As 2014 winds to a close, it’s become very clear that it will go down as a banner year for plagiarism across a wide range of fields.
Whether you’re a researcher, a politician, a journalist, an author or a celebrity, there was major plagiarism news in your field.
All in all, there were literally too many important stories to put into this list. Even a “short” list could contain more than 20 items. So, to break it down to a top ten, sacrifices had to be made but, nonetheless, these are the ten stories that made major waves in the field of plagiarism in 2014 and will likely set the tone for what’s to come in 2015.
Back in May, Gumuchian was fired from CNN after it was revealed that she had plagiarized over 128 times in some 50 stories. The only announcement of the firing was an editor’s note on CNN’s site, which included news that CNN had amended or deleted all of the stories it found containing plagiarism. According to CNN, most of the plagiarized material came from her previous employer, Reuters, which in turn performed its own review of Gumuchian’s work but found no issues. CNN said it discovered the issue with Gumuchian, who had been employed for about six months, as part of a routine check of its reporters’ work.
Importance: Gumuchian is possibly the most important plagiarism story of 2014 that almost no one talked about. Outside of a few articles, there was almost no coverage of her firing, despite the lengthy record of plagiarism. The most likely reason is that Gumuchian was not a celebrity reporter and the problem was caught by CNN’s own processes, rather than an outsider. In that regard, Gumuchian is a testament to the importance of having internal checks, but also ensuring that they are tight enough to avoid having to edit or remove dozens of articles.
Mustapha Marrouchi, until very recently, was an English professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In August, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education accused Marrouchi of lifting passages in a variety of his works, including a supposed memoir he had penned. However, the incident was far from Marrouchi’s first run in with plagiarism. In 1992, he was accused of lifting passages from an essay by W.J.T. Mitchell in the London Review of Books. Then, in 1999, in the same publication, a letter by Stephen Howe appeared accusing Marrouch of plagiarism of one his book reviews. The UNLV investigated and, in November, fired Marrouchi after discovering that some 23 of his 26 papers contained plagiarized elements.
Importance: What is truly frightening about Marrouchi’s story is the sheer volume of plagiarism involved. For over 20 years, Marrouchi built a career on lifting passages without citation and, even after being called out twice for the behavior, he continued to have a prosperous academic career. The fact that an academic could plagiarize dozens of works over decades of their career without any obvious consequences should give academics and their editors pause to think about the challenges that face those who seek to enforce ethical standards in research and academia.
Sometime in the spring, author Neil Harman was called into a meeting with Wimbledon officials. One of the best known names in Tennis reporting, Harman was not only a Times of London tennis correspondent, but also the official Wimbledon annual for 2013, which he had written for the ten years prior. However, the club had become aware that large chunks of the 160-page book were lifted without attribution from other sources. But while the club did remove Harman from the task of writing the annual, they did not revoke his press access and, in a move that caused a great deal of controversy, continued to sell the annual for several months in their gift shop. In July, the allegations, along with Harman’s admissions, became public knowledge and Harman not only resigned from the International Tennis Writers’ Association, but also was suspended by the London Times pending an investigation. While it is unclear what the results of that investigation were, Harman has not published an article for The London Times since the news about his plagiarism became public.
Importance: While Harman’s story is an all-too-familiar fall from grace for a well-respected journalist, what makes it more unique is the role of Wimbledon, one of the most respected organizations in Tennis. While it’s clear that Harman failed in his duties as an author, the tennis club also failed in its duties as his employer. Not only did it fail to detect the widespread plagiarism in his work, but it failed to remove the books quickly nce the issue did come to light. In the fight against plagiarism, employers and editors have an important role to play, especially when plagiarism is detected. Those are obligations that Wimbledon failed on in this case.
In October, iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was accused of plagiarizing in her self-titled memoir. The allegations came from author Paul Gorman, who wrote “The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion”. He claimed to have found some 40 pages in Westwood’s memoir that were similar to his books. However, he was quick to shift blame away from Westwood herself and, instead, put the focus on the book’s co-author, Ian Kelly, and the book’s publisher. The book also came under fire for claimed inaccuracies, false dates, spelling mistakes and allegations of exaggerated claims. However, as of this writing, the book has not been pulled and no plans have been announced to amend or correct the work.
Importance: Westwood is one of the biggest names in fashion. Her memoir was highly-anticipated and sold extremely well because of her importance in the industry. However, a memoir, even one that is co-authored, is meant to be a deeply personal work, a reflection of the author in the most intimate of ways. The issues with the book, including the plagiarism allegations, may not have a tremendous impact on Westwood’s name, but it certainly has had one on the book, tarnishing its credibility and overshadowing what should have been a crown jewel in an illustrious career. The lesson from Westwood’s story is that, since a memoir is such a personal work, it is all the more crucial to ensure that it is free of plagiarism and other factual issues, whicht is something that Westwood, her editor and her publisher all failed to do.
