases that do not involve or require academic judgment. The judge was looking at the OIA’s refusal to overturn a plagiarism-related ruling originally by Queen Mary, University of London against a former student Hazim Mustafa. Mustafa was attending the school during the 2007-2008 school year and attempting to obtain a master’s degree in project management. However, Mustafa was forced to drop out due in part to the plagiarism allegations. Mustafa petitioned the OIA and the courts to protest both the plagiarism verdict and other treatment he claims to have received from the University. According to Mustafa, while he did copy heavily in the essay in question, square-brackets were enough to show that he did not intend to plagiarize. The University disagreed saying that it was almost impossible to tell what was original text and what was copied in the essay. Both the OIA and the High Court ruled that they had no standing in the case as the matter required “knowledge of academic conventions” and neither the court nor the OIA were in a position to overturn the ruling. This prompted The High Court to dismiss Mustafa’s appeal but did note that this was not a finding of “moral turpitude” against Mustafa as the school did not investigate whether he had intentionally misled anyone.
Analysis: In the UK and elsewhere, plagiarism cases have been more routinely becoming legal issues in addition to academic ones. Students, and even instructors, have been increasingly taking to the courts in hopes that judges will overturn plagiarism rulings against them. But there is an inherent danger with that. Judge typically are not academics and are often not qualified to rule on complex and nuanced matters of plagiarism in class work and research. This ruling, however, limits the ability of not only judges, but also the OIA to step in and overturn the findings of a university. By limiting that power only to cases where academic judgment is not necessary, the court retains its ability to provide relief for extreme cases while leaving the bulk of the judgment to the universities. While universities and other academic institutions certainly are not perfect in their handling of plagiarism cases, they are the best-equipped and most knowledgeable on the issues and the court agrees that, in most cases, they should have the final say. Though the ruling doesn’t free UK universities from students turning academic disputes into legal ones, it greatly reduces the likelihood that such appeals will succeed.
Also this issue, Chris Palmer at The Scientist reports that Historian John van Wyhe at the National University of Singapore has published a book that he hopes will put an end to the ongoing debate over Charles Darwin’s alleged plagiarism. The allegations against Darwin deal with another researcher, Alfred Wallace, who most believe discovered the theory of evolution independently from Darwin. Wallace, who was working in the Malay Archipelago and Darwin, who was working on the Galapagos Islands, worked independently from each other until Wallace sent a draft of an essay outlining his work to Darwin. The timing of that letter had been the subject of debate with some concluding that Darwin plagiarized the idea for evolution from it. However, in his new book, Van Wyhe looked at documents to trace the route of Wallace’s letter and was able to show that Darwin had devised his theory before receiving it. Van Wyhe’s book, entitled “Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin” will be released on July 28, 2013.
Analysis: The allegations of plagiarism have hung over both Darwin and the theory of evolution for some time. Those allegations have been used not just to attack Darwin’s work, but through proxy, the theory of evolution itself. Though the evidence had been growing for some time that Darwin and Wallace independently developed the theory, Van Wyhe hopes that his book will put an end to the debate once and for all as well as tell the story of Wallace’s lesser-known work in the field. In the long run though, the plagiarism allegations against Darwin, now that they have been largely dismissed, may actually help bolster his arguments by showing that two separate scientists, working in separate parts of the world, arrived at the same conclusions. However, the story does raise separate questions about how the scientific community credits discoveries in situations like this, where a discovery is made independently by two or more researchers. Since no research is done in a vacuum, it’s inevitable that researchers working in the same field will make similar discoveries. This opens the door to the possibility of many more cases like Darwin and Wallace’s, where two or more scientists have to vie for credit for a discovery they made independently of one another.
Next up today, Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy reports that Iran’s recently elected President, Hassan Rouhani, is facing allegations that he committed plagiarism in his Ph.D thesis abstract at Glasgow Caledonian University. At issue is several passages in Rowhani’s abstract for his 500-pages thesis entitled “The Flexibility of Sharia with Reference to the Iranian Experience”, which closely mirrors sentences found in a book written by an Afghan author, Mohamad Hashem Kali. The full thesis, however, is not available at this time. Nikahang Kowsar, a blogger based in Washington, D.C. brought allegations to light through an article comparing Rowhani’s thesis to a book published by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a well-known Afghan-born Islamic legal scholar. The allegations have also raised other questions about Rowhani’s studies at the university, including whether he attended in person or was a remote student. Others also note that Glasgow Caledonian is an unusual choice of university to study Iranian politics. However, the university recently told the press that their library has confirmed that the material in question was referenced both in the main body and in the bibliography of the thesis. They are asking for permission to digitize the thesis and make it available to the broader public. Rowhani has not responded to the allegations and is expected to be inaugurated on August 4, 2013.
