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When Self-Publishing and Academic Ethics Collide

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on May 6, 2016 7:00:00 AM

In July 2014, Owen Roberts was appointed the Superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools. The Florida school district, which includes Gainesville, is responsible for about 28,000 students and operates 41 schools.

However, the same month he received his appointment, Roberts self-published a book entitled A Framework for Improving School Systems in the 21st Century. Over the past year and a half, he’s not only proudly sold the book online, both digitally and in print, but he has given out copies to others, including Florida Governor Rick Scott.
Unfortunately for Roberts, an article in the Gainesville Sun has been drawing unwanted attention to the book, saying that more than a dozen paragraphs and two tables in the book are copied largely verbatim from other sources but contain inadequate attribution.

According to the article, 11 of the paragraphs involved came from a 1998 book entitled What Reading Does for the Mind by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich. Another five paragraphs come from Wikipedia that was first published in 2013. Finally, another paragraph and a chart were taken from a 2008 book entitled School Culture, School Climate by Steve Gruenert.

Roberts, however, denies plagiarism saying that he cites all of the sources in his bibliography. However, experts contacted by the paper noted that, while they are cited in the bibliography, they are not cited in the text and the near-verbatim portions are not placed in quotation marks.

Despite that, Roberts doesn’t feel that he violated any ethics, telling the Gainesville Sun that he, “Didn’t know there were academic norms at all,” surrounding his book.

Roberts is far from the first superintendent to run into plagiarism problems. The most famous case was in 2013 when the then-head of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, resigned after it was discovered that he plagiarized an op-ed piece for the Toronto Star.

However, it’s been a recurring theme since then. In a previous article, we took a look at seven other Superintendents, all of whom were accused of plagiarizing (with various outcomes) between 2013 and 2014.

But what makes Roberts case somewhat unique is that the plagiarism is not in his academic history nor is it directly related to his job. Roberts was not paid to publish this book. In fact, he paid an estimated $5,000 to have it printed.

This raises questions about the role of a superintendent outside of the classroom. If we are to believe that a superintendent is meant to be a role model for the students he or she governs, then this type of plagiarism is deeply disturbing and should impact their career. If not, then it’s no different than any other case of book plagiarism.

However, the question largely answers itself. Rogers, as superintendent, is not only responsible for the operations of the district, but plays a key role in setting and enforcing student policies. When a superintendent is unrepentant in the face of well-supported plagiarism allegations, it undermines the trust in the school’s plagiarism policies, but all of its academic integrity policies.

Even if Rogers, as he told the Gainesville Sun, believes that his book has a lower standard of attribution because it is self-published, he has to think about the standards he holds his students to and how much weight his policies will have when he himself has publicly violated them and shown no desire to correct them.

When it comes to plagiarism, teachers, principals and other school officials need to lead from the front and set an example. This means going above and beyond and showing a level of care and concern that, often times, feels like overkill.

However, by doing it, they ensure that parents and students alike will respect whatever policies are in place and that will make everyone’s job much, much easier.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.