First off today, The Local in Germany reports that the President of the German Bundestag, Norbert Lammart, is facing allegations that he plagiarized in his doctoral thesis. Lammart joins a long line of German politicians to have been accused of plagiarism including former ministers of education and defense. The most recent scandal involved German Education Minister Annette Schavan, who was stripped of her doctorate in February due to plagiarism claims despite strong protests of her innocence. Schavan, however, resigned days after her degree was revoked. Lammart also denies the allegations and is encouraging his alma mater, University of Bochum in North Rhine-Westphalia, to look into the allegations. As for the allegations, they were brought forth by an anonymous blogger writing under the name “Robert Schmidt”, who claims to have evidence that Lammert plagiarized portions of some 42 pages in his doctorate.
Analysis: Ever since 2011, when German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to resign due to plagiarism allegations, Germany has been ground zero for politicians facing plagiarism-related scandals dealing with their earlier academic work. So far, Lammart’s scandal is following a familiar pattern---an individual releases information publicly indicating that a politician has plagiarized, he or she denies it, but the university begins an investigation into the matter. However, it remains to be seen if Lammart’s case will continue to follow the pattern of others and lead to his degree being revoked and his resignation. Regardless of the outcome, over the past two years Germany has been on a non-stop diet of political plagiarism scandals, most brought forth by either anonymous bloggers or individuals working together on special plagiarism-oriented wikis. These have become a powerful tool for attacking politicians and, as we’ll discuss shortly, other nations have been following Germany’s approach. So, while Lammart’s fate is still very much unknown, it seems like that he will not be the last major politician in Germany to have his political career tarnished by allegations of plagiarism.
Next up today, The Moscow Times reports that Andrey Vorobyov, the acting governor of the Moscow region, is facing allegations that he plagiarized his thesis as well. The allegations come from the plagiarism investigation group Dissernet, which claims that Vorobyov had some 12 uncredited sources his thesis and that some 107 out of 165 pages in the thesis contained plagiarized material. According to Dissernet, large parts of Vorobyov’s dissertation came from an earlier book by a student named Aminet Khuazheva, with only minor changes in wording. Vorobyov defended the thesis in 2004 at the Russian Academy of State Service. There is no word if the school is planning an investigation at this time. Regardless, Vorobyov is facing an election in September, one where he is widely expected to become the elected governor of the region though Dissernet is hoping that the allegations and evidence they’re bringing forth could impact the election.
Analysis: Though we’ve seen plagiarism allegations also surface against politicians in other countries, such as Romania and Hungary, those allegations have not been anywhere near as consistently successful at either causing degrees to be revoked or having politicians pushed out of office. The reasons for this are many and include different scandals, different politicians, different political systems and different views on plagiarism. Germany has the perfect mix of all the elements to make plagiarism scandals not just particularly common, but particularly effective. Other countries, including the U.S., are less clear. Because of that, it’s very unclear what will happen to Vorobyov, even if the claims are clear and easily-proved. Vorobyov faces a different electorate, a different education system and a different government than his counterparts in Germany. One thing that is certain is that other nations will be watching Russia’s reaction to the scandal closely. Not only to provide clues on how to deal with plagiarism issues in their country, but to understand how Russia approaches and handles plagiarism issues. In short, whether it’s fair or not, Russia, as a country, will be judged, at least in a small way, based on its handling of this issue and ones like it.
Next up today, Megan Semeraz and Dylan Dulberg at The Oakland Press report that, at Oakland University’s School of Education and Human Services, Mary Stein, formerly the Interim Associate Provost at the college, has been promoted to Interim Dean of the School of Education. A year earlier Timothy Larrabee was promoted to Associate Dean of Education, though he will now be moving back to his former position as an associate professor. Stein and Larrabee previously worked together on research and, along with a third associate at another university, published two papers. The first, entitled "A Computer-Based Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” in the journal Contemporary Issues in Technology and Science Teacher Education. Several months later the trio published a similar paper in the Journal of Science Teacher Education but the second article contained so much duplicative text and information that, in 2010, The Association for Science Teacher Education handed down a series of punitive actions. Those actions included the retraction of the second paper and an order barring the three from being accepted by the association or any journals affiliated with it. Their school, however, took no action against the two researchers. The reason is likely because the school’s plagiarism policy does not define the recycling of one’s work as plagiarism, just the work of others. In fact, during the three years since, both have been promoted, though Larrabee is now returning to his previous duties. The promotions were agreed upon at the Oct. 2012 Board of Trustees meeting but it is unclear if the board was aware of the aware of the alleged infractions.
