Monday, November 14, 2005

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?

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At 10:48 AM, Blogger His Nibs said...

Do you think that even stricter measures are needed for this sort of intellectual property theft, such as criminal law sanctions? Or can administrative penalties (failing grade, expulsion) do the job? Does it make a difference that this is mostly happening in academe, and most people don't see term papers (especially undergrad) to be works of scholarship?

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

Alexander, I agree there is an issue that is heightened by the fact that undergrads (and some professors) are pretty blasé about plagiarism in term papers. I think this is an instance where teachers and students down the line need to take honesty seriously. Moreover, I think at earlier stages (say, when junior high and high school students are learning how to write papers and do research) we need both greater attention to proper attribution and corrective measures to deal with plagiarism. I think that early training probably works better than going from NO awareness of plagiarism as a problem straight to an environment in which plagiarism is met with a super-harsh penalty. (Maybe graduate advisors let "minor" plagiarism go because, instead of having a range of penalties to apply, they are forced into using what amounts to a career-death-penalty punishment.)

Of course, it's also entirely possible that failure to enforce current rules against plagiarism is not a matter of profs wanting to give their advisees a second chance. Perhaps instead it's a reflection of a belief that it's OK to screw others over in order to get the job done. Solving that sort of problem in an academic culture would be a lot harder ...

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Unlearned Hand said...

The issue is likely a matter of perceived stakes.

In a liberal arts department at a large university, I saw a blind eye turned to academic dishonesty routinely. There was a perception that the administrative process was not worth going through. (Are university policies for dealing with academic dishonesty designed to encourage non-reporting?) There is also the unvoiced thought that to deal with the process is time away from research, the true business of professors in the department.

Perhaps an atmosphere of indifference exists for academic honesty in masters-level work - sometimes that level of indifference is manifest for masters-level students who will not end up being colleagues. Naturally, there is a deficiency if putting out professionals into the non-academic side of a field omits the notion of those professionals having a conception of professional ethics. If masters canidates aren't just resources to be spent for the greater good, this is certainly an issue.

Knowledge of correct attribution is an enormous problem. In editing professional publications, I see cases where the authors are clearly not trying to put one over on anyone and hide that the thought is not their own, as the same page of the work quoted is cited in the same paragraph. But there is no attribution when the other author's description of the same primary work is used , and direct quotes don't have quotes or attribution. Why is this?

Sloppiness can only go so far as an answer, and in cases where the problems are systematic through a work, there must be something more. I think people just don't know when or how it is appropriate to attribute. The clearest example is that the sentence in text is by-in-large a direct quote, the attribution appears, but the quotation marks don't. The rough justice approach to getting this accross is having a graded required course for all incoming grad students in all disciplines which covers such things. (And Strunk & White too, but that's another matter . . .)

Criminal law sanctions might go a bit far. There are internal problems of what sufficient proof of intent is and whether we want to assign all the penalties accompanying even a midemeanor conviction. Further, I think this would decrease reporting. No matter how big an SOB a prof may be, he rarely wants to be known for ratting out his students to the law.

If we're concerned about IP theft, that seems more an author-driven enforcement issue as our current regime is set up, and at anything less than a published level, the stakes aren't there to make it worthwhile. A worthy line of inquiry, but it seems to be quite a seperate line.

What we're looking at is a problem of conduct without consequences. So the two questions are: what consequences will actually improve the problem of conduct? Or are there means independent of consequences that will sufficiently alter the conduct?

At 9:38 PM, Blogger Maya Harris said...

Mr. Matrka got too much time on his hand. He should've spent time reading papers and improving himself than to go over lunch and browse for other students's theses. Interesting enough that few students in engineering have no time for lunch (didn't he have to run experiments, or read papers, or do his homework?)but Mr. Matrka spent hours in the library spying on his colleagues or his professor. And if so, why did Mr. Matrka wait until he graduated before speaking up? Was he afraid? To me this all seems like he is very angree with the folks there and with the university's staff.
Slow down Mr. Matrka and spend your time on something more useful. Go and do some charity or read a book than to attack your former school.
There are well defined laws in Physics, Math, Chemistry which one uses all the time without quoting them. Some things just seem normal to be mentioned from previous work.
I wonder how could Mr. Matrka write his Master's Thesis with ONLY his own words and "original" work.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Author101 said...

I am trying to change the Copyright Law. I was told that Science wasn't bothered by Plagiarism. Is there a link that I can publish to show this blog?
Respectfully and sincerely, Author101

You can contact me at

There is no charge and you can remain anonymous to the Public

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Katja said...

Having been a graduate student myself at one time, I can assure Ms. Harris that anyone pursuing a higher degree definitely does not “got too much time on his hand (sic)". It’s unfortunate that she does not seem to grasp the potential consequences of the issue of intellectual theft in the areas of scientific research to us all.
Ms. Harris’s personal attack on Mr. Matrka makes one wonder if she herself has plagiarized in the past and been caught—the “angree (sic)” tone of her post makes that seem a possiblity.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Katja said...

KUDOS to Thomas Matrka for having the courage to bring these issues of blatant plagiarism to the highest levels of your University! I can imagine his 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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