First off in this edition, the BBC reports that Taiwanese Defense Minister Andrew Yang resigned a mere six days after taking the office due to plagiarism allegations. Yang, who took the office after his predecessor stepped down in the midst of a scandal involving the death of an army conscript, found himself embroiled in controversy after it was discovered that an article written under his name contained plagiarized material. According to Yang, the article, which was about mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army, was written by a friend of his for him. Yang quickly admitted to the plagiarism, calling it a “personal mistake” and apologized for the infraction. In his resignation, Yang said that the government was facing “great challenges” and that his actions had hurt the ministry’s honor. Yang, who was the first civilian to have held the position, was succeeded by Yen Ming, who is currently the Minister of National Defense.
Analysis: As we had discussed in our previous coverage on the iThenticate blog, Yang’s quick resignation is as likely due to the tough political climate in Taiwan as it is to the plagiarism itself. With protests against the military and a President with a mere 13% approval rating, Yang’s mission was tough enough before the plagiarism allegations further undermined his credibility. But Yang’s story goes beyond a cautionary tale about how plagiarizing early in one’s career can come back to haunt you at any time, it’s a tale about how such plagiarism can actually hurt much, much more. Yang’s plagiarism and sudden departure added further chaos to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry and has done nothing to make a difficult situation for Taiwan’s government any better. In short, Yang went from being someone who could help solve the problems the Taiwanese government faced to making them significantly worse. In the end, one of the worst dangers of committing plagiarism is not the potential harm one can do to their own life and their own career, but to the inevitable harm and hurt that befalls those who trust them.
Next up, James Vaznis at The Boston Globe reports that Jaime Moody, a newly-appointed principal at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Maryland, resigned amid a plagiarism scandal that began shortly after she sent her first memo to her staff. The scandal began when Moody was discovered to have plagiarized an article from Forbes in a memo sent to her staff. That memo, which was sent July 9th, contained approximately 300 words of barely-edited passages from a May column by Forbes columnist Margie Warrell. When the initial plagiarism was brought to light, Moody apologized and admitted to having copied the words and passed them off as her own. The department, however, declined to say if it would take disciplinary action against Moody. Shortly after that, the Boston Globe learned that Moody had also plagiarized in a 13-page memo that she sent as she was applying for the principal position. The plagiarism included several sentences from a book by Rev. Gregory Boyle and an example of a 1999 educational philosophy statement found on the Oregon State website. With those allegations, Moody chose to resign from her position and the district has accepted it, and are already beginning the search for a replacement. Prior to her obtaining the position as principal, Moody was the 2005 educator of the year in Boston public schools.
Analysis: For Moody and her school district, it’s definitely best that the plagiarism was discovered early and that the issue was concluded fairly quickly. Though she was still forced to resign and the district is still in the awkward position of having to search for another principal so quickly, things could have been much worse if she stayed in the position and committed even more acts of plagiarism as part of her job. Though it’s impossible to know what would have happened if she hadn’t been detected so early, the fact that she plagiarized both in her application and in her very first memo says that, most likely, the trend of plagiarism would have continued and worsened. As it sits now, the district is not too badly damaged by Moody’s actions and Moody herself has an opportunity to learn from the experience and move forward with her life. While it will be hard for her given how well this plagiarism has been reported, it would have been impossible if there had been many more incidents. In short, Moody, her district and her students were all best served by catching this early, before it became something much worse.
Next up, Eddie Gregg at the Billings Gazette reports that Max Lenington, the assessor, treasurer and superintendent of schools in Yellowstone County, Montana has come under fire for alleged plagiarism in a series of editorials he wrote and those allegations have led to a legal review of his actions. Trouble started for Lenington after conservative writer Mychal Massie accused Lenington of plagiarizing his syndicated anti-Obama editorial for a letter to the editor. Shortly thereafter, further investigation found that another letter to the editor carrying Lenington’s name plagiarized an online petition by another author. The investigation into Lenington’s alleged plagiarism also led to the discovery that he had used his office computer and email account to send out at least some of the letters to the editor, a violation of county’s policy on personal use of county-owned equipment. The county, in response to that, has started a legal review to see if any of Lenington’s action warrant further response.
