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CTRL-V Plagiarism in the News - Issue 9

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Mar 24, 2013 6:35:00 AM



NSF Audit of Successful Proposals Finds Numerous Cases of Alleged Plagiarism

First off today, Jeffrey Mervis of Science Magazine writes that the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently performed an audit of proposals it had accepted funding for in 2012 and, in doing so, discovered nearly 100 cases of alleged plagiarism. The NSF is an independent Federal government institution and is responsible for funding about 20% of all Federally-supported government research at universities. The audit, which only looked at proposals that were funded, found that between 1 and 1.5 percent of all accepted proposals had some degree of plagiarism in it. According to the NSF’s Inspector General, Allison Lerner, the organization’s six investigators are “swamped” trying to handle the influx of new investigations. Lerner also testified before the House of Representatives Science Committee saying that, extrapolated across all the 45,000 proposals the NSF receives annually, some 1,300 could contain plagiarism and another 450 to 900 could have problematic data. The NSF has not announced what action it may be taking against the proposals that were found to have unattributed content. However, plagiarism, along with falsification and fabrication, is recognized as research misconduct. To date, the NSF has issued 120 findings of research misconduct and, according to Lerner, “more than 80%” involved plagiarism.

Analysis: The announcement that the NSF has discovered such a large amount of plagiarism in proposals it had already funded is both a blow for the organization’s reputation and an eye-opening realization in general. For one, it highlights just how major of a problem plagiarism still is. Though one percent may seem to be a low number, it’s important to remember that these are just the proposals that were funded and not the ones that had their misconduct detected and were discarded. These proposals passed every single check and balance and were awarded Federal funds. Furthermore, according to the NSF budget, this plagiarism could represent some $96 million in funding that was given to proposals with plagiarism. That’s nearly $100 million that could have gone to research without misconduct in it. However, the bigger problem is that it shows the checks and balances in place to catch research misconduct are clearly not adequate. While mistakes are always going to happen, especially at an organization as large as the NSF, this is simply too high of an error rate to accept and highlights the need for such institutions to implement plagiarism detection tools as part of their process of selecting proposals to fund. Even if such tools only caught half of the papers, they would have freed up $50 million for other research to be performed.


Jane Goodall’s ‘Seeds of Hope’ Book Contains Borrowed Passages Without Attribution

Next up,  Steven Levingston at The Washington Post reports that Jane Goodall, the primatologist best known for her studies of chimpanzees, has found herself at the center of a plagiarism controversy after it was revealed that passages from her new book “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants” were copied without attribution. The passages in question range from short phrases to entire paragraphs, many of which are taken from websites such as Wikipedia. Goodall said that she is “distressed” to learn of the missing citations and expressed her apologies. She also promised to discuss the problems on her blog and to correct future editions of the book. However, no post on her blog has been made as of this writing. Gail Hudson, the book’s co-author had no comment. Goodall’s publisher, Grand Central, said that they have no plans to take action against Goodall or the book beyond “crediting the sources in subsequent releases.” The Washington Post article linked above, lists many of the passages discovered, however, in total at least one dozen passages appear to have been copied without attribution.

Analysis: Goodall’s name and reputation are both stellar and well-known. That is part of why these plagiarism allegations are so worrisome. Goodall is a famous and well-respected researcher who has been involved in research for nearly 50 years. There has been no plagiarism allegations raised about her work to date and such a veteran researcher should not be running afoul of plagiarism so deep into her career. Though the Washington Post never called the copying “plagiarism” directly, it’s clear that the copied passages are sizable enough to warrant an even closer look into the book. However, both Goodall and her publisher seem content on not investigating the book and, instead, are just seeking to correct the record online and in future editions of the book. As the Washington Post piece points out, this would not be acceptable in academia. The article interviewed Lena Struwe, a Rutgers biology professor, who said that, if a student turned in a paper with similar infractions they would be reported to administrators. Goodall, as both a veteran researcher and as a public face for biology needs to take these allegations more seriously as does her publisher. Young biology students that look up to Goodall may get the wrong impressions on plagiarism if they follow the guidelines set by this case.


Celebrity Speaker Accused of Plagiarism

In international news today, The Korea Herald reports that South Korean celebrity Kim Mi-kyung has been accused of plagiarism. According to reports, Mi-kyung plagiarized four other papers when writing her 2007 master’s thesis. Her university, Ewha Womans University, is investigating the allegations. Mi-kyung for her part claims that the missing citations were not plagiarisms but rather “careless mistakes” and “technical errors”. She further said that she, “Didn’t betray my moral conscience,” when writing the papers. Mi-kyung is a well known television celebrity in South Korea, hosting a popular talk show at the Total Variety Network (tvN) and also author of the bestseller book “Dream On”, which followed individuals as they followed their dreams. tvN announced that they would not be changing her show’s schedule until a ruling was made by her university.

Analysis: Plagiarism in South Korea has been a hot topic for many years, with concerns that the country’s reputation for plagiarism could be harming its international reputation academically. According to academics working in the country, South Korea’s understanding of plagiarism is still fairly new and consensus on the topic is still somewhat limited. That being said, South Korea is not immune to the wave of plagiarism scandals that have been sweeping the world. Though the trend started in Germany and seemingly swept across eastern Europe and into Russia, plagiarism scandals have rapidly become a near-worldwide phenomenon and are a powerful way to target politicians and celebrities. While locally these scandals are often targeted and attributed to the individuals involved, internationally, where they are less-known, the scandals are often attributed to the country, reflecting badly on the entire nation’s reputation. This represents a danger in these scandals as they can make entire nations seem like plagiarism havens even if there is a dedicated movement to detecting and fighting it. Finding balance in dealing with plagiarism and not causing excessive collateral damage is a tough one to strike, especially with so many high-profile individuals being caught up in such cases.


