Talking the talk vs. walking the walk (plagiarism update)
Earlier, I wrote about plagiarism in the engineering school at Ohio University. A masters graduate, Thomas Matrka, raised concerns about widespread instances of plagiarism in masters theses, while the administration ... well, didn't seem to view it as such a big problem as Mr. Matrka did.
Well, Mr. Matrka commented on my earlier post. I'm reproducing his comment, in its entirety, here:
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.
First, let me thank Mr. Matrka for commenting on the post. It's nice to have the view of someone "on the ground" in a scenario to which I respond.
And (you knew this was coming), let me respond to these comments.
My questions in the original posts were not meant to suggest that engineering students (or engineering profs) were playing hooky when the other kids in school got The Talk about plagiarism. I'm sure almost all could provide at least a rough and ready definition of plagiarism if pressed to do so. But, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about ethics, I'm drawn to questions about the differences between the values people say they are committed to and the values that seem to guide their behavior. In other words, if you talk the talk, but don't walk the walk (meaning, presumably, that you're walking a different walk), are your values the ones you're talking or the ones you're walking? And, does how we talk (and how we walk) change when we move from group to group (say, from an engineering school to the larger university community, or from a graduate classroom to a professional meeting of engineers)?
Mr. Matrka writes: "Everyone knows that copying text word for word from a textbook without quotations is plagiarism." This seems true. But it might be less clear what to make of use-without-citation of ideas, equations, or even common graphs from a widely used textbook. Often scientific training includes absorbing a more or less canonical body of knowledge that will serve as a common framework for discussions. It's conceivable that, after absorbing this knowledge, one might forget exactly which piece of knowledge came from which textbook (especially if that piece of knowledge is included in multiple textbooks, not to mention lectures). And, in some sense, the "textbook knowledge" is assumed to be so much the common grounding of a field that no one cites his source for it -- it's something one could find "in any textbook" on the subject.
I wonder whether the standard view that you don't have to cite ideas from the textbooks (because they appear pretty uniformly in all the textbooks) has made students and professors lazy about the citation of word for word quotations from textbooks. If you were putting it in your own words, you probably wouldn't cite it. Why put it in the textbook authors' words? Maybe because it's so clear in the textbook. Maybe because that way you know you haven't misstated the fact. I can only imagine that the faculty reading theses with uncited word-for-word quotations from textbooks either (1) don't realize that these are word-for-word quotations, since the faculty haven't spent quality time with the textbook in so long, or (2) do realize that they're word-for-word quotations but view this as a minor instance of plagiarism since it's not the kind of thing that would require citation if the thesis writer had expressed it in his own words.
Myself, I agree with Mr. Matrka that plagiarism is plagiarism. But, I understand the thinking behind saying this sort of plagiarism, while undoubtedly a sign of intellectual slothfulness, is not as evil as stealing someone else's description of a new experiment or someone else's bold new interpretation of experimental results.
Mr. Matrka writes: "Plagiarism is a violation of university policy. ... 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?"
The talk: "As part of the university, we're committed to upholding university policy."
The walk: "Well, maybe we're not as committed to upholding it as are other departments."
It does seem here like university policies lose their force if they're only enforced some of the time, or only by some of the departments. Working at a university myself, I know that there are some policies I would defend to the death and others that I think are really wrong-headed ... but, there are plenty of ways for faculty to lobby to change the policies with which they don't agree. Just ignoring those policies, rather than at least voicing your objections to them, doesn't seem like much of a principled stand.
Mr. Matrka writes: "Most alumni, employers, and students expect a university to uphold its own policies. ... Cataloging theses and dissertations known to contain plagiarism unfairly creates suspicion around the work of all students and faculty."
In other words, if an institution (like a department, or a university) is known not to uphold its own policies, then folks dealing with that institution have no good reason for thinking that institution feels any commitment to the values contained in that policy. If you don't do anything about plagiarism, we don't actually get much out of your saying that p[lagiarism is bad; if you really thought it was bad, wouldn't you do something about it? And, if you have a policy against plagiarism which it is clear you have not enforced, is there good reason for us to believe that you have conscientiously enforced your other policies?
This might be a place where, if the institution in question really does have certain core values embedded in its policies, it ought to just drop the policies that aren't reflective of the values of the institution. It's a choice between being clear about what you stand for and looking like maybe you don't stand for anything at all (save the intake of tuition dollars). Yes, there may be difficulties if, say, the engineering department rejects certain values the rest of the university embraces, but it would probably be better to be clear about this than to have it revealed in a scandal.
Mr. Matrka writes: "I am certain that any scientist or engineer would not appreciate their work being stolen and passed off as original work by another." Again, I'm in total agreement. But, can we say "No scientist or engineer would appreciate X" implies "X is a species of scientific misconduct"? (Let X = having sugar put in your gas tank by a competitor.)
The official government definition(s) of scientific misconduct include plagiarism alongside fabrication and falsification. Most scientists seem to agree that having someone steal your words and/or ideas and present them as her own is a Very Bad Thing. But if the community of science as a whole (or even a subdiscipline within this community -- say, the community of engineers) agreed that this was not a very bad thing in certain circumstances -- say, they agreed that the contents of textbooks were community property for everyone to make use of as desired -- then it might be reasonable to formulate a more precise definition of plagiarism as recognized by the scientific community.
Please note that I'm not claiming that the scientific community or any of its disciplinary sub-communities actually hold this view about texbooks. But if they did, it seems to me, it would be better to be clear about it than to quietly be guided by a different set of values than those recognized in official policies.
If your values are good enough to walk, aren't they good enough to talk? And, if you wouldn't want to be caught talking them, why the heck would you walk them?
Technorati tags: plagiarism, scientific misconduct, community values