Analysis: When plagiarism and politics mix, it’s usually politics that makes up the lion’s share of the issue, regardless of how serious the plagiarism is. However, Lenington’s case is somewhat unique in that the allegations don’t come from political opponents, but fellow conservative authors. This indicates that the allegations, though political in nature due to the subject of the pieces and Lenington’s position, are almost certainly not politically motivated. Lenington himself has been involved in Yellowstone County government consistently since 1969. A small county with just over 150,000 residents, Lenington plays a large number of roles in Yellowstone and is an important figure in the community. Even if the plagiarism scandal doesn’t end his career, it still puts an unnecessary blemish on it and creates a distraction for the county he serves. What happens next to Lenington is up to himself, the voters and other county officials, but as we’ve seen in other cases involving smaller political races, plagiarism scandals can have a big impact in local politics.
Also in this edition, Chris Palmer at The Scientist reports that Pratima Karnik, an assistant professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University, has been found by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to have plagiarized “significant portions” of a grant proposal he submitted to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). As a result, Karnik has been censured by the ORI and, per an agreement she reached with officials, Karnik has agreed to have her research supervised for two years and she has agreed to excuse herself from participating in any US Public Health Service advisory committees during that time. The ORI investigation found that Karnik’s grant plagiarized from a variety of sources including another research proposal submitted to NIAMS, one Karnik had been asked to review, eight other research papers and a patent application that can be found online. During her period of supervision, Karnik will have to submit a plan detailing how any projects she participates in will be supervised and her institution will have to sign off on her work, certifying that it has not been plagiarized.
Analysis: What makes Karnik’s case somewhat unique is how brazen it was. Plagiarizing from a research proposal that one was asked to review is not just a bold act, but a deep violation of the trust that comes both with submitting a research proposal and being asked to review one. Though the punishment Karnik is receiving may seem light, especially considering the severity of the breach of trust, it is still her first offense and, more importantly, she was cooperative with the investigation. This, in turn, could be an excellent opportunity to educate on the subject of plagiarism and help a researcher do better work down the road. Furthermore, it’s likely that a more severe punishment would not be in the best interest of dermatology patients that may benefit from her research. Hopefully, she can learn from this incident and move forward, doing better work that doesn’t lift from others without attribution and conduct research that moves her field forward.
In another international story this edition, Frances Mechan-Schmidt at The Times Higher Education reports that the German Research foundation (the Deutsche Forschungs-gemeinschaft, or DFG) has responded to a request from the German government on the issue of research plagiarism by altering its guidelines on the reporting of misconduct. According to the new guidelines, universities should no longer investigate allegations of plagiarism from anonymous sources. The shift comes after several anonymous sources were responsible for alerting both the media and universities to plagiarism committed by high-ranking German politicians, including two ministers who were forced to resign after their degrees were revoked. The DFG says that it will continue to investigate plagiarism claims made by non-anonymous sources, but will not work with anonymous whistleblowers until they are willing to come forth and be named. The DFG also added that they will treat the identity of the whistleblower in strict confidence during the investigation. Despite, the assurances from the DFG, this move has led many to fear that discovered plagiarism allegations, especially against politicians and others in power, could be kept quiet as the people who learn of them may not be willing to be named for fear of reprisals. Furthermore, the German Rectors’ Conference, which helped draft the original guidelines with the DFG in 1998, who feels that there needs to be a more balanced approach, one that allows anonymous complaints to be filed, but to also ensure that they are filed by people acting in good faith.
