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J'Accuse a la Highlighter
June 2, 2009 8:41 AM   Subscribe

What Plagiarism Looks Like. William Meehan, president of Jacksonville State University, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1999. Carl Boening wrote his in 1996. "Jacksonville State says no substance has been found in the charges, and no action by the university will be taken against him", but, well, look at the identical passages highlighted in the first link above (and keep in mind that other parts of Boening's dissertation were paraphrased in Meehan's). Sadly, this is not the first time that this has happened where a college president was involved.
posted by Halloween Jack (56 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Via.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:42 AM on June 2, 2009


Okay, this has been popping up all over the net for the last couple days - can someone explain why?

Why did this suddenly get noticed? Who cared enough to figure it out? And why is it suddenly part of some weird "name and shame" campaign on the net built around that graphic?

I keep concluding that there's got to be some part of the story I don't know. Anybody? Bueller?
posted by Naberius at 8:45 AM on June 2, 2009


Ok, but each student at Jacksonville now gets one "get-out-of-plagiarism-free" card.
posted by orme at 8:49 AM on June 2, 2009


There's nothing wrong with using other people's work, as long as it is properly attributed. Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:59 AM on June 2, 2009


This is indeed interesting; I teach finance part time at three Universities in London, and specialise in tutoring Masters students in various Quantitative Finance topics through their dissertations at one.

All students are required to submit three copies of their dissertations; two physical and one electronic. For the latter a special email address is used, with the student's name and dissertation topic appearing either in the subject or message body.

The email address drives an electronic submission to two plagiarism detectors. These days we're (the Profs grading dissertations that is) are almost never involved in these things as Academic Standards gets the violation report (its exception driven) and brings the student in for a meeting. Its my understanding that a small amount of dups in the printed form are tolerated, attributed to poor citations, but if a threshold is exceeded then we've got a problem.

If the evidence is weak sometimes we'll get pulled in to conduct a Viva Voce, where its pretty clear if the student in question knows his or her stuff. I used to do a lot of these, and you can tell in less than two or three minutes of questioning whether or not someone really knows finance at the Masters level or is just bullshitting. But it seems as though the threat of automated checking scares lots of students off plagiarism. Or they're getting damned good at cheating.

Reportedly over 60% of UK Universities are now using one or more automated systems for plagiarism detection.

Seems like they could end this controvesy pretty quickly one way or another by submitting an electronic copy of each document to such a system.
posted by Mutant at 8:59 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


More info here.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:15 AM on June 2, 2009


There's nothing wrong with using other people's work, as long as it is properly attributed. Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?
posted by xmutex at 9:20 AM on June 2, 2009 [14 favorites]


I demand my mulligan. (A slightly altered assertion of a previous comment. - Ed.)
posted by bigskyguy at 9:20 AM on June 2, 2009


I like the editor's note from the Tuscaloosa News paper, linked as evidence from the blog post. First, it compares newspaper coverage to the scientific method. It calls a four-year college with master's programs a "community college." Then it notes this would have been called plagiarism at the Tuscaloosa News. Supposedly there would have been some sort of punishment for that, right? This paper is owned by the New York Times Co. I'd like to see the case presented by someone else.
posted by raysmj at 9:23 AM on June 2, 2009


I wonder if university libraries will soon notice a troubling rise in the number of theses which used to be sitting peacefully on the shelf under the dust of years, but have mysteriously-- apparently recently-- disappeared.

If I were a responsible librarian, I'd be tempted to lock them all up.
posted by jamjam at 9:30 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


These and dissertations have been placed on microfilm for darned near forever, and all new ones are available in Adobe Reader/pdf format. So ... no need to lock them up.
posted by raysmj at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2009


raysmj, not to mention the title of the note: Yes, the Plagiarism Belongs to It
posted by snofoam at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2009


Not sure if this counts as a self-link, but the story led me to attempt to coin the term Yellow Dissertation at urbandictionary.