Analysis: Self-plagiarism, often called recycling, is still an area of controversy for schools and researchers with policies and punishments differing wildly. This dispute is highlighted here as an organization felt strongly enough about the issue to ban the researchers for five years while at least one of their schools fails to even include self-plagiarism, at least not directly, as an infraction in their guidelines. In many ways, self-plagiarism is akin to a legal issue that has not been thoroughly settled by the courts. However, unlike the legal system, there is no “high court” to hear the issue and make a ruling that all lower ones have to follow. Every school, every organization and every publication still sets their individual standards. While the ethical debate will become more settled over time, cases such as this one will likely become increasingly common in the near future. Self-plagiarism is going to be an increasingly common issue in academic publishing due to the increasing pressure to publish and often vague guidelines on the ethics of reusing previous work. However, as this case shows, academics need to be wary of these issues and work to avoid them. Even if their school or their publication doesn’t take issue with self-plagiarism, others do and the allegations of self-plagiarism can still follow and haunt an academic, even as they are promoted.
Also today, Louis Lavell at Bloomberg Businessweek reports that a PhD student at the prestigious Darden School of Business has had a second paper retracted due to plagiarism concerns. The Journal of Enterprising Culture retracted a paper entitled “Understanding the Antecedents to an Entrepreneurial Firm’s Intent to Engage in International Strategic Alliances” by Eugene Z. Geh. According to the journal, 16 percent of the paper was duplicated passages from a 2004 work by a different author. The retraction follows another retraction just three months earlier of another article by Geh, this one entitled “The ‘Strong’ Versus ‘Weak’ Premise of Stakeholder Legitimacy and the Rhetorical Perspective of Diffusion”, which was published in Academy of Management Review. At that time, the director of Darden’s doctoral program defended Geh, saying that an “extensive investigation” had concluded that the incident was isolated and was a mistake. Geh joined the program in 2009 after graduating from Singapore Management University, but it is unclear if he is still a member of the program now. He received a grade of “distinguished performance” in a dozen courses, including Foundations of Business Ethics.
Analysis: While there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about a PhD student facing plagiarism allegations, the repeated allegations at such a prestigious school raises a few flags. Of particular concern is the “extensive investigation” that the school said it performed but failed to uncover another incident involving Geh, one that would come out just a few months later. While it appears that the university did handle the original allegations well, responding and investigating quickly, it’s clear that something fell through the cracks and it’s important for the school, as well as other institutions, to figure out what it was so that it can be avoided in the future. Another takeaway from this story is that no student or researcher should be completely beyond suspicion. Despite Geh’s high marks in ethics and his seemingly strong background in that area, there were apparent issues with his ability to produce ethical work.
In other news, Kristin Rushowy and Louise Brown at The Hamilton Spectator report that Chris Spence, the former head of the Toronto School Board who was forced to resign following a plagiarism scandal in January, is speaking out for the first time following his resignation. Spence said that his plagiarism was a combination of factors including his workload, his carelessness and his work with assistants that helped him with research. Though Spence didn’t highlight all of his misdeeds, he did admit that he did not write everything. He also described his time since his resignation as a “living hell” and said that he is dealing with depression brought on by the ordeal. In January, an anonymous source revealed that Spence, then the head of Canada’s largest school district, had plagiarized passages in an op-ed piece for the Toronto Star. Other allegations of plagiarism quickly followed prompting him to resign within 48 hours of the initial allegations. However, the ordeal may not be over for Spence as his former school, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, is investigating allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis and is considering revoking his degree.
