CTRL-V Plagiarism in the News - Issue 17

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Dec 5, 2013 7:30:00 AM

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Mail Online Rips off Freelancer’s Emma Thompson Exclusive

First off this issue, Roy Greenslade at The Guardian is reporting that freelance journalist John Hiscock has accused The Mail Online, the online edition of The Daily Mail, of plagiarism and of lifting his exclusive interview with actor Emma Thompson. Hiscock interviewed Thompson only to have the actor reveal that, as a child, she was kissed inappropriately by a magician hired to work her birthday party. Hiscock then sold the interview to The Daily Mirror, a rival of The Daily Mail, as an exclusive. However, according to Hiscock, the story didn’t remain exclusive for long. He claims The Mail Online re-posted the interview in its entirety verbatim and only attributed it to “Daily Mail Reporter”, with no mention of Hiscock or The Mirror. When Hiscock complained, the Mail Online rewrote the piece but still included some direct quotes and still provided no attribution to Hiscock for his work. Later, The Mail responded, saying that there was attribution in the original version of the story but that it was accidentally left off in the rewrite. The paper also said that an executive would be calling Hiscock to “explain and apologize.”

Analysis: As we discussed in our previous blog post, the incident speaks very lowly of The Daily Mail’s policies on attribution and reusing the works of others. Apart from the plagiarism and ethical issues involved in the case, there are also copyright and legal ones as well. The rivalry between the two papers is well known and, in the past, it has often been fairly dirty with both sides working to usurp scoops and taking questionable steps to best the other. However, the most recent case goes well beyond the usual back and forth between the two papers and places The Daily Mail squarely in a very negative light. To take the interview in its entirety and republish it, regardless of attribution, is a copyright infringement. If it wasn’t attributed, as Hiscock claims, then it is also the most egregious type of plagiarism possible in journalism. But even the second version, the rewrite that was meant to correct the initial mistake, ended up being a serious plagiarism as it made no mention of Hiscock or the paper he wrote for. Accident or not, that constitutes a serious breach of journalism ethics and the fact it happened at all, at a time when the Mail should have been its most careful, speaks very lowly of the paper. Hopefully the incident is a wake up call for The Daily Mail and other newspapers. The time to evaluate and correct attribution/reuse policies is now, not after a problem arises.

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Top Administrator Leaves Kean University After Plagiarism Probe

Next up this edition, Kelly Heyboer at The Star-Ledger reports that a Kean University administrator abruptly left after allegations of plagiarism surfaced against her, adding another unfortunate mark to the schools already-embattled reputation. The administrator involved, Katerina Andriotis, was the school’s associate vice president for academic affairs, the office that, as part of its duties, oversees the school’s enforcement of academic standards. She was accused by James Castiglione, who is the head of the Kean Federation of Teachers, the school’s teacher union, of plagiarizing nearly 9 pages out of 15-page report on campus enrolment management. Andriotis quickly left her post but added in an email that she was “overworked” and that she simply made an error in her research. She added that it was her responsibility to ensure that the document was correctly cited and that it was a “serious oversight” that would have been corrected if she had remembered to include “final contributions page.” It is unclear whether Andriotis resigned or was fired and the school has had no comment on the matter. However, the incident is not the first challenge the school has faced with integrity issues. The school was recently taken off probation from its accreditation agency due in part to its integrity policies and the school’s president, Dawood Farahi, was accused of falsifying parts of his resume. Despite the allegations, Farahi’s contract with the school was renewed for an additional five years.

Analysis: As we discussed in our previous blog post on the WriteCheck blog, teachers, professors and school officials need to ensure that their work is beyond reproach when it comes to integrity issues. Not only do school officials have to serve as examples for students to follow, their actions are especially harmful to the university when they have ethical missteps. The public, by in large, expects some students to plagiarize due to either hubris or ignorance. However, those working at the school, academics with a long history that have worked their way up the ranks, should know better. Kean’s reputation as a school is already badly damaged due to its accreditation woes and the controversy over its president. Sadly, this incident isn’t going to help the school move on. That being said, the school seems to have handled the scandal reasonably well. Whether Andriotis was fired or resigned, it’s clear swift action was taken and a push was made to address the issue quickly and directly. However, Andriotis’ reaction definitely leaves a great deal to be desired. Being “overworked” is never an excuse for plagiarism and simply appending a “contributions page” to a piece does not excuse nine pages of verbatim copying. It’s clear that Andriotis was unclear on many of the common rules about attribution and reuse, likely making it worth the school’s time to evaluate some of her previous work and see if additional mistakes were made that need to be corrected.