Snark aside, with almost everything being on the web it's going to be increasingly hard to come up with a truly original expression of an idea. The 'plagiarism checking software' will increasingly turn up unintentional similarities. So, the only fair thing will be to let students check it themselves before submitting. Some will use it to credit sources that were previously unknown to them. Some will simply rewrite until it 'fits' the engine.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:40 AM on June 2, 2009


I wrote my bachelor's "thesis" on the cut-up technique in the writings of William S. Burroughs. It would be awesome if someone cut my thesis into pieces, pasted them back together at random, and then submitted it as their thesis.
posted by snofoam at 9:42 AM on June 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


> I demand my mulligan. (A slightly altered assertion of a previous comment. - Ed.)

I'm my own man!
posted by mulligan at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's interesting. A lot of these things come up now because the databases to catch these things exist now. It's like getting away with murder before DNA evidence becomes possible to use. You think you've gotten away, then years later, boom.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2009


The worrying thing is, it's not just students. I run an analysis business that uses a lot of freelance resource and increasingly we find that - despite clear contractual warnings that any costs related to unauthorized use of someone else's material will be their liability - many still submit work that is more than a little derivative of someone else's work.

We now run everything we get through plagiarism software as a matter of course to see the relationship between the drafts we get and what is available online.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:55 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?

I looked at this a little yesterday. It looks like the literature review is basically lifted from the previous dissertation; there's some rephrasing, but a lot of it's verbatim. As far as I can tell, it's conceptually identical. Performing a literature review isn't equivalent to developing a novel idea or doing original work: it makes sense that two lit reviews in two dissertations covering the same topic would be similar. But they're still a pain in the ass to do (I know; I'm procrastinating from one right now), but they have a real value, both in terms of an intellectual work the summarizes the relevant previous studies and as a demonstration that the student has mastered the literature. It really looks like Meehan took an unacceptable shortcut.

The form of the study itself seems conceptually identical, and there's some copied language describing it. This is not necessarily a problem; the two students worked with the same adviser, so it would not be surprising to find they shared a methodology. This certainly wouldn't be the first time that someone received a degree for applying someone else's method to a novel data set. The degree to which the exact language was copied in these sections may be unacceptable, however. It would help to know how much was boilerplate from the adviser.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:56 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


snofoam reminds of a history paper one of my college roommates put together.

Roommate showed up at the corner bar with a stack of lined paper and a dozen or so pens and offered to buy a beer for anybody who would write him a paragraph on some aspect of the JFK administration. That evening he arranged all the paragraphs, added an intro and some transitions, and typed it all up.

He got a 'C'.
posted by notyou at 9:57 AM on June 2, 2009 [12 favorites]


It's interesting. A lot of these things come up now because the databases to catch these things exist now. It's like getting away with murder before DNA evidence becomes possible to use. You think you've gotten away, then years later, boom.

... you've got herpes.
posted by SirNovember at 9:58 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Referring to Maureen Dowd, the first link notes "As another recent story suggests, plagiarism seems to be governed by a sliding scale, with consequences lessening as the wrongdoer's status rises."

Too true and too disgusting.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


> There's nothing wrong with using other people's work, as long as it is properly attributed. Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?

It appears the entire table of contents is swiped. I suspect that's not a legitimate thing to reuse in original research.
posted by ardgedee at 10:00 AM on June 2, 2009


Tables of contents don't vary too much from paper to paper, really--an intro, a lit review (and hypotheses in many disciplines), examination of results, conclusions, recommendations for future research. An adviser may have suggested them, even demanded particular wording. So having the same wording is not in itself evidence of plagiarism.

You could write a whole 'nother post re education programs, and the seeming ridiculousness of the Doctorate in Education (which doesn't require as much work as a regular PhD, typically), but similarity of wording in a table of contents is not evidence of much of anything.
posted by raysmj at 10:10 AM on June 2, 2009


Wait--he plagiarized the recent dissertation of another graduate student in his own program? And none of the professors at the University of Alabama noticed that they had read and approved the same thing only three years before?!!! The same chair supervised both dissertations, and another U of A person served on both committees as well.

