The Year in Plagiarism: Really, Should We Care About Cheating?

photoby P.D. Lesko

In a few weeks, the 2012-2013 academic year will ease, grind, screech and/or jolt to a stop, depending on one’s perspective. Final exams and essays will be graded by faculty members on whose shoulders the responsibility for policing academic honesty falls. This is a particularly difficult part of the job for non-tenured faculty, whose terms of employment are often tenuous, at best. In May of 2012, AdjunctNation reported the story of Central Connecticut State University lecturer Ronald Moss. According to that piece:

A college history professor who assigned a 2006 term paper now at the heart of a civil court case explained Wednesday how he decided to accuse one student of cheating when faced with two strikingly similar papers.

Ronald Moss, who teaches a Western civilization course at Central Connecticut State University, testified that he never inquired whether it was possible to accuse both Matthew Coster and Cristina Duquette of plagiarizing each other’s work. Based on his analysis of their papers on the Holocaust, Moss testified on the second day of the trial, he determined that Coster was more likely to have done the copying.

“I was familiar with student papers and how they tend to go,” he said in response to a question from Coster’s attorney, Brennen Maki, in Superior Court in Waterbury.

Moss’ testimony provided the first glimpse into the reasoning behind CCSU officials’ decision to expel Coster in August 2006 — a ruling Coster appealed unsuccessfully to university officials in October of that year. The now 21-year-old New Milford man insists he is innocent and contends that CCSU officials decided he was guilty before giving him a hearing and without considering all the evidence.

In 2012, a part-time faculty member at Southern Utah University resigned after alleging widespread unchecked plagiarism by students in the college’s ESL program.  Belinda Frost resigned after raising complaints of lax grading policies and tolerance for instances of plagiarism for roughly 15 months, she said.

“I just felt like I had to resign,” Frost said. “I felt immoral working there.”

Officials put a full-time instructor on probation in connection with Frost’s allegations.

According to Pew Research Center, 55 percent of higher education presidents feel that the problem of plagiarism has worsened significantly. Of course, more than a few university presidents have been forced to resign thanks to problems with lifting the written work of others without attribution. Then again, some presidential plagiarists fare much better.

For example, Scott D. Miller didn’t lose his jobs as president at Wesley College in Delaware in 2000 after apologizing for publishing a paper taken directly from an essay written eight years earlier by Claire L. Gaudiani, then president of Connecticut College. Miller said the plagiarism was not intentional and that the text had been ghostwritten for him by an assistant. Roger C. Andersen, former president of Adirondack Community College in New York, was not punished by that college after a newspaper editor found Andersen had used another writer’s copyrighted material in a 1993 humor column.

This past academic year has seen several instances of high profile plagiarism by, well, people who clearly should have known better. For starters, The Guardian reported on March 25, 2013 that:

Leading primatologist Jane Goodall‘s forthcoming book has been postponed after she was found to have lifted some passages from websites including Wikipedia.

An expert asked by the Washington Post to review Goodall’s Seeds of Hope, which was due out next month, spotted that some passages in the book echoed various other sources. The paper published a report last week which claimed that at least 12 sections in the book were lifted from other websites, and which included an admission from Goodall of her failure correctly to cite her sources.

Now publisher Grand Central and Goodall have released a statement to American media announcing the book’s postponement “so that we may have the necessary time to correct any unintentional errors.”

Plagiarism, by definition, calls into question the intentionality of the author. Goodall was nabbed using word-for-word material from the website of Choice Organic Teas and even Wikipedia. Goodall was “distressed to discover some valuable sources were not properly cited.” She eventually apologized for copying from Wikipedia.

If you don’t know the name Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, that’s fine. He is, however, the German politician whose career was ended in 2010 when it was discovered that he’d cribbed portions of his doctoral thesis. Now, some three years later, the New York Times is reporting that “the list of German politicians accused of plagiarizing doctoral theses continues to grow.” Germany’s Education Minister Annette Schavan resigned her position in February of 2013 after the university from which she’d earned her doctorate in 1983 rescinded the degree after it was discovered she’d plagiarized large portions of her dissertation.