Analysis: The actual plagiarism allegations in this case are fairly mundane. While two passages in an abstract could be cause for academic concern, it certainly isn’t the type of widespread plagiarism allegation that’s been plaguing politicians in Germany, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere, at least not at this time. However, the international press coverage of Rowhani’s alleged misdeeds has been intense, perhaps more so than other world leaders caught up in plagiarism scandals. Part of this is due to the international nature of the scandal. The allegation by a U.S. blogger that a future Iranian President plagiarized an Afghan author in his Ph.D thesis at a UK university adds a lot of elements to the story. However, much of it is likely that it is the international attention on Rowhani and his country that has caused a lot of the coverage, especially at this early stage. After all, at this time, the allegations only involve a couple of sentences from the abstract of his thesis, content that the university says was cited correctly in the full work. Clearly, more analysis is needed before drawing any conclusions about Rowhani being a cheater or a plagiarist. Hopefully, the university will be able to obtain permission to digitize the thesis and that analysis can be performed. In the meantime, the more damaging issues for Rowhani are the tough questions this scandal raises about his academic history. Even if he did not plagiarize on his thesis, there are still other unanswered questions about his time at Glasgow Caledonian, which was a major focal point in his campaign. This scrutiny also has the potential to put a lot of attention on the university itself, which prior to Rowhani’s election, was not well-known internationally.
In other political plagiarism news, across the world in New Zealand, Katie Chapman of The Dominion Post reports that John Morrison, a candidate for mayor in the upcoming elections in Wellington, has apologized for plagiarizing in an opinion piece he published previously in the same paper. The opinion piece, which addressed Morrison’s plans for economic growth in the city, borrowed a series of passages from the speech notes of chief executive Kevin Lavery, Chief Executive of the Wellington city council. The opinion piece was written as a “head to head” column in opposition to the incumbent mayor, Celia Wade-Brown and has several passages that are near-verbatim from Lavery’s speech. Morrison apologized for the plagiarism, saying that it was an error caused by a rushed deadline. Lavery has also said that Morrison has apologized to him and that he has accepted the apology.
Analysis: In Morrison’s case, the plagiarism is more than obvious and represents a significant portion of the work involved. He was right to apologize rather than trying to downplay the allegations and his quick apologies may help save his budding campaign. However, his explanation, that he was under a tight deadline and left out the attribution, doesn’t hold water and comes across as an attempt to deflect responsibility. The piece involved was an opinion piece for a newspaper. Though it’s never excusable to leave out citations when rushed, it’s especially egregious to do it in this context such as a newspaper because attribution requires so little energy and, generally, is applied inline. In short, the added time and effort it would have taken to credit the source would have been almost nil. It would have only taken the time to add a few quotation marks and a few extra words indicating authorship. To blame his plagiarism on a deadline is disingenuous and may actually do more harm than good. After all, a candidate who accidentally plagiarizes under a deadline will face tough questions about his or her ability to plan, manage time and function under pressure.
In other news this edition, Elizabeth Gibney, also at the Times Higher Education, reports that a new study published by a group led by Coventry University found that students across Europe are still struggling to determine what is or is not plagiarism. The study conducted a survey of some 5,000 students across Europe and asked them about various scenarios that may or may not be plagiarism. When asked about a situation where 40 percent of a submission is copied word-for-word without quotations, citations or references, 91 percent considered it to be plagiarism. However, when the scenario was altered to say “some changes” had been made to the text, 40 percent said that either they were unsure if it was plagiarism or felt that it was not. The study also found that the number of students who believed that they have plagiarized, accidentally or intentionally, varied widely from country to country. Though only 10 percent of German students said they believed they have plagiarized, 65 percent of students in Lithuania believed they had plagiarized at some point. The researchers worry that the survey could be painting an overly positive view of the situation because of its voluntary nature and that many institutions declined to take part.
Analysis: The study shows that, even as some countries have made great strides in reducing the amount of plagiarism that is detected, there is clearly still a lot of work to be done in teaching students what is and is not considered plagiarism. The causes of this confusion, especially at the college level, are many and they range from the difficulty of raising the subject to a feeling that those in college should already know how to avoid plagiarism. But regardless of the reasons, the problem remains and it is creating a drag on the quality of work students are doing both in Europe and elsewhere. The only way to handle the problem is to begin educating students as early as possible about not just the punishments for committing plagiarism, but also what is or is not plagiarism. If we want students to become good members of the academic community and go on to do excellent research, we need to invest more now in teaching the ethics of academic work so they can avoid ethical issues like plagiarism no matter how far they go with their academic careers.
