First off today, Natalie Stechyson of The Windsor Star is reporting on a Supreme Court case in Canada that is raising questions about when and if it is acceptable for a judge to plagiarize his or her rulings. The case centers around a family that filed suit against a hospital after a complication with a birth left their child severely brain damaged. The family sued the hospital and the trial court awarded them $4 million in damages. However, upon evaluation of the judge’s decision, it was found that the trial judge had lifted some 321 paragraphs (out of 368) near-verbatim and without attribution from submissions from the applicants (plaintiffs). Lawyers for the hospital appealed the ruling, claiming that the level of copying indicated that the judgment did not represent the judge’s analysis. The appeals court agreed with that and rejected the judgment, prompting the family’s lawyers to file a petition with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Canada heard the matter on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 but the ruling is not expected immediately.
Analysis: The legal profession has always held a different standard on what is and is not plagiarism than other fields. Copying is widely expected as, often times, there is only one acceptable way to word something and there is little room for creativity. But while this practice is common among lawyers, it is a different matter for judges, especially when they copy heavily and without attribution from one of the sides involved in the case, as they are supposed to be impartial in disputes. However, the rules as to how much a judge is allowed to copy, especially without attribution, is unclear and it’s possible that this case could set a standard not just in Canada, but also have an impact elsewhere.
Next up today, in a follow up to a story we talked about in the second CTRL+V, GMA News in the Philippines reports that three U.S. bloggers, as well as academics from within the Philippines, have lodged a formal ethics complaint against Senator Vicente Sotto III over allegations of plagiarism. According to the accusations, which have been filed with the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges in the Philippines, Sotto plagiarized from three different bloggers when giving speeches to the Senate on a controversial piece of legislation. Sotto has repeatedly denied any plagiarism and has even lashed out at his accusers, questioning their motives and understanding of the issue. Sotto has also said that he welcomes the formal inquiry as it will give him “A chance to prove there was no such thing (plagiarism).” In a related story, the daughter of Robert Kennedy, who Sotto is also accused of plagiarizing, has said to have rejected Sotto’s an apology from the Senator arguing that he never admitted to plagiarism in it.
Analysis: Sotto’s plagiarism scandal has sparked a serious discussion in the nation about the broader issue of plagiarism and has now even pushed local academics to take a serious stand. However, for Sotto himself, the scandal most likely would have been over by now if he had simply apologized for the plagiarism and acknowledged his mistakes. Instead, by lashing out he has turned what could have been nothing more than an odd footnote to a national controversy into a several-month long scandal that is now becoming a formal investigation and a matter of international tension.
Also in politics, during the run up to the 2012 election, one race in a small Massachusetts town grew especially contentious as allegations of plagiarism began to fly. According to Kelly Mello at Norton’s Patch site, A. Keith Carreiro, a Democratic candidate running for State Representative was accused of plagiarism by his Republican opponent, Steven Howitt. The controversy started over responses both candidates provided to a questionnaire that was published in a local newspaper, The Herald News. According to Howitt, several passages from Carreiro’s responses were lifted from other sources. Carreiro acknowledged that parts of his answers came from other sources including the state Democratic Party, which he says offered the statements for use in the media, and from a consulting firm he had hired to look at his answers, which in turn had provided the same passages to earlier campaigns. Carreiro, who holds a Doctorate in Education, denied any wrongdoing and said that, as a teacher, he tries to help his students understand “The need to research and educate oneself about issues on which they may not have sufficient knowledge.” However, Carreiro was defeated in the election which saw Howitt receive 2,226 votes to Carreiro’s 1,366.
Analysis: In large elections, plagiarism allegations often don’t have a strong impact on the outcome. With so many votes, so much press coverage, so many large issues and so many character attacks, allegations of plagiarism often seem tame. However, in local elections, where fewer votes separate candidates and news coverage is more sparse, such allegations can have a tremendous impact. It’s unclear if this election hinged in any way on the plagiarism allegations, but considering that just under 3,500 votes were involved, it’s easy to show it could have happened.