In July of this year, two pseudonymous Twitter users, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort began a blog, Our Bad Media, with the aim of highlighting instances of what they see as plagiarized text in the news media. So far, the duo have targeted three individuals: Benny Johnson, Fareed Zakaria and, most recently, Malcolm Gladwell. Each subject became the target of multiple posts, each highlighting passages of text that they see as examples of plagiarism. They rose to fame on the success of their allegations against Johnson (more on him in a bit) but their allegations against Zakaria failed to gain any traction. It’s too early to tell if their claims against Gladwell will fare any better. What is clear is that, in 2014, these two established themselves as two of the media’s biggest watch dogs and we will likely be hearing a great deal more from them in 2015.
Importance: Along with the rise of citizen journalism comes the rise in citizen plagiarism enforcement and Our Bad Media is an excellent example of that. This type of citizen involvement in plagiarism matters has been going on for years in other countries, such as the VroniPlag Wiki in Germany, which played a key role in ending the careers of several German politicians. However, Our Bad Media is the first public, organized and aggressive effort in the United States. But with only three accusations to date, it’s also difficult to determine what the motivations and intentions of the duo are, but their impact has already been felt in a significant way.
In November, University of Regina engineering professor Shahid Azam became the center of a national, and international plagiarism story as former master student of his, Arjun Paul, accused him of plagiarism. According to Paul, Azam plagiarized his thesis when he published a paper in the journal Environmental Geotechnics. The journal, after investigating, withdrew the paper but chose not to bar Azam from future submissions calling the matter “one of poor judgment”. But what started as a small plagiarism allegation turned into a national scandal when Azam fired back at Paul, saying that the reason the words overlapped wasn’t because he had ripped off Paul’s work, but because he had written the portion of Paul’s thesis. Azam went on to criticize Paul’s work, saying that much of Paul’s thesis was based on a joint paper the two did, which Azam claims he largely wrote. Paul also responded, saying that he had graduated without trouble and that there were no concerns with his work when he was a student.
Importance: The case struck an immediate chord with many in academia. First over the power dynamics involved in the plagiarism allegation, but also over the larger questions that were raised by the case. If Azam is to be believed, what does it say that he ignored plagiarism in Paul’s thesis and allowed him to earn a master’s degree, knowing that it was not deserved? If Paul is to be believed, why is a professor allowed to plagiarize from a student’s work and not face more serious consequences? No matter which version of the story is real, serious questions about academic integrity are raised, not just for the school, but for engineering departments all over the world.
With an election in 2014, it was inevitable that there would be a few stories about plagiarism in politics and two of those stories had an eerily similar thread. First, Mary Burke, a Democrat running for governor in Wisconsin faced allegations of plagiarism after it was revealed that sections of her jobs plan were largely copied from other Democratic candidates. Second, Dr. Monica Wehby, a Republican running for the Senate in Oregon, was found to have lifted parts of her health care and economic plans from various Republican sources. Both candidates claimed, with some legitimacy, that the plagiarized material came from outside consultants and contributors to their campaigns. Though the campaigns were both forced to address the issue, neither seemed to be greatly impacted by the allegations and, in the end, they seemed to have little impact on the actual election, even though both candidates went on to lose in the election.
Importance: Though neither campaign was severely affected by the allegations, a light was placed on the role of consultants in campaigns and the importance of verifying the originality of their work. Both campaigns were underdog efforts and the plagiarism scandal, though not a lethal blow, certainly didn’t help their efforts. As politicians in the U.S. gear up for 2016, campaigning for which will likely begin next year, avoiding distractions like plagiarism allegations will be crucial and part of that will likely be more thorough vetting of the work from outside contributors.
In November, a city court in Delhi India briefly sent former Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental to jail over allegations that he was involved in the plagiarism of another professor’s work. The case actually has roots going all the way back to 1995, when P. Pardha Saradhi began his work on genetically modifying Indian Mustard. In 2000, a PhD student working under Saradhi left his team and went to work with Pental. In 2008, after Saradhi transferred to Dehli University he raised concerns that the student had plagiarized his earlier work and that Pental was complicit in the deed. When the university failed to act to Saradhi’s satisfaction, he took the matter to the nation’s courts in 2009. The criminal allegations focused on copyright infringement, which are the grounds that Pental was put in jail for. However, his stay in jail was very brief as his lawyers quickly petitioned for his release on grounds that the charges were bailable and that the court had acted prematurely. The student at the center of the scandal is currently abroad but may face similar charges when he returns home.