This scandal is going to reverberate beyond Jacksonville.
posted by LarryC at 10:15 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Index I copied from old Vladivostok telephone directory.
posted by djfiander at 10:16 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


> Index I copied from old Vladivostok telephone directory.

I got it from Agnes.
posted by jfuller at 10:43 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


1999 is 10 years ago. The guy in that picture is 50 if he's a day, more likely 60. My guess: He didn't even plagiarize it himself. He ghostplagiarized it to get the "PhD" he needed to be college president, possibly with the help or at least knowledge of the board.
posted by DU at 10:44 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


EdD or DEd, not PhD.
posted by raysmj at 10:50 AM on June 2, 2009


For anyone who is unclear, here's a definition:

"Plagiarism [...] is the deliberate act of copying, writing, or presenting as one's own the information, ideas, or phrasing of another person without proper acknowledgment of their true source."

The above definition was lifted word-for-word from the Jacksonville State U page on academic dishonesty (a subject which they claim will be dealt with swiftly and severely).

This guy should lose his job. Immediately. He should also be forced to rescind his degree and provide a public apology. End of story. I see no shades of gray which could be applied here.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:23 AM on June 2, 2009


Not Jax State! That temple of learning, that beacon of knowledge.

I'm shocked. This is my shocked face.

Extra points for anyone barging into this thread to tell the "Where's the whale?" story as if it happened to them.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:24 AM on June 2, 2009


There's nothing wrong with using other people's work, as long as it is properly attributed. Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:59 AM on June 2 [+] [!]


If you are copying another person's words, and they are not in quotation marks, they are not properly attributed.

I've been teaching this to a 12 year old lately, and giving Ds to undergraduates who are ignorant of this. (Had it not been simple ignorance, they would have had Fs). This man deserves to have his degree taken away and, yes, as an education professional who should be setting the standard for academic honesty, he should be named and shamed.
posted by jb at 11:25 AM on June 2, 2009


Snark aside, with almost everything being on the web it's going to be increasingly hard to come up with a truly original expression of an idea.

hello? 2000 years of history and everyone reading the same few hundred texts (no matter where in the world you were, the number of classics were still few), and still they could say things differently. Shakespeare could even totally plagerise the plotlines, but still made them his own.

Anyone who has written academic material honestly - whether high school, bachelors, grad or professional scholar - knows that you can always express yourself originally, even when summing up the research of others (with footnotes, of course). This comment isn't a terribly original idea, but it's expressed in my own original words.

Of course, once you are at the grad and professional, you aren't just being original in expression, your idea itself should be original. Not all of your ideas - you'll probably cite 10, and add one more, or tweak some of them. Maybe it won't be earth shattering - it's just your interpretation of a small part of one area of study, but it's still original. And this is what makes what you wrote real, and worthy of a graduate degree.
posted by jb at 11:32 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


jb: Shakespeare could even totally plagerise the plotlines

In the arts that's not plagiarism. It's somewhat different in the sciences.
posted by Kattullus at 11:41 AM on June 2, 2009


Who has a copy of the original graphic? I can't read it at the site linked, and the link from its site has had its bandwidth exceeded. I'm not tearing through two EdD dissertations, probably full of boilerplate language, to see as much.
posted by raysmj at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2009


As I've previously mentioned, the famous faux-commencement speech by Mary Schmich urging graduates to wear sunscreen was given verbatim at my high school graduation by the assistant principal. The very next year, the speech was put to music and released as a single by Baz Luhrmann. It wasn't as if he claimed to have written it, but he certainly didn't give credit to the author either. I don't think anything ever came of it, other than a standing ovation.
posted by ODiV at 11:48 AM on June 2, 2009


And by 'he' in that second-last sentence, I wasn't referring to Baz Luhrmann, if it's not obvious.
posted by ODiV at 11:49 AM on June 2, 2009


Who has a copy of the original graphic?