Germany isn’t the only European country with politicians who’ve been forced to resign thanks to plagiarized doctoral theses. According to the same New York Times piece linked to above:

In April 2012, President Pal Schmitt of Hungary resigned from his largely ceremonial post after questions about his doctorate surfaced. Semmelweiss University in Budapest found that his doctoral thesis did not meet its ethical standards, after a 16-page direct copy from a German text was found in the thesis.

Ioan Mang, a computer scientist, was forced to resign as education minister of Romania after allegations that he had plagiarized peer-reviewed academic papers. He stepped down from his post last May.

Over at the National Science Foundation, the Office of Inspector General (IG) used plagiarism detection software to analyze some 8,000 successful funding applications, according to a March 2013 blog posted at The Scientist. While the IG flagged a relatively small percentage of the 8,000 applications examined, almost 100, we are talking about materials submitted by researchers with, presumably, Ph.Ds. One wonders if the incidents of plagiarism identified by the NSF’s IG were isolated, or whether the scientists involved are serial plagiarists who’ve never been fingered.

According to The Scientist, NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner told a congressional panel that “extrapolating across 45,000 proposals, the NSF receives annually suggests 1,300 proposals could contain plagiarism and 450 to 900 could contain problematic data.” That phrase is NSF-speak for fabrication and falsification.

As if Penn State University hasn’t been enough of a bad news buffet, in February 2013 Business Week reported that dozens of MBA applicants to the college’s business school had been rejected. “Admissions officials discovered applicants had plagiarized parts of their admissions essays,” reported the Bloomberg news site. The Penn State Admissions Office, using Turnitin for Admissions, discovered 48 cases in which would-be business students had pilfered portions of the essays required with their applications. Of course, given that some leaders of America’s largest financial institutions have demonstrated that ethics are optional, one could argue that in MBA programs cheating should earn a student extra credit.

Penn State’s wasn’t the only MBA program where the applicants plagiarized portions of the essays. At UCLA and Northwestern, admissions officials, also using the Turnitin for Admissions tools, discovered dozens of instances of plagiarism by applicants in their essays. Several of the instances of plagiarism were so egregious as to be downright funny. According to an admissions official from one of the colleges, “one applicant lifted half his ‘goals’ essay from samples available online, and last year, one applicant plagiarized 85 percent of an essay, without changing the gender of the pronouns.”

D’OH!

At the University of British Columbia, in Canada, administrators who oversee the law school allowed a student who’d plagiarized a portion of a law school paper to graduate. The members of the province’s law society, however, were not so understanding. The law society’s subsequent investigation and hearing revealed that the student had a long history of academic dishonesty. The story is reported by the Metro:

In 1995, the student was suspended from the university for one year and given a failing grade in Math 100 after he was caught trying to cheat by changing his answers on the exam paper after it had been marked and asking to have the mark changed. After changing programs, the applicant submitted a thesis in 2000 as part of the requirements for an honours Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, which he was granted in May that year.

When he applied as an articling student at the law society, he failed to disclose the suspension resulting from the 1995 math exam incident.

The credentials committee ordered a hearing and asked the applicant about the math exam cheating allegations. The applicant denied he had cheated and blamed the teaching assistant in the course.

The Law Society also obtained a copy of the applicant’s 2000 sociology honours thesis from UBC as part of a freedom of information request. It was 78 pages in length and contained plagiarized material. The applicant provided another, shorter version of his thesis, which contained no plagiarized material.

He said this was the version he submitted to the professor for marking. He told the panel his professor had asked him for a copy of his thesis much later and he must have delivered the wrong draft for archival purposes.

