Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Completing the misconduct trifecta: plagiarism

As I've just recently been discussing fabrication and falsification in the news, it seems inevitable that I should take up a news story about the "P" in FFP (fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, the core of the government's definition of scientific misconduct; and no, I don't think the government is thinking of dropping the "P" because the "P" comes between it and its fans ...)

Inside Higher Ed delivers the relevant news item about concerns raised by a graduate of a Masters program in engineering at Ohio University. Briefly, Thomas Matkra, the engineer in question, feels that plagiarism in the masters theses at Ohio University — and, even more, complacency on the part of the faculty about acts of plagiarism in these theses — undermines the value on his degree. From the linked article:
Thomas Matrka did not set out to become a whistle blower.

In 2003, 10 years into his engineering career, he enrolled at Ohio to get a master’s degree. He got good grades, but as he worked on his thesis, he says, his adviser, M.K. Alam, the Moss Professor of Mechanical Engineering, repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with his work. (Alam did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) Hoping for insight into projects that had previously won Alam’s approval, Matrka spent some time in the university’s library in the summer of 2004 thumbing through past theses.

He was struck by what he found. As he looked the papers over, Matrka says, he noted similarities — occasionally blatant, extended ones — between many of them. He discovered four theses, for example, in which the third chapters on “fluent and multiphase models” were virtually word for word. Two were from 1997 and two from 1998. Three others, from as many as six years apart, contained paragraphs and drawings that were almost identical. (Matrka provided pages from some of these theses to Inside Higher Ed for review.)

“Some of them were so blatantly obvious, where there was page after page copied from one another or from a textbook,” says Matrka. Some of the overlap is so obvious, he says, that it would be impossible for the professors who oversaw the theses not to have known about it. “It’s a faculty approval problem,” Matrka says. “It’s hard not to conclude that advisers condoned this.”

There is a cluster of connected question here:

  1. Do the practices Matrka identified in these theses constitute plagiarism?
  2. Do the faculty have a duty to deal with past acts of plagiarism (e.g., in theses of students already granted degrees) and, if so, how?
  3. Does pervasive plagiarism in a graduate program undermine the value of a degree granted by that program?
  4. Do scientists and engineers have a common understanding of what counts as plagiarism?
  5. Do scientists and engineers agree that plagiarism is a species of scientific misconduct?

What is plagiarism? On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, Second Edition (1995) describes it as "using the ideas or words of another person without giving appropriate credit". So the central question is just what constitutes appropriate credit. And, it's not inconceivable that the standards of appropriateness are different in different contexts. The context in which a master's thesis is written may be quite different from the context in which a journal article, or a grant proposal, is written. Statements that may be regarded as part of the common pool of knowledge of credentialed professionals may be exactly the kind of thing a graduate student is expected to explicate in a thesis. In your manuscript for the journal, you probably don't footnote every textbook fact that you mention in your discussion. However, if you use the exact wording of the textbook author, or reproduce a figure exactly ... it seems like it would be better to err on the side of citing it, just to avoid confusion about whose words or whose figures they are.

So, is it clear to engineering professors and science professors (and working engineers and scientists) what "giving appropriate credit" amounts to? Is it clear to their students? It seems that, at the very least, what's going on at Ohio University indicates a mismatch in expectations between professors and graduate students. Matrka sees practices that look like plagiarism to him, and he expects the faculty to see this as a violation of the norms of the community and do something about it. The faculty ... well, possibly see some of these practices as plagiarism, but they don't seem to think they need to do very much to address past acts. And, it's not clear what they have in mind to head off future such acts ... if, in fact, they see these acts as problematic at all.

[Dennis] Irwin [engineering dean at Ohio University] says the college has begun “briefing graduate students on the nature of plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid plagiarizing others’ work,” and that it now requires electronic submission of theses and dissertations and a statement of originality signed by all students. Beginning this winter, he says, the college will “begin using comparison software to screen all of the theses submitted against all of those we have in electronic form.”

What the college will not do, he says, is ask his faculty to review what could be “tens of thousands of pages” of hard-copy theses and dissertations” in the library. That could take a huge amount of faculty time for an uncertain payoff, he says, “so you can probably see our problem in meeting any demand that all instances of plagiarism be removed from the library.”

Irwin adds: “I know Mr. Matrka is not satisfied with our actions to date, but all I’ve heard are accusations, and I haven’t been presented with any evidence that those accusations are true.”

Part of the problem, the dean says, may be a “difference in interpretation between what [Matrka] considers to be plagiarism” and the university’s own interpretation. With technical works like engineering theses, he says, “there are going to be similarities, particularly in equations and diagrams.” He adds: “If the same two people worked on the same experiment or apparatus, it is conceivable that they would jointly develop schematic drawing of that that might be used in both of their theses.”

Matrka admits that that possibility could explain some of the cases that looked fishy to him – which is why he has encouraged the university to turn the review over to faculty members more knowledgeable than he is.

But many of the other examples he has identified, he says, don’t require an expert’s eye. “Some of this stuff you wouldn’t get away with in high school.”