BB's pic still works.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:52 AM on June 2, 2009


His bio says he was, among other things, the Director of Academic Advisement, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, Associate Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs. All of which, I would think, involved punishing students for stuff like plagarism. And if that's the case, well, it's Spitzerian in its hypocrisy.
posted by janet lynn at 12:02 PM on June 2, 2009


jb: Shakespeare could even totally plagerise the plotlines

In the arts that's not plagiarism. It's somewhat different in the sciences.
posted by Kattullus 16 minutes ago [+]


I was using the word tongue-in-cheek: Shakespeare took published stories and used them as the basis of his plays, which was a totally acceptable practice at the time. That said, it isn't any longer acceptable, unless it is parody - The Wind Done was charged with copyright violation, but allowed off as "parody." Whereas I heard about a popular Chinese novelist who had too many plot points in one of his books which were the same as the plot points in another novel - I believe he settled out of court. There was also that case where as author used only a few sentances from books she had read when she was a kid - she was accused of plagiarism, and had the book with withdrawn. There are only a few copies available now. I think both of these cases were over-reactions - and I think authors should be free to remix stories (esp like The Wind Done Gone and Wide Sargasso Sea which are truely original remixes commenting on the original texts). But what Shakespeare did is clearly no longer acceptable, unless the works are old and out of copyright (like Jane Austen and Clueless).

As for arts and humanties scholarship, our plagerism standards are exactly the same - perhaps even more stringent - than those in the sciences, as wording is considered to be an integral part of the scholarship. Stealing a humanist's words is like copying a scientist's graph - we've slaved over them.
posted by jb at 12:07 PM on June 2, 2009


Even Martin Luther King has been accused of plagiarism...
posted by 445supermag at 12:28 PM on June 2, 2009


Oops, snopes link.
posted by 445supermag at 12:28 PM on June 2, 2009


The graphic at BB is uninformative, given that I can't enlarge it. It's a great big black-and-yellow blob, in regard to communicating anything to the reader.
posted by raysmj at 12:31 PM on June 2, 2009


> hello? 2000 years of history and everyone reading the same few hundred texts (no matter where in the world you were, the number of classics were still few), and still they could say things differently.

Yeah, it's easy when you're all riffing all a few hundred texts. The problem is when you are compared to everyone else riffing off those texts (which is where we are now.) Originality is not unique, to coin a phrase.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:33 PM on June 2, 2009


There's nothing wrong with using other people's work, as long as it is properly attributed. Is the highlighted part completely unattributed?

I actually know far more about this subject than I think you can imagine.
posted by fuq at 12:41 PM on June 2, 2009 [6 favorites]


The graphic at BB is uninformative, given that I can't enlarge it. It's a great big black-and-yellow blob, in regard to communicating anything to the reader.

It doesn't appear to exist in a larger format. You're gonna have to look at the PDFs if you want to judge for yourself.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:47 PM on June 2, 2009


Dissertations and theses are painful enough to read if you're on a committee. No thanks. Not if I'm not getting paid.
posted by raysmj at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2009


The graphic at BB is uninformative, given that I can't enlarge it. It's a great big black-and-yellow blob, in regard to communicating anything to the reader.

Try this.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:54 PM on June 2, 2009


Thanks. Not convinced on all counts. The highlighting person needs to cut out a great deal of highlighting--too many cases of yellow over citation years and such, for crying out loud, and over things like hypotheses (of course they were the same--this was a replication of a previous study). Narrow down exactly what would be plagiarism in a research presentation. There's too much to work through as it stands, too much evidence of highlighter happy-tude. In a probe, you'd also have to ask the profs whether boilerplate language was involved. Etc., etc. Even the best dissertations are, in effect, written by committee.