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Ex-Kent State Ph.D-Candidate’s Lawsuit: No Such Thing as ‘Plagiarism’ in First Drafts

Also in this edition, Doug Brown at The Cleveland Scene reports that Carrie Pfeiffer-Fiala is suing her former school, Kent State, alleging breach of contract. According to Pfeiffer-Fiala, she was working on a Ph.D. at Kent State, which would have been her third degree at the school, when she submitted a 55-page first draft of her dissertation’s first chapter. The professor she submitted it to deemed the work to be plagiarized. However, Pfeiffer-Fiala claimed that she knew her citations were incomplete and that she was going to correct them in later revisions. The school, however, didn’t see it that way and brought Pfeiffer-Fiala before an “academic hearing panel” that deemed she had plagiarized. After losing her appeal, Pfeiffer-Fiala withdrew from the school and claims she missed out on a degree that she had spent some $50,000 to obtain. The school has not commented on the lawsuit.

Analysis: Unfortunately, many of the important details in this case are, as of right now, unknown. We don’t know how much of Pfieffer-Fiala’s work is accused of having been plagiarized and we don’t know how egregious the attribution issues involved were in the rough draft. On one hand, Pfeiffer-Fiala has a point. A 55-page rough chapter in a dissertation is a very early stage in the writing, likely the very first item submitted. The draft was going to be edited and modified heavily before being submitted and part of that editing process is cleaning up/fixing citation errors. On the other hand, academic integrity is meant to be woven into the entire writing and editing process, not just something for the final draft. If Pfeiffer-Fiala was flagrantly copying large chunks of text without attribution or otherwise making egregious use of the works of others, it likely is still a serious ethical issue. The question, in the end, comes down to whether or not Pfeiffer-Fiala’s alleged plagiarisms were either simple mistakes or errors that could easily be corrected or a systemic problem in the work that indicated something much greater. Unfortunately, we don’t have that information right now but it will likely come to light over the course of the legal proceedings.

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Chapel Hill High School Principal Accused of Plagiarism

Also this month, Billy Ball at Indy Week reports that Chapel Hill High School principal Sulura Jackson has been accused of plagiarism by teachers at the school, including in a letter addressing students that she wrote before arriving at the position. Jackson arrived at the school this summer and, in her short tenure teachers at the school have found “multiple documents” that she has allegedly plagiarized in, lifting passages from letters, books, online sources and resource guides, using them in letters, including recommendation letters for colleagues, and staff memos. For her part, Jackon has acknowledged the use from letters, books and articles in her writing but claims that its not for “personal gain”. She was surprised that her teachers were angry and, if they had approached her, she would have cited her sources. While the district superintendent, Tom Forcella said he wanted Jackson to ensure her sources were cited, he noted that he was happy that she was increasing communication. However, the matter will be brought before the school board in a private meeting where they will determine what, if any, action they should take.

Analysis: As with the story at Kean University, administrators, teachers and other educators are held to a higher standard when it comes to academic integrity than their students. They’re more than just teachers, they’re examples for young minds to follow. When word arrives that a principal has been passing off the words of others as her own, it sets a terrible example for students and raises questions about why plagiarism is wrong, especially when someone such as the principal can do it and get away with it. It seems unfair to punish students for something that their educators are excused from. Jackson had to know that her using the works of others without attribution would, at the very least, raise serious questions about plagiarism and integrity. She shouldn’t have to wait for someone to bring it to her attention. Though form letters and templates are not great sins in many fields, educators have to be held to the highest standard in the academic field, which already has some of the most stringent standards for attribution and reuse of any field. As such, the practice of using form letters needs to be scrutinized as does Jackson’s action. If she has been found to have plagiarized, it’s up to the school board to take the correct action, both for the sake of the school district and its students.

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Clive Palmer Caught Using Parts of John F Kennedy Speech in National Press Club Address

Next up, ABC News reports that Australian newly-elected MP Clive Palmer faces plagiarism allegations on his very first day of office. The allegations stem from a speech that Palmer gave to the National Press Club in which he reused portions, nearly verbatim, of a 1961 speech by U.S. President John F Kennedy that he gave to a group of newspaper publishers. The specific passage dealt with Karl Marx’ time with the New York Herald Tribune and how, after failing to secure a pay raise, he left the paper and began to espouse ideals that would lead to Stalinism and Leninism. Palmer is a well known fan of Kennedy, serving as a board member for the John F Kennedy Library Foundation.