Florence School Superintendent Suspended for Plagiarism

Also this edition, David Erickson at the Ravalli Republic writes that John McGee, the Superintendent of the Florence-Carlton School District in Montana has been suspended for 10 days following the discovery that he plagiarized an article he published in a district newsletter, putting his byline on a story written by a school administrator in Georgia. McGee admitted the allegations and a special meeting of the district’s board was convened to determine what punishment should be handed down. The board initially voted 4-1 against terminating McGee’s employment but then unanimously voted to suspend McGee for 10 working days without pay. The issue with the newsletter was originally discovered by an anonymous blogger who operates a website named the Florence Carlton Review. That blogger also claims to have uncovered four other instances of plagiarism on McGee’s part. McGee has apologized to the board, to several classrooms of students and to the person he plagiarized. McGee’s suspension will begin March 25th and last through April 5th.

Analysis: As with the Chris Spence case in Edition 7, superintendents and other school officials have a very high obligation when it comes to plagiarism and academic integrity issues. Their actions set an example for students, including very young ones, and can either help show them how to correctly participate in the academic process or lead them down the wrong path. That makes the difference between these two cases very striking. Though Spence initially seemed poised to survive the allegations of plagiarism, as new cases were uncovered he was eventually pushed into resigning from his position. The same does not seem to be happening to McGee. Part of the cause is likely that McGee does not seem to be a controversial and polarizing figure like Spence. Many people came out to support McGee at the school board meeting despite the plagiarism allegations. However, the size of the school district also likely plays into it. Spence was the head of Toronto’s largest school district while McGee district has only three schools, a high school, a middle school and an elementary school. Still, none of that excuses the weak response from the school district and the lack of investigation into the other allegations. Small district or large, the superintendent is the ethical leader of the entire school district.


Harvard Search of Email Stuns Its Faculty Members

In an update to a story last discussed in Edition 8 of CTRL+V, Richard Pérez-Peña at The New York Times reports that faculty members at Harvard are criticizing the school after learning that the school’s administration secretly searched the email accounts of 16 resident deans in an attempt to learn who leaked information about the recent plagiarism scandal to the media. The scandal broke in late 2012 when it was discovered more than 120 students were facing disciplinary action over plagiarism in a take home test in a government class. Resident deans at Harvard have two email addresses, one general account for the position and one that is in their name. The school said that it only searched the accounts specifically for the post of the resident dean, not the more personal ones, and it limited the search to emails with headers related to the cheating scandal. Still, many of Harvard’s staff have decried the search, which the deans were not notified of in advance, saying that it was “dishonorable” and against the common practices of the university. However, the university says that the position of the resident dean means that they can be treated as staff and can have their accounts searched at any time.

Analysis: Though the scandal was a black eye for Harvard at the time, the way the university handled the scandal, being forthright with the public and transparent about its process, received high praise from many. However, Harvard’s search here paints that response in a new light. Originally, it appeared as if the school was trying to be open about the process but now it appears that the school not only was trying to keep the matter at least more under wraps, but actively trying to chase down the people who were leaking information. Transparency and honesty about plagiarism issues is a difficult topic for universities that often are loathe to talk about these problems at all, let alone when the discussion may put their university in a negative light. It appears now that Harvard’s transparency was not entirely planned and that the University, to some degree, tried to keep information on the matter restricted. However, it failed and that, most likely, helped the school in the long run. After all, its transparency and clarity on the matter is part of what helped the school avoid the scandal becoming bigger or giving its reputation a larger blemish.


Plagiarism Debate “Vastly Overblown”, “A Distraction” - Zynga

Finally in this edition, in a case of less-than traditional plagiarism allegations, Matt Maguire at Gameplanet reports that video game maker Zynga has been put in the position of clarifying previous statements that gave many the impression that it knowingly plagiarizes other titles to create their games. Recently Zynga settled a lawsuit filed by Electronic Arts that alleged Zynga had infringed the EA game “The Sims Social” when making their title “The Ville”. Though the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, it was cheered among many in the video game community as Zynga has earned something of a reputation for making close clones of competing games. Zynga, which specializes in social games, in particular on Facebook, has repeatedly denied that it plagiarizes competitors. However, a recent statement from a Zynga official said that Zynga routinely copies ideas from other games, prompting Zynga to release an open letter clarifying those statements. According to that open letter, what Zynga meant to say was that, “All games are derived from other games,” a practice that has been happening long before Zynga. The statement went on to say that they have “Made lots of games that were inspired by games we loved and we emulated the mechanics from games with great UI. This is no great revelation.” Zynga also said that their great strength is being able to create games as a service and market them as such.

Analysis: Video games are still an emerging artform. With less than fifty years of history, much of what makes a game a game is still up for debate. It remains to be seen what elements of games will be standard to the artform, like a three-act story is to writing, and which will be unique to individual games. Not only does this mean the video game industry is one of constant revolution right now, with new genres being created and discarded, but determining what is and is not plagiarism is often a tricky matter. Zynga, with its games, has often times treaded into the gray area, too much so for many in the field, closely mimicking games by smaller competitors. However, it was only EA, a much larger company in the video game industry, that has sued Zynga for this practice. In the future, it’s likely that companies such as Zynga, ones that push the boundaries of what is considered plagiarism in the industry, will either be considered examples for others to follow, or warnings to others on what not to do. However, deciding that will take time as such a consensus is not reached quickly.

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