Plagiarists can be haunted by past

Resignation of school board director highlights need for greater scrutiny
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2013

On Jan. 10, 2013, Chris Spence, then director of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), announced his resignation with “a profoundly heavy heart” and regret that he did not set a good example. His departure, after allegations of plagiarism, was so fast the board had to hurriedly find a replacement.

“Given the unexpected nature of this situation, we are taking steps to appoint an interim director to ensure stability across the system,” said a TDSB release issued the same day.

Such is the power of the Internet and, in Spence’s case, allegations of a plagiarized blog spread quickly to include newspaper columns and speeches and even his PhD dissertation. Similar allegations have faced leaders worldwide, from politicians to journalists and artists, and often academic work is repealed.

While plagiarism is less publicized around faculty than students, it is common, judging by at least two studies. In surveying 438 faculty members at PhD-granting management departments at business schools in the United States, close to 80 per cent knew of faculty who either withheld methodological details or results or selected only data that supported a hypothesis and withheld the rest.

The authors of the 2010 paper Management Science on the Credibility Bubble: Cardinal Sins and Various Misdemeanors also found more than 70 per cent of respondents were aware of colleagues who used another’s ideas without permission or giving due credit, while 60 per cent knew of faculty who “dropped observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.”

In another study, looking at 279 papers presented at the International Management division of the 2009 Academy of Management conference, researchers found 25 per cent had some amount of plagiarism and more than 13 per cent exhibited significant plagiarism.

“This exploratory study raises an alarm regarding the inadequate monitoring of norms and professional activities,” said the authors of the 2012 paper The Fox in the Hen House: A Critical Examination of Plagiarism among Members of the Academy of Management.

Concern about a university’s reputation overrides many other issues, said Benson Honig, professor of organizational behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton and co-author of the study.

“They don’t want to have one of their esteemed professors caught in a scandal because it makes the whole university look bad. So my experience is, when these things happen, they try to keep it as quiet as possible.”

The schools are afraid of the consequences, according to Irving Hexham, a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Calgary who has written about plagiarism.

“You have people who have managed to slide through the system and it means, at every stage, from the point that they do their (master’s degree) and PhD, and then get hired and get promoted, there’s a failure of the normal academic checks — they haven’t done their homework, people have not checked footnotes.”

On the other hand, there are some pretty big rewards — such as tenures and salaries — and no real disincentives for plagiarists in senior positions, said Hexham.

“If you’re higher up and particularly if you’re in an administrative position, (the universities) tend to do nothing or they simply move the person on to another university,” he said. “Theoretically, people make a big noise about punishment but, in practice, it’s not very great... unless it’s been a nuisance by the university.”

But John Hepburn, vice-president of research and international at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, disagreed.

“We have a very strict code of academic conduct and there’s an academic misconduct policy, getting up to the professor level,” he said, adding any suspected instances of misconduct are reported to a committee in Ottawa set up by three funding councils and, after a proper investigation, punishment is meted out if deserved.

“The penalties are very severe, up to and including dismissal,” said Hepburn, adding UBC recently did so with a tenured professor. “When people are found guilty, you bet they get punished.”

But plagiarism is incredibly rare, he said, and there has been less than one instance of plagiarism per year in his seven years on the job.

“It’s not very common because people all understand the seriousness of the consequences,” said Hepburn.

Part of the challenge is academics might not report colleagues who plagiarize, said Hepburn. Another challenge has been around privacy, as it used to be that if someone was found guilty of academic misconduct and punished, the university was not allowed to broadcast that. But that is changing, he said, as the funding councils now require researchers to sign disclosure agreements when they apply for funding, so any misconduct will be made public.

On the recruitment side, there is too much trust when it comes to expertise and references, said Hexham, and schools should have a large, experienced committee conducting a thorough investigation of each candidate’s qualifications.

“But there’s a reluctance to do this. It’s seen as snooping, it’s seen as ‘Well, you can’t ask that,’” he said.

It’s not that plagiarism is considered acceptable, “there’s just not an enthusiasm for looking under rocks,” said Honig. “We have a tradition of protecting ourselves and the idea that we’re above it all, and none of us would do such things. It’s just not accurate, but that’s the assumption that people go on.”

However, hiring committees at the University of Toronto do a careful review of short-listed candidates’ body of scholarly publications and research, according to Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost.

“Once a faculty member is hired, he or she is subject to rigorous policies about research and academic integrity.”

So, why are there shortfalls? A lot of it is a lack of time, with increased teaching goals and larger classes, said Hexham.

“People are under lots of pressure and that has helped create this crisis.”

The pressure for academics to publish — particularly in a prestigious publication — has increased and become more global, said Honig, adding universities in China will give two years’ salary to someone who’s published in a top magazine.

“So everyone is concerned now, much more so than before, and everyone’s chasing after the same few slots.”

But more journals are starting to implement plagiarism-checking systems, said Honig.

“It will soon become standard,” he said. “Nothing’s perfect but it’s a lot better than the nothing we were doing, which was horrific.”

Products such as turnitin and iThenticate use algorithms to highlight content matches from three databases, and it’s up to the user to decide if it’s outright misconduct or something like poor paraphrasing, said Jason Chu, senior education manager at turnitin in Oakland, Calif.

“When it comes to content nowadays, what we’ve seen is whatever you’ve written in the past, whether it’s an article for a publication or a paper for a class, that is going to persist somewhere, in some way, shape or form, and it may revisit you in the future,” he said.

“It’s prudent for an HR department... to run, in addition to your typical background checks, it does make sense to take a look at folks’ content, if you’re requesting writing samples or if you’re having to do an exercise.”

But UBC doesn’t use this software, said Hepburn, citing concerns with the data being stored in the United States.

“It’s certainly, even without the turnitin software and equivalents, it’s so easy to catch plagiarism with a Google search and Google scholar and everything else that people tend to watch this fairly carefully,” he said.

“The domains of research are fairly tightly defined so when you publish something, it’s a fairly limited scholarly community, so word gets around fast. So it’s pretty easy to catch somebody cheating.”

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