Then again, sometimes plagiarism pays. Literally. Jonah Lehrer was a staff writer for The New Yorker. Until he wasn’t anymore. Lehrer’s 2012 novel Imagine was pulled off of shelves last July after Michael Moynihan, who was then working for Tablet magazine and is now a contributor to The Daily Beastreported that Lehrer fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. Lehrer was immediately dismissed from The New Yorker and admitted to recycling his own work and reporting for different publications. Then, his publisher, Houghton Mifflin announced it was pulling his 2009 novel, How We Decide, from the shelves, as well.

Just when things were looking bleak for Lehrer, in February of 2013 Slate.com reported that the prestigious Knight Foundation paid the known plagiarist $20,000 for a speech about his plagiarism. At a conference sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Lehrer spoke about what cost him his job at The New Yorker. Shortly after Slate.com revealed the $20,000 payment, the Knight Foundation, an organization which exists (or so it claims) to support “transformational ideas that promote quality journalism,” issued a statement in which officials there regretted their “mistake.”

The first paragraph of the lengthy, groveling apology begins thusly:

On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation paid Jonah Lehrer to speak at a community foundation conference. In retrospect, as a foundation that has long stood for quality journalism, paying a speaker’s fee was inappropriate. Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake….

Others argue we should all just take a collective breath and relax when academics (or others for that matter) plagiarize. At the Poynter Institute, Roy Peter Clark recently argued in an opinion piece that “serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.” Clark suggests that academics and journalists stop using the P word like a scarlet letter. “Too scrupulous an ethic on plagiarism will lead, I fear, to witch hunts. Plagiarism — along with its cousin fabrication — should be policed. The punishments for wrongdoers should be harsh.  But the word plagiarism should be confined to clear-cut cases of literary and journalistic fraud.”

Then again, literary and journalistic fraud should be confined to grade schoolers—who are just about the only academics, writers and journalists who deserve our sympathy and understanding. It’s fair to say that eight-year-olds may not have yet learned that copying from a book without attribution is wrong. Adults, on the other hand, are supposed to have learned that theft in any form is never trivial.

6 Responses to "The Year in Plagiarism: Really, Should We Care About Cheating?"

  1. James McNally   April 16, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Plagiarism is becoming a huge issue in higher education and one that institutions are dealing with as if the Internet had never existed. Codes of Honor, plagiarism policies, etc…are of little help to the average faculty member faced with a student who has lifted materials. I’ve had students turn in papers that were purchased through online paper mills. Should we care about plagiarism? Absolutely! Those of us who teach writing find ourselves facing instances of plagiarism more and more frequently, and students seem to be less and less able to understand that taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is cheating.

    Reply
  2. Ann Burnham   April 11, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Of course, given that some leaders of America’s largest financial institutions have demonstrated that ethics are optional, one could argue that in MBA programs cheating should earn a student extra credit.

    Great article. I loved the quote above.

    Reply
    • admin   April 12, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      Anne, thanks for the kind words!

      Reply
  3. jamassica   April 3, 2013 at 4:10 am

    Thanks for helping us keep this issue alive, and I know a little about plagiarism.

    Reply
  4. admin   March 31, 2013 at 3:58 am

    @Sandra, thanks for the kind words! I totally agree that we’re seeing “the rise of ‘market society’ values” in Academe and the devaluation of scholarship in the non-science disciplines. Virtually every time I attend the MLA, there is a panel discussion on helping people not in Academe “understand” the relevance of scholarship in the humanities. Then, some major newspaper does a piece mocking the conference’s offerings. It’s like clockwork, and it’s a vicious cycle.

    Reply
  5. Sandra Keifer   March 29, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    P.D., thanks for helping us keep this issue alive. This is a fantastic article. I’ve been in several very tricky plagiarism situations over the past few years—and they shouldn’t have been tricky at all. I see three main things feeding our society’s strange shift on this issue: 1) the rise of “market society” values http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/04/what-isnt-for-sale/308902/; 2) the devaluation of all scholarship that is not math and science; and 3) the internet’s inescapable influence on our way of thinking about original material, e.g., Creative Commons. Arguably, the latter may be the most benign factor.

    Reply

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