Adventures in Ethics and Science

Not quite a year ago, I wrote a pair of posts about allegations of widespread plagiarism in the engineering college at Ohio University. The allegations were brought by Thomas Matrka, who, while a student in the masters program in mechanical engineering at OU, was appalled to find obvious instances of plagiarism in a number of masters theses sitting on the library shelves — paragraphs, drawings, sometimes whole chapters that were nearly identical, with no attribution at all to indicate a common source.

Pretty appalling stuff. But back in November 2005, the OU administration didn’t seem to see it as a big problem — at least, not as of problem of the magnitude Mr. Matrka saw. But Mr. Matrka’s efforts have finally had some effects. Chickens are coming home to roost not only for the students who plagiarized in their theses, but for the faculty members who seemed willing to let this conduct slide.

In June, Inside Higher Ed reported that an investigation at OU confirmed rampant plagiarism and blamed faculty as well as students. From the article:

One investigation by the engineering college’s academic honesty committee, released in March, found widespread plagiarism by graduate students but did not place any blame on professors, which Matrka said ignored a central part of the problem.

The same cannot be said of the review that was released Wednesday, which was conducted by Gary D. Meyer, an assistant vice president for economic development and technology development, and H. Hugh L. Bloemer, associate professor emeritus of geography and a former Faculty Senate chair.

Their four-month investigation did not absolve the students, noting that “all members of the academic community, students and faculty alike, are responsible for the integrity and originality of their work.” But they reserved their harshest words — and there were plenty — for the students’ advisers. They noted that of the 55 graduate theses in which students had plagiarized their own work or others’, the vast majority were overseen by three faculty members, who “either failed to monitor the writing in their advisees’ theses or simply ignored academic honesty, integrity and basically supported academic fraudulence. We consider this most serious.”

Meyer and Bloemer added: “We are appalled that three members of the faculty in mechanical engineering have so blatantly chosen to ignore their responsibilities by contributing to an atmosphere of negligence toward issues of academic misconduct in their own department. We are amazed to see that the internal ad hoc committee recommended no reprimand for those individuals.”

The review called for the dismissal of two of the professors, including the mechanical engineering department’s chairman, and to bar the third professor from overseeing theses for two years. (The investigators said the engineering dean should speak with the four other professors who oversaw at least one of the plagiarized master’s theses about what the report called their “oversights” — the quotation marks were the reviewers.)

Some of the commenters on the Inside Higher Ed site have suggested that it’s too much to demand that faculty become the plagiarism patrol, and thus, that firing professors for signing off on a large number of theses that turned out to be plagiarized is overkill. But, I don’t think that’s a fair representation of what’s happened here. A student in their graduate program brought this problem to the attention of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the College of Engineering — with photocopies of the instances of plagiarism he had found. He documented a real problem for them, and their response was essentially, “Eh, what are you gonna do?”

(Indeed, I would also hope that part of advising masters research is actually reading the thesis, as well as consulting with the student writing it as it is being written. This often gives you reasonable clues to whether the finished product is the student’s own work.)

If you’re informed about a violation of what is supposed to be one of the norms of your profession (don’t plagiarize) — and, in fact, it is also a violation of an explicit policy of your institution — and you have the power that comes with being a professor (or even a department chair), shouldn’t you do something to address the problem? To decide the problem isn’t really a problem worth addressing is tantamount to saying, “The Department of Mechanical Engineering at OU is totally cool with plagiarism. Copy away!” And that message is not one that the rest of OU will happily tolerate.

Back in November, I wrote:

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. …

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 plagiarism 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.

OK, so the faculty who let plagiarism flourish at OU are being dealt with. What about the students who actually committed the plagiarism? The Athens News reports that OU has sent the 55 students in whose theses plagiarism has been documented letters:

The letter being sent to the alums opens by warning the recipient that the discovery of plagiarized material in his or her thesis “clearly compromises your master’s degree from Ohio University, and puts your degree in jeopardy of being revoked under certain circumstances unless possible remedial steps are taken very soon.”

While admitting that the letter may come as a surprise to the alum, [OU Legal Affairs Director John] Burns adds that “I would be surprised myself if you were not aware of possible issues of potential plagiarism when you submitted your master’s thesis.”

The letter informs the recipient that a special hearing committee is being set up to review the plagiarism cases and consider possible remedial and disciplinary sanctions.

OU offers the alum three options. He or she can:

* Voluntarily forfeit the degree.

* Submit a request to rewrite the thesis.

* Request a hearing to challenge the plagiarism allegation.

Any alum who chooses to rewrite a thesis will be given a new thesis adviser. To choose this option, the alum must admit to the original plagiarism, and the fact of the original plagiarism will be noted in any transcripts for the alum, though this inclusion can be waived by Burns.

If the alum chooses to fight the allegation, Burns will forward the specifics of the charge and set a hearing date.

“The last point I feel it extremely important to make is that this is a very serious matter,” Burns concludes in the letter. “If you would choose to disregard this letter and its options and direction, then your master’s degree is subject to revocation due to lack of response or cooperation in this matter.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

Don’t you love letters written by the legal team? We found out you did something wrong and are informing you of that fact (plus the options for how to move forward). Though you may be surprised that we caught you, you can’t pretend to be surprised that what you did was wrong. The wrongness of plagiarism should have been clear — if not from whatever your advisor was letting you get away with in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, then certainly from university policy.

And, having broken a fundamental rule of academic integrity, you don’t get to keep your masters degree without actually doing the damn work you were supposed to have done in the first place (or, perhaps, demonstrating that you are the one from whom all the other plagiarists stole words, ideas, and diagrams — even those textbook writers and guys who published their articles before you wrote your thesis).

Obviously, it would have been better for the students not to have plagiarized at all; or for their advisors to have detected it while they were writing their theses and to have sent them back to do things properly; or for their committees to have detected the plagiarism in the finished theses and refused to sign off on them; or for the faculty to have tried to do something to change the plagiarism-tolerant culture of the department once Thomas Matrka documented that there was a real problem. But taking faculty not willing to deal with the problem out of that culture, and yanking some degrees until non-plagiarized theses are written, seems like as good a solution as one can hope for after the crimes have been committed.


  1. #1 Pinko Punko
    July 21, 2006

    This is what we would term being force to “eat it” and in a big way. This stuff makes me so sick. That people would even consider that those faculty got a bad rap. They need to do their jobs, period.

    People just handing out degrees gives the rest of us a bad name. ARGH!

  2. #2 Kyle
    July 21, 2006

    Glad to hear something actually got done here! A score for the good guys I guess, even if it was a bit slow coming.