Analysis: While it’s not uncommon for speeches to have parallels and for separate speakers to share the same stories, especially historical ones, this case goes beyond two people telling the same story about Marx. Simply put, many of the lines are verbatim, indicating the the story was copied and pasted and then edited rather than Palmer simply trying to tell the same story in his own words. This goes well beyond acceptable reuse without attribution and closely mirrors what U.S. Senator Rand Paul went through last month. As for Palmer, the scandal isn’t likely to hurt him too heavily. Even though it’s embarrassing to have your first day on the job be embroiled in a plagiarism scandal, it isn’t likely that there is a large body of other plagiarisms that exist, if nothing else because he hasn’t had a chance to write them. Having this misstep early in his career could be a blessing. If he apologizes, corrects the error and learns from it, it could be but a speedbump for him. Without a huge body of work to comb through and find other transgressions, this likely isn’t going to be a long-term scandal. Still, as with Senator Paul, the decision on how to handle it is his own and, if he handles it poorly, it could cost him far more dearly than the deed itself.

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Russia’s Top Investigator Accused of Plagiarism

In other international news, RIA Novosti reports that Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, faces allegations that he lifted content from western authors in a book he recently published about fingerprinting criminals. The allegations come from Dissernet, a group that looks for plagiarism in academic works by Russian politicians and officials. According to them, 68 of the 200 pages in the book were plagiarized with only minor wording changes. The sources include Russian translations of books by German and U.S. authors, including journalist Anthony Summers. So far, Bastrykin has not responded to the allegations nor has the Investigative Committee. As for Dissernet, since its founding in 2011, has filed similar accusations against other high-ranking officials including Moscow’s Mayor, which we discussed in Issue 13, and the country’s ombudsman for children.

Analysis: Dissernet, in many ways, represents the spreading of crowd source plagiarism detection in Russia. Similar groups have long operated in Germany and there have seen great success in toppling the careers of politicians. However, attempts to emulate their success in other countries have been, at best, mixed. It is highly unlikely that the allegations will do much to topple Bastrykin’s career or force him to even take any significant action. Simply put, plagiarism scandals in Russia have just not had the impact on political careers that they’ve had elsewhere. Still, it could definitely impact Bastrykin’s publishing career. Under Russian law, which recently has been moving to clamp down on copyright infringements, the reuse of so many pages of content would likely be considered an infringement and it’s at least theoretically possible that such a heavy amount of plagiarism represents a legal threat to both Bastrykin and his publisher. Whether that will come to fruition or not remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, the case is just another black eye for Russian politics and international views on Russian academic integrity.

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Sen. Paul Footnoting His Speeches After Plagiarism Controversy

Finally today, in an update to a story we covered last edition, Fox News reports that Senator Rand Paul, following a plagiarism scandal that engulfed him for nearly two weeks, has taken the step of providing footnotes to his speeches. Paul was first accused of plagiarism in a speech he gave where he referenced the movie Gattaca but repeated the plot synopsis almost verbatim from Wikipedia. Shortly afterward, other examples of unattributed reuse began to rise, both in speeches and in works written by the Senator. Paul initially denied the allegations saying that he cited the movie, ignoring the issue with Wikipedia. However, as the allegations grew in both intensity and number, Paul grew more hostile with his accusers, at one point saying that he wished dueling were legal. On November 5th, Paul told the New York Times that he would begin to provide footnotes to his speeches to “make people leave me the hell alone” and later in the month he started to do so on on his site.

Analysis: Though Paul’s handling of the allegations against him did far more harm than the allegations themselves, the ordeal should serve as a lesson for other politicians to both be careful with the words they use and to be mindful of how to handle an issue should it arise. But while footnoting speeches may seem like an extreme step for a politician, it may not be that crazy of an idea. Beyond plagiarism, it’s nice to know where political figures get their facts and ideas from. It’s a chance to see if they are pulling from unbiased, highly qualified sources or are instead getting their information from less-reliable outlets. Footnotes would also help politicians back up the arguments they make in their speeches, showing what they say to be true and helping services such as Politifact that vet the authenticity of political claims. Paul’s footnoting of speeches may be a way for him to try and silence his critics on plagiarism matters, but it might not be such a bad idea for other politicians too.

Read Issue 16

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