Analysis: The pattern for Spence is a familiar one to plagiarism watchers. Spence built an amazing career in part on plagiarism and, when the fraud was discovered, the career and everything that came with it came crashing down. In the end, what happened to Spence was of his own design. He was a respected and even revered educator whose promising career ended abruptly due to a pattern of plagiarism. Though he says he doesn’t wish to point fingers, to reference or even allude to assistants who worked with him is an attempt to do exactly that, at least to some degree. But Spence isn’t alone there. Other famous serial plagiarists including Jayson Blair and Jonah Lehrer have, in the past, sought to shift much of their blame onto other forces. Still, while Spence’s downfall is of his own doing, one must hope that he finds a way to turn his experience and his mistakes into something good and useful, both for himself and others. It’s likely the best way for him to repair the damage he did and to help himself move on.
Also today, Rosa Jalijan at NBC News reports that a survey of more than 2,400 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers (middle and high school level) found that teachers generally give low marks to their students on matters of understanding copyright law and attribution. Over half of all teachers described their students as being either “fair” or “poor” when it came to citing content correctly. By contrast, only 15 percent said their students were “excellent” or “very good” at it. The teachers lay much of the blame for this on technology, saying that it breeds informality in writing, especially due to social media interaction, and creates a culture of weak attribution. On the positive side, most teachers said that digital tools made teaching writing easier and 88 percent said that they were spending class time talking about issues of citation and plagiarism. Three quarters also said that they spent class time talking about copyright and fair use issues with students. The survey was performed by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
Analysis: Though it’s easy to blame technology, in particular the Internet, for causing plagiarism or making the problem worse, the truth is much more complicated. For one, plagiarism was a serious problem before the Internet and before computers. Though technology has made it easier to plagiarize content, making it more appealing to those who might be tempted, plagiarism is not an invention of the Internet. But the same as technology that has made it easier to plagiarize, it has also made it easier to detect plagiarism. Tools like iThenticate make plagiarism much easier to spot and act upon, making technology something of a double-edged sword for any potential plagiarist. The focus, instead, needs to be on using technology, including plagiarism detection tools, to help teach good writing, research and citation. Using such tools only to catch plagiarists after the fact does little to prevent or reduce the problem and may, in the long run, simply make students more savvy plagiarists.
Finally today, Eriq Gardner at The Hollywood Reporter Esquire reports that Elton John has prevailed in a lawsuit filed by Guy Hobbs, a songwriter who accused John of plagiarism and copyright infringement. According to Hobbs, John’s song “Nikita” was a copyright infringement to his earlier work “Natasha” as both centered around similar themes and, according to Hobbes, had a “unique combination” of elements that were similar. Those elements included an impossible cold war era romance, descriptions of the lover’s eyes and similar-sounding names. However, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was unimpressed with Hobbes’ arguments, saying that copyright law does not protect ideas, merely expressions of those ideas, and, even if John did lift the concepts from his songs, the alleged similarities were not protectable. The court chose not to address Hobbes’ theory because, even if it were proved true, it does not rise to the threshold of copyright infringement, making the dismissal of the case warranted.
Analysis: From a copyright infringement standpoint, the outcome is predictable. Copyright only protects expressions of ideas, not ideas themselves. As such, Hobbes’ arguments in court were, at best, a long shot. Still, the case does highlight the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. If Hobbes’ arguments are true, and they are yet to be proved, Elton John certainly would have committed plagiarism as the concept of plagiarism expands to the use of ideas without attribution. However, because of the way copyright law is structured, plagiarism cases involving ideas can be difficult to defend, unless patents are involved. But even if the law does protect the idea, one way or another, they can be even more difficult to prove. Though it’s easy and tempting to look at plagiarism as being a subset of copyright infringement, it oftentimes is not and, in many cases, falls outside the jurisdiction of any law. In those cases, it becomes purely a matter of ethics and, even there, they provide unique challenges to the various boards, editors and supervisors that oversee them. In short, there’s no easy answer when plagiarism allegations deal solely with ideas and that can be grossly unfair both to the victim of the plagiarism and the accused, neither of whom feel as if they get a fair trial.