Analysis: Germany has been the epicenter for plagiarism scandals in recent years. With two ministers and many lower-ranking politicians pushed out of office after having their degrees revoked, the country became something of a model for citizen action on plagiarism matters that’s been replicated in Romania, Hungary and elsewhere. Much of this research and whistleblowing has been done by anonymous users of various Wikis, the most prominent of which is the VroniPlag Wiki, and this policy change, which the universities have to comply with, risks cutting that movement off at its knees. While it’s certain that the scandals have been an unwelcome distraction for the German government and an embarrassment internationally, anonymous tipsters have helped remove unqualified politicians from their post and brought light to misdeeds that, otherwise, would have gone unnoticed. Though it is unlikely that the DFG is actively seeking to crush legitimate complaints about previous research, that could easily be a side effect of the new policy. This is especially true when dealing with politicians, supervisors and other people with authority over the whistleblower as the fear of reprisal becomes a significant and legitimate concern. Finding a balance between enabling legitimate whistleblowing and avoiding needless and false investigations is a difficult one to strike, not just in plagiarism but in any issue. Unfortunately, the DFG’s policy, as written, doesn’t seem to strike that balance very well.
In an update to a story we covered in issue 13 of CTRL-V, Megan Semeraz and Dylan Dulberg at The Oakland Press report that Mary Stein, recently appointed the interim dean of the School of Education at Oakland University, will be stepping down from the post. Stein was formerly the interim associate provost at the college but, along with colleague Timothy Larrabee, faced controversy after the Association for Science Teacher Education handed down a series of punishments on the pair over allegations that they had self-plagiarized, duplicating research and work in two separate journals without attribution. The association had retracted Stein’s papers and barred her and her colleagues from having any of their work accepted by sponsored publications until 2015. But despite these actions, Stein was promoted to the interim dean role after the retractions were known. Stein has now stepped down from the post. According to an official statement from the university, Stein wants to “Return to the faculty to continue serving the university.” However, the university has asked Stein to stay on in the role until they can appoint a new interim dean.
Analysis: As was discussed previously, the issue of self-plagiarism, sometimes called recycling, is a thorny one and there is still a great deal of debate as to when it constitutes unethical behavior. However, to promote someone who was so recently penalized by an important organization in her field shows poorly on the university and Stein, most likely, did the right thing by stepping down. Still, the incident shows just how far apart the policies and viewpoints are on self-plagiarism. Where one university doesn’t even include it in its policies, a major organization seems it an offense worthy of a three-year ban. If anything, this story is an excellent opportunity to continue the dialog about self-plagiarism and under what contexts it is an ethical violation. As this case shows, there are still many issues to be settled.
Finally, Christopher Zara at the International Business Times reports that the Daily Mail, a popular newspaper in the United Kingdom, took a beating online after a columnist posted an article that bore a strong resemblance to an earlier piece posted on the comedy site Cracked. On August 11, Daily Mail columnist Ruth Styles posted a column entitled “World’s Worst Tourists Revealed”, which contained five separate tales of international tourists who had destroyed or damaged priceless objects in their travels. However, Styles chose the exact same five examples as an August 10th article on the US-based site Cracked, posted by author XJ Selman. Though Styles did not copy any text, she used the exact same five examples and even used many of the same images as the Cracked article. However, neither Selman nor Cracked were credited in Styles’ article originally. This prompted outrage on the Internet, most prominently on Twitter and Reddit, and The Daily Mail eventually added two links to Cracked, one at the beginning and one at the end of the article. However, before the scandal could completely die off, Cracked responded with a humorous rebuttal on the 14th, sincerely apologizing for using its “fabulous space-time powers” to look into the future and plagiarize The Daily Mail.
Analysis: As we talked about previously on the blog, Cracked was in a difficult spot when it came to the plagiarism. Though it was clear that The Daily Mail had acted unethically, it wasn’t a type of plagiarism that normally qualifies as copyright infringement so a lawsuit was, most likely, out of the question. In the end, Cracked’s best weapons for dealing with the plagiarism were the social media engine it has behind it, including several prominent posts on Reddit, and its humor. To that end, Cracked succeeded, not only in making public light about the plagiarism and forcing The Daily Mail to add attribution to the article, but also in improving their own name and reputation. While plagiarism is a serious ethical issue, like many difficult subjects, it’s often best approached through humor, especially when there is no other solution in sight.