Next up today, Romania’s troubles with plagiarism continue as Alison Abbott at Nature writes about a recent report from the watchdog site Integru, which has found widespread plagiarism in a grant application submitted for public funds. The application centers around project involving “Optical wireless-based networks for broadband multi-services applications”. The project, named OWHAN, requested €465,000 (US$593,000) but was not accepted. Experts have said that the proposal was heavily plagiarized from various sources with one expert describing it as one of the most blatant cases of plagiarism he had seen. One thing that makes this case particularly interesting is that Ecaterina Andronescu signed the application in her role as a rector at one of the universities. However, Andronescu recently became the country’s research minister. The proposal is fifth of fourteen reported in February to be investigated. The country’s policy, however, states that all cases are supposed to be handled within 90 days. The allegations could not come at a worse time for Romania as the country’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, is still battling allegations he plagiarized his doctoral thesis and other government ministers as well as university leaders have been embroiled in plagiarism scandals, with many being forced to resign.
Analysis: Romania’s reputation internationally is still struggling when it comes to plagiarism. High profile scandals involving government ministers and the Prime Minister himself have put the country in a very negative light and, as this report shows, the problems continue to come up. As we talked about in the second CTRL+V, Romanian scientists are already wary of coming back to the country for events due to the plagiarism issues. If the country is going to turn these issues around, it needs to get more serious about “cleaning house” and dealing with the issues seriously rather than feet dragging and trying to sweep the problems aside. Until then, the country is going to take hit after hit on plagiarism issues and have no clear path to correcting or improving the situation.
In a similar story, Mićo Tatalović of Chemistry World reports that more than 800 scientists have signed a petition in just two weeks asking the Serbian government to take significant action against what they see as widespread scientific misconduct, including plagiarism, self-plagiarism, duplicative publishing and the formation of “citation cartels” that work to create references to each others’ works, even when it is unrelated. The petition cites several studies that have found widespread misconduct in Serbian research, including one that found that some 11% of all papers submitted to a nationwide index had some level of plagiarism. Scientists blame the high level of misconduct on the lack of strong action by the government. However, the scientists are not optimistic about their petition being accepted as the new government has already ignored an earlier petition seeking the establishment of a dedicated ministry for science.
Analysis: The move by scientist makes it clear the frustration that is felt by legitimate and honest researchers when they are confronted by a system that is experiencing widespread research misconduct. Scientists, typically, try to avoid injecting themselves into political discussions but the signatories of the petition understand that, without strong action from the government to root out corrupting forces in the nation’s research process, there will be no real progress and Serbia’s standing in the scientific community will suffer. Because of that and other policies, as one scientist quoted in the article pointed out, many of the country’s best and brightest are going leave to find more fertile and more stable places to do their work.
And finally today, in plagiarism detection news, Charlie Osborn at ZDNet reports that some teachers are using a new tool to detect whether or not a student is doing their work. Increasingly instructors have been turning to technology for help in detecting plagiarism in the classroom. Though this has primarily involved the increased use of plagiarism-detection systems, such as Turnitin, other methods, such as looking at the total editing time of a document, which Word tracks automatically, have also given teachers a heads up to when something is amiss with a paper. However, a new tool introduced by CourseSmart, a publisher of digital textbooks, measures not how long a student spent writing a paper, but how long the student reads the textbook. The purpose of the tool is to measure the engagement of the students in their work and how long they actually spend doing their assignments. However, the tool can also note students that spend little or no time reading the work that may be getting their research from elsewhere. CourseSmart expects the system, dubbed CourseSmart Analytics, to be widely available in 2013.
Analysis: Detecting and preventing plagiarism has never been about finding a “silver bullet”. Though technology is a very powerful tool, it’s only worked when teamed up with human intuition, plagiarism-resistant assignments and solid education on plagiarism. Though CourseSmart Analytics can certainly be very useful to help understand student engagement and also be a possible warning sign of possible plagiarism or misconduct, it is simply another tool. However, considering that there are already privacy concerns being raised about the tracking of students’ reading habits, it remains to be seen how widespread it will be implemented or if it will be trivial to defeat, as is the case with editing time measurements.
CTRL-V Plagiarism Newsletter - Issue 4 (Oct 25, 2012)