Importance: The case sent shockwaves globally. The idea of a professor spending any amount of time in jail over allegations of academic plagiarism is shocking. In the United States, for example, researchers routinely win millions in grants on the basis of plagiarized and/or duplicative grants. While those grants are often revoked or the researcher barred from future submissions, there are rarely, if ever, criminal punishments The idea that a researcher, especially one not directly involved with the plagiarism, could face jail time was more shocking than the allegations themselves but further highlights just how intertwined the court of law is becoming with academic plagiarism issues.
In July, Benny Johnson became the first target of the the anonymous bloggers at Our Bad Media as they began reporting on instances where the alleged Buzzfeed editor Benny Johnson had reused passages and sections of work without proper attribution. Initially, Buzzfeed stood by Johnson. Editor in chief Ben Smith called Johnson one of their most original authors. But as the allegations and evidence began to pile up, Buzzfeed launched their own investigation and, soon thereafter fired Johnson from their staff. According to Buzzfeed’s apology, Johnson had committed at least 41 acts of plagiarism over the course of over 500 stories written. However, Johnson ended up having something of a soft landing. Just a few months later, he was hired by the National Review Online to head up the publications social media efforts. Though his position originally didn’t involve any reporting, he began writing articles for the site in November.
Importance: Benny Johnson was a series of firsts. He was the first to be targeted by Our Bad Media, he was the first major plagiarism scandal to only affect non-traditional media and he was the first to have the pall of plagiarism cast upon him, but to find new work so quickly. The latter is what has had most continuing to talk about Johnson’s name. Other famous plagiarists such as Jonah Lehrer and Jayson Blair were essentially blackballed from the industry and have been unable to quickly find new work. However, Johnson not only had a new job within three months, but he was reporting again within four. This has led many to wonder if attitudes toward plagiarism have changed and if, in journalism, it isn’t being treated as seriously of a transgression as it was just a few years ago.
Finally in July, a plagiarism story broke that, quite literally, changed the landscape of American politics. At the time John Walsh was the junior Senator for the state of Montana. He was appointed to the position in February of that year after Senator Max Baucus was appointed the Ambassador to China. Walsh, a Democrat was heading into a tough reelection bid. However, in July that bid became even more difficult. Walsh was accused of plagiarism in his master’s thesis from the Army War College. According to the allegations, nearly the entirety of his paper was lifted verbatim or near-verbatim from sources that were either never attributed or were attributed but not indicated to be quoted from. All totalled, less than 25% of the thesis appeared to be wholly original. While Walsh initially tried to press on with his campaign, things began to quickly fall apart for him. In August, Walsh dropped out of the race, making a victory for his Republican challenger all but certain. Later it was revealed that it was a group associated with the Republican party that discovered the plagiarism and timed the release of the information to do as much harm to Walsh’s campaign as possible. Shortly after the initial allegations, the Army War College announced it would conduct an inquiry into his thesis. In October, the school announced it was revoking his degree, including removing his name from a plaque displayed prominently at the school. Walsh, for his part continued to claim that the plagiarism was an “honest mistake” and not a reflection on his integrity.
Importance: It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Walsh scandal. Though Walsh was seen as a vulnerable candidate even before the the plagiarism revelations. The scandal virtually guaranteed that the seat would be won by a Republican and helping push the Senate toward Republican control. While political plagiarism stories are common during election years, they are usually sidenotes and not important to the larger picture, such as with Mary Burke and Monica Wehby. However, in this case, the allegations are directly responsible to a Senator abandoning his campaign and virtually ensuring that the race is lost. Few, plagiarism stories in history have had such a strong impact not just on an election, but national politics and it is certainly a warning to candidates in 2016, a warning that plagiarism, even in their past, is a serious issue that can bring about an end to their political careers.
In 2014, no plagiarist was safe. Whether you were a new politician embarking on a promising career or a researcher with decades of work to your name, the risk of being caught and punished was ever present.
As citizen interest in plagiarism continues to rise and the technology to detect it continuously gets better, it’s inevitable that more and more plagiarists are going to be revealed. How the world will react to this rise in detected plagiarism, however, remains to be seen.
What is certain is that 2015 will, almost certainly, be another year punctuated by plagiarism allegations and scandals. Though there won’t be an election in the United States, there is always a steady stream of researchers, journalists, celebrities and others who get caught lifting the work of others.
As 2014 winds down, the stage is set for yet another significant year in 2015, though, hopefully, some of the lessons from this year, as well as previous years, will carry over.
While we probably will never be able to stop plagiarism, we can learn from past mistakes to minimize plagiarism, handle it effectively and mitigate its impact and the stories from 2014 offer us a good number of lessons on how to do exactly that.
Topics: Current Events