Also in plagiarism news this month, Karolos Grohmann at Reuters is reporting that former Hungarian President Pal Schmitt is being allowed to stay on as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) despite a plagiarism scandal that famously forced him to resign his Presidency in April of 2012. Schmitt had previously been accused by a Hungarian magazine of plagiarizing portions of his thesis, which was written in 1992 . His university investigated the matter, and after discovering several lengthy passages of text were found to be near-verbatim translations of previous works, chose to revoke his degree. Though Schmitt had first said he had no plans to resign, he eventually decided to do so, citing the division the scandal had caused in his country. However, Schmitt, a two-time gold medal winner for fencing, was allowed to remain a member of the IOC, the prominent international organization that organizes the modern Olympic games. His only punishment was a reprimand from the IOC and a self-imposed permanent suspension from joining any commission within the IOC. Prior to his self-imposed suspension, Schmitt had been the chairman of the IOC’s Sport and Environment Commission and a member of the International Relations Commission.
Analysis: Organizations like the IOC face a difficult challenge when trying to determine what is the appropriate punishment, if any, for people who are involved in ethical violations outside of their doors. If Schmitt had plagiarized a document written for the IOC and not a thesis written decades earlier, the matter would have been much simpler for them. Even though his degree was certainly relevant to his position, and likely part of why he was chosen, the IOC still had no clear path to respond. The IOC has to weigh both taking appropriate action against Schmitt and the potential impact his continued presence could have on the IOC. Unfortunately, the IOC failed to do that and has allowed a polarizing and largely disgraced politician to remain as a member. The IOC, due to its position, is constantly at the center of controversy, including over ethical issues. To only issue a reprimand in this case weakens their stance further and opens them up to more attacks and allegations that they are weak on ethical issues. In short, the worst of Schmitt’s punishments are self-imposed and, though that makes him appear somewhat contrite, it raises serious questions about why stronger punishments were not handed down by the IOC itself. Given how important the Olympic Games are international and how much ethics and sportsmanship play into the games, the willingness of the IOC to treat a serious ethics violation of one of its own so lightly is very disconcerting.
Finally today, in other Olympic news, Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian reports that Atopia, a U.S. design firm, is crying foul over the torch that was used at the most recent Olympic Games, set in London. According to Atopia, in 2007 they presented the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) with a design for the Olympic Torch that focused on dozens of individual dandelion-like stands that would be brought in from the countries all over the world to create one light. They say that, after they presented their idea, they heard nothing back from LOCOG until, when the games debuted in 2012, the chosen design was revealed and closely mirrored the one that they had presented. The final design, which was made by Thomas Heatherwick, also focused on several flower-like stems that combined into one flame. However, where Atopia’s was originally to collect rainwater and solar energy to create light, Heatherwick’s used a more conventional natural gas and flame system. Heatherwick, for his part, has said that these allegations have come completely out of the blue and that he never saw the Atopia designs prior the recent uproar. Atopia has said that it was only able to make its claims now due to a non-disclosure agreement that was only recently lifted.
Analysis: Though many allegations of design plagiarism don’t stand up to scrutiny as the common elements are often independently created, the similarities between the two torch designs have repeatedly been called “uncanny” and with good reason. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that Heatherwick plagiarized Atopia’s designs or that there was any wrongdoing, it’s amazing that no one at LOCOG noticed the similarities and took steps to head off the potential controversy. Organizations like the IOC and LOCOG, it is not enough to merely behave ethically, they have to work hard to ensure that nothing they do can be misconstrued as being unethical. Even if nothing inappropriate took place, these headlines have put an unnecessary black mark on the reputation of the London Games and tainted, at least somewhat, an otherwise very successful Olympic Games. And that question mark is likely to remain over the torch controversy for some time. Though Atopia hasn’t ruled out taking legal action, it said that, as a small firm, it lacks the resources to pursue the matter in court. Thus, it is unlikely we’ll see a definitive resolution to this matter. This is why it’s important for individuals and organizations to be mindful not just of actual ethical violations but of things that could be seen as one. In many cases, even the appearance of impropriety can do as much to harm one’s reputation as actual wrongdoing.