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Friday, February 22, 2008

Down and Dirty: Plagiarism

Let's talk about plagiarism, folks. It's a topic that seems to be all the rage lately, both in politics and in academia, and it's one that dearly needs to be addressed.


CNN has the latest on a Columbia professor who has been caught plagiarizing. That's right, plagiarizing, the bugaboo of librarians and professors everywhere who are attempting to educate students on the proper way to give credit to others for their hard work and original ideas. The law firm report states that "in two dozen cases, Constantine's published works contained language similar to passages in papers written by others, including a former teacher at the school and two of Constantine's former students." (See how I did that, made a note of the article, linked to it, and stuck quotes around the phrase I took that someone else wrote? Yes, we'll come back to that.) So, not only is she stealing from her colleagues, she's also cherry-picking from her (likely) best and brightest students, making them cynical before they even reach graduate school. Way to go.


Even worse, Constantine (I will take the liberty of refusing to call her a "professor," since I reserve that term for those I respect) wasn't fired. For over two dozen obvious offenses. That's right. Columbia University is allowing her to remain on the faculty. She is also the Columbia professor who claimed to have found a noose on her door (after the inquiry into her scholarship started, natch)


Now, this isn't the only instance of plagiarism that has occurred in the past few years to mar the reputation of academia. In the August 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an excellent article titled The Plagiarism Hunter chronicled the search that led to the explosion of Ohio University's engineering department due to chronic plagiarism in master's theses and doctoral dissertations. One professor Gunasekera, the offending advisor, has the "Distinguished" removed from his academic title for his shortcomings. though he is currently suing the University for defamation, according to InsideHigherEd. Honestly, as a dissertation and thesis advisor, it's your job to catch that sort of thing, particularly when students are copying exact tables and literature reviews! Ohio University should be raked over the coals for not taking a harsher stance on lazy advisors, particularly since these are the very professionals who are credentialing new scholars.


How on earth can we expect students to respect the boundaries of intellectual property when their own professors don't? Unlike politicians, who can blame speech writers and collaborative work for lifted phrases, researchers and teachers have no excuse. They're taught how to properly cite their peers and forbears. The only excuse is deliberate ignorance (which we shouldn't tolerate from any teacher), or it is a case of flat-out stealing someone else's words, in which case, they should be removed from their position.


It is hard enough to tell students not to straight out copy material without attribution. I can't decide if it's worse to "make up" information and simply list references in the hopes that no one double checks you. I point out to my students that "making up a page number" to cite when they're in a rush and have already returned a library book, or closed the pdf file of an article, is just as much plagiarism as is taking someone else's words. The Chronicle of Higher Education goes a bit into the saga of Emory's Michael Bellesiles, a history professor accused of mis-stating the arguments of his sources to back up his arguments. Because he got caught (ah, thank you to scholarly reviewers everywhere! You unpaid masses, you dedicated drones!), he resigned from Emory and Columbia University - which is inexplicably complicit in Constantine's current plagiarism scandal - rescinded the prestigious Bancroft prize it had awarded Bellesiles.


Note: if you don't have access to the Chronicle, you can Google these names and get the stories from various other venues.)


Let's do away with the word "plagiarism" for a moment, and call it like it is: FRAUD. Plagiarism is the proper term for it, I suppose, but it reeks of academic two-step, avoiding the harsh reality that presenting someone else's work as your own is little better than theft, for which, in the real world, there are severe consequences. If a professor was caught stealing a colleague's car, do you think they wouldn't be fired? While a car is arguably worth more in monetary terms, scholarship is, in fact, a livelihood. People earn their living through writing their ideas and research. Stealing that and marking it as your own is no better than theft, and the academic world needs to start forcing faculty to take responsibility for their actions. Merely "taking a dim view" is not enough. These professors are the same ones we expect to demonstrate the highest integrity, these are the people educating our citizens, and these are the people who should be held to the highest standards of academic rigor.


These plagiarism scandals - and the lack of proper prosecution of the offenders - are a slap in the face to every faculty member who works hard on their own research, and I am pleased to report that this is the vast majority, though it is a thankless task and far less headline-worthy than our cheating peers.
The scandals are a slap to every student who diligently works to cite their sources properly, as their librarians and professors implore them to do.


These situations are a complete embarrassment to academia, and those of us in the education industry should not hesitate to say so. Those who refuse to be offended should be stained by the same brush that paints the plagiarists, if they have an attitude of "well, it's only illegal if you get caught." Students across the country are practically raped with tuition, the cost is getting so high, and what are they paying for? They should be ashamed of themselves for keeping Constantine on campus instead of hiring a professor with integrity. Ohio University should be ashamed of itself for not dealing with a problem that had been reported and was ignored by administration. For every other instance, and there are various smaller ones, the offending scholar should be held accountable, as should any administrator who attempts to sweep the scandal under the rug.


I am not ashamed to say that I will not send my future children to Columbia, if this is how the University deals with academic scandal. And Columbia, I promise you, they'll be brilliant, like their mother. You'll wish they were on your rolls, but they'll be at an educational institution that promotes integrity along with academic learning.

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