I still thinks this makes for more of a master's thesis, but Docs in Education (EdD) are controversial for many reasons, one of them alleged lower standards.
posted by raysmj at 2:13 PM on June 2, 2009


The most damning highlighted sections are in the lit review--still not particularly easy to compare or sort out in many cases, but worthy of questioning all the same. Copying operational definitions is decidedly not problematic, given that this is a replication, nor is a copying of hypotheses. Still, in many cases I see highlighted author names with highlighted dates, then no highlighting after that or maybe one or two words for the rest of a sentence. Narrow down the highlighted portions to the clearly questionable portions, and you have a case worthy of further investigation. Otherwise, it's just people playing Scooby Doo on the Internets.
posted by raysmj at 2:38 PM on June 2, 2009


Forget the plagiarism for a sec. Is this really dissertation-quality work? Replicating one study? Sure, the guy stretches this out to 132 (typewritten, double-spaced) pages, but it looks to me like an 8-page paper and a technical appendix. Not only that, you know what his N is? 24! And how did he collect the data? He spent an afternoon at the university archives. Forget master's thesis, this is like a final project for an undergrad stats class. An intro stats class.
posted by goingonit at 5:19 PM on June 2, 2009


it's Spitzerian in its hypocrisy.

I thought Spitzer was caught with a hooker, not doing some evil corporate thing.
posted by DU at 6:28 PM on June 2, 2009


I certainly haven't enough examination to know whether or not plagiarism happened, but it doesn't seem so clear to me when you aren't looking at the zoomed-out highlighted version. In some cases the highlighting is skipping several words in the middle of the sentence, or even most of a sentence. In some cases I imagine it would be difficult for the report of a replication to avoid what is being counted as plagiarism here. For example, in the last chapter, the first part of the sentence "The current study identified sabbatical leave approval patterns at JSU between 1988 and 1998." is highlighted (from "The" to "patterns", but not "-ing" and "approval") because it matches with "The current study was succesful in identifying sabbatical leave approval patterns by discipline, identifying the typical requested length of sabbatical leave, the extent to which sponsored programs were included in sabbatical requests, the thematic categories of sabbatical purpose statements, and the correlation between previous sabbatical leave(s) granted and re-application approval." This is just gratuitous, and it seems like the over-highlighting is designed to stand out as a big block on a zoomed out page that does not allow detailed inspection.

Also, the dissertation is quite up front about following from Boening's dissertation, and the guy probably practically lived inside Boening's dissertation for 2 years, whether he plagiarized or not. The lit review section is the most problematic, as others have noted. Outside of that I think it is actually quite unclear whether there was plagiarism. But I would bet that this guy's advisor was aware of and probably condoned the similarities that are there.

I kind of do agree with goingonit that this seems a bit weak for a dissertation, but it also isn't very easy to judge a field's standards from the outside.
posted by advil at 6:30 PM on June 2, 2009


Note that Meehan had problems with plagarism in the past.

Here's the relevant sentence from the link (which I reproduce here, with full attribution to the article "President of Alabama's Jacksonville State U. Can't Shake Plagiarism Charges" written June 2, 2009 by Thomas Bartlett for the Chronicle of Higher Education): "In 2007 newspaper columns supposedly written by him turned out to have been copied."
posted by math at 6:33 PM on June 2, 2009


I guess I should back up a little and say that it is pretty clear that the lit review chapter does lift significant portions of Boening's thesis with only slight rewording, if you examine the pdfs side by side.
posted by advil at 6:55 PM on June 2, 2009


It made The Chronicle's blogs this afternoon. That might represent the shit hitting the fan...
posted by mr_roboto at 9:38 PM on June 2, 2009


Docs in Education (EdD) are controversial for many reasons, one of them alleged lower standards.
As someone who attended Teachers College, Columbia, I've been around some very smart people in a good education school. On the other hand: when I was in high school, we had a Vice-Principal for Attendance or some such who was hiring staffers on the school newspaper to ghost-write his Ed.D. dissertation for him (he provided the ideas and data, they translated it into grammatical English).
posted by Creosote at 8:26 PM on June 3, 2009


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