That the college of engineering has, apparently, just begun talking to graduate students about the nature of plagiarism suggests that in the past it was assumed that what counts as plagiarism in engineering was self-evident — or, perhaps, that plagiarism was not very important. The clear “ 'difference in interpretation between what [Matrka] considers to be plagiarism' and the university’s own interpretation" gives lie to the assumption that what counts as plagiarism is self-evident. If plagiarism is something that the college of engineering regards as important, there needs to be a more explicit discussion of what it is and why it matters.

And, if the message about why plagiarism matters is to be taken seriously, this may commit the faculty to doing something about past acts of plagiarism. Leaving theses with plagiarized pieces in the library sends a message about the acceptability of plagiarism. (Who looks at the old theses the most? People writing their own theses. Why? Because they're trying to discern what a good thesis looks like.) Also, tolerating plagiarism sends a message to the people who committed it that this is how we do it in this field. If you discover that someone who graduated 10 years ago made inappropriate use of sources, I'm not sure you yank their master's degree, but it seems like at the least, you ought to contact them and make it clear to them why they ought not to make similar inappropriate use of sources in the future.

If plagiarism doesn't matter to engineers, that's one thing. Maybe they should just go on record as saying, "We thing plagiarism is no big thing. Fabrication and falsification are right out, but ownership of words or ideas is a canard."
Then, there would be no confusion.

However, if plagiarism does matter to engineers, they have to do something about it. They have to be clear about what constitutes appropriate use and what does not, and they have to, as a community, bring the hammer down on inappropriate use. Otherwise, the community will be judged by its actions rather than its words, and the mismatch between the two won't earn the community much respect.

Scientific parents: Please take the opportunity to talk about plagiarism and proper attribution with your scientific offspring today!

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At 6:53 PM, Blogger tmatrka said...

Dear Dr. Free-Ride,

You pose five simple questions regarding plagiarism. Regardless of the context, the answer to all five questions is an indisputable, YES! An explanation follows.

1) “Do the practices Matrka identified constitute plagiarism?” Everyone knows that copying text word for word from a textbook without quotations is plagiarism. Some cases can be inadvertent, but the many of the cases I have discovered at Ohio University are extended and obviously intentional. There is no honest explanation for verbatim copies that include the same errors as the original, or misleading citations for works other than the actual work from which the text is stolen.

2) “Do the faculty have a duty to deal with past acts of plagiarism… and if so, how?” Plagiarism is a violation of university policy. Failure to distinguish theses containing plagiarism from those that are done honestly perpetuates the deception and ambiguity. How do administrators explain to the student who received a failing grade for plagiarizing a history paper that an engineering student who plagiarized received a master’s degree? How does a researcher properly cite work that is plagiarized? Some universities revoke degrees when plagiarism is discovered; ignoring past cases of plagiarism is inexcusable.

3) “Does pervasive plagiarism in a graduate program undermine the value of a degree granted by that program?” Most alumni, employers, and students expect a university to uphold its own policies. They do not ask, “do you allow plagiarism?” Cataloging theses and dissertations known to contain plagiarism unfairly creates suspicion around the work of all students and faculty.

4) “Do scientists and engineers have a common understanding of what counts as plagiarism?” Graduate students know they are plagiarizing when they open a book, copy it, and submit it for a thesis or dissertation.

5) Do scientists and engineers agree that plagiarism is a species of scientific misconduct?” I am certain that any scientist or engineer would not appreciate their work being stolen and passed off as original work by another.

Most people agree that acts of plagiarism are very serious and intolerable. The problem at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology is the lengthy history of faculty approved theses and dissertations containing plagiarism. Acting on the evidence will undoubtedly raise questions of fraud and corruption. I will gladly share details with all that are interested.

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Katja said...

Dear Dr. Matrka,
KUDOS to you for having the courage to bring these issues of blatant plagiarism to the highest levels of your University! I can imagine your frustration when professors and administrators have tried to pass off the incidents of plagiarism as unwitting or unintentional on the part of the thesis authors.
I teach biology at a community college in Illinois, and have been battling plagiarism since I began teaching there 13 years ago. I have been appalled to discover that many of my students were allowed to copy appropriate sections from textbooks or other sources in high school and hand them in as their own work.
Although I work hard to help my students understand what plagiarism is, this blog has made me think that perhaps a new (or at least additional) approach is called for--addressing the issue of whether plagiarism matters, and if so, why it does.
It seems a little pointless to keep pointing out to students that they are plagiarizing and how they are plagiarizing when many of them may be thinking "What's the big deal, anyway?" In fact, I had a student write on one of my most recent evaluations: "She worries too much about plagiarism."
I have to admit that at times I am tempted to give up fighting the plagiarism battle, as students sometimes become angry and/or aggressive when I point out that they have presented someone else's words as their own, and it makes a great deal more work for me to track down suspected plagiarized passages. It's got to the point where students won't even discuss plagiarized papers with me, but go straight to administrative officials, where support for the faculty over such issues is not always forthcoming.
The fact that plagiarism seems to be common and accepted even in some graduate schools is, to me, frightening indeed. I don't know what the answer to this serious and burgeoning problem is, but part of it certainly has to be that students need to begin to learn not to present other people's work as their own as soon as they begin writing sentences and paragraphs--in first grade.
Again, I thank you for standing against theft of intellectual property.

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