Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On academic integrity

The questions

  • Should you get to declare a mulligan when you're caught plagiarizing part of your thesis, by just removing the parts you didn't write and then be allowed to keep your degree?  Or does this situation constitute a "one and done?"
  • Bonus question. If you're caught and you get to keep your degree, should you have to acknowledge that your thesis was withdrawn and reissued for ethical revisions?

The back story

In 2015 I reviewed a manuscript for an additive manufacturing journal. It was the first "double blind" review I had ever done--where the author and institution information had been removed from the manuscript. Many problems existed in the manuscript, ranging from the grammatical to the scientific. Chief among the science problems was that the materials science in the explanation of the findings didn't make any sense to me. It just seemed random and unconnected to the experimental results. It was also clear that multiple authors had contributed different sections. That's jarring, but ordinary, in scientific publication where multiple authors contribute.

I  resorted to the cited references to try to understand the confusing discussion of the results. One of them was Iain LeMay's Principles of Mechanical Metallurgy, which I had on my bookshelf, since I had stolen it from Sandra's box in the attic.  Imagine my surprise, when I found an illustration in LeMay that strongly resembled one of the figures from the manuscript. But in LeMay's book it illustrated a very different deformation mechanism, in a completely different material system. And the text surrounding LeMay's illustration appeared nearly verbatim in the manuscript I was reviewing, with just some of the nouns changed.
At this point, I began drafting my rejection of the manuscript on the grounds that the author had plagiarized part of the manuscript. Nearly simultaneously, inter-library loan finally delivered one of the other cited references from the manuscript under review. The rest of the confusing discussion of the manuscript was a nearly word-for-word copy directly from the second reference. The author had not even corrected the direct-from-French-to-English sentence structure that he had plagiarized from the cited work.

The double-blind  nature of the review fascinated me, and I immediately challenged myself to find the identify of the authors. A few Google-scholar searches of unusual phrases from the manuscript made short work of that, and I rapidly identified the US university and research group. As is often the case, the manuscript under review was actually an already published and awarded Masters thesis, which I downloaded from the university archives.

I repurposed my review of the manuscript, and addressed it to the academic integrity board of the university in question. I included high-lighted versions of both references and the masters thesis that demonstrated the plagiarized sections. After a few weeks, an associate dean at the university informed me that they were investigating the case, and thanked me for my input.

The interim

I didn't expect that the university would keep me informed of the progress of their case or even, for that matter, their decision. Nevertheless, every few months I checked the university's archives to see if the thesis was still available. Within a few months it was gone from the on-line archive without a trace or notice that it been withdrawn.

In late 2016 my search found the thesis again. It had a new number (like what passes for a DOI at this university), and the plagiarized pages and figures had been excised. But nothing else was different, and no new explanation replaced the missing section. Even the acceptance dates and signatures in the front matter were identical to the original version. There was no statement that the thesis had been revised and resubmitted.

The changes were literally at most a couple hours of work of cutting and reprinting

What did I expect would happen?

I guess I thought that this would be the end of the student's career. It never occurred to me that the university would just re-issue the thesis with no comment.

Were there sanctions for the thesis advisor and committee? I have no idea, and probably could never find out. But the advisor had to know that his student did not write the entire thesis--if I could discern multiple authors in one reading of the manuscript.


  • Is this outcome fair? Or right? 
  • Should plagiarism be an academic death sentence? After all, if I stick up a liquor store, get caught, but return the money, I still committed the crime, and will be charged and probably serve time. (Though I won't get the electric chair)
  • If a student plagiarizes (or invents data), should the advisor also be sanctioned? 

1 comment:

  1. By analogy, it's the equivalent of not prosecuting a bank robber if they give back the money AFTER they are caught. My guess is that if you do that, there will be a lot more bank robberies.