Monday, June 1, 2009

What plagiarism looks like


[Image from What Plagiarism Looks Like.]

Some enterprising readers (faculty? student-journalists?) have gone through the dissertations of Carl Boening and William Meehan, highlighting every passage in Meehan's that can be found, word for word, in Boening's. Neither the University of Alabama (which granted Boening and Meehan their doctorates) nor Jacksonville State University, where Meehan is president, has chosen to take up the obvious questions about plagiarism that Meehan's dissertation presents. As another recent story suggests, plagiarism seems to be governed by a sliding scale, with consequences lessening as the wrongdoer's status rises.

With Meehan's dissertation, things are even worse than the highlighting would suggest: what's yellow is what's word for word. There are further instances of plagiarism in Meehan's work that involve less than word-for-word correspondence.

You can find both dissertations and an index, syncing them page by page, at What Plagiarism Looks Like. That site is the source of the image above.

[The documents are also now at Scribd: Boening dissertation, Meehan dissertation, index.]

[December 5, 2009. A new development: Court stops plagiarism claim against JSU president.]

Related posts
Boening, Meehan, plagiarism
Plagiarism in the academy

comments: 33

Keith Welch said...

Meehan might not face traditional consequences, but his reputation isn't worth the paper his dissertation was printed on. I suspect his future professional life is going to be difficult.

Anonymous said...

You would be surprised how often this goes on at Colleges across the country, and yes the higher you stand with respect to status at the school, the more un-touchable you become.

Coach Burk said...

bandwidth exceeded on the link... :(

Anonymous said...

Typo on graphic.

This "is" the president of ....

Dalissa McEwen Reeder said...

What a terrible example for students! My friend's son was accused of plagiarism for his paper being too similar to his friend's, similar... i.e. not the same with the penalty being failure of the class and possible expulsion. Yet this man is allowed to continue in his position despite clearly defined plagiarism, not merely similarity. Disgusting!

Will Rogers said...

The linked site is dead, bandwidth exceeded. Does anyone have a mirror?

Ben Schiendelman said...

Perhaps you guys should get some better hosting?

Michael Leddy said...

The dissertations are also available (without highlighting) at the Tuscaloosa News: Yes, its [ sic ] plagiarism.

Yes, there's a typo in the graphic, which comes from the site. I have nothing to do with the site; I'm just following this story as someone interested in matters of academic integrity.

Anonymous said...

Both schools continue to expel students who do this ... just not administrators, I guess.

Paul Rice said...

This seems angering at first, until you take a look at the content of these dissertations.

They're arguing whether or not sabbaticals are beneficial to teachers' abilities to teach. I can't think of a more asinine, self-referential topic by which to grasp at academic position.

As for a concern about plagiarism, I'm not at all surprised considering the specificity of the topic. Sure, it may seem like a matter of principle, but come on! A dissertation on sabbaticals! How about one on the benefits gleaned by people who pretend illness in order to utilize their sick days?

A waste of time and thought, not to mention concern.

Anonymous said...

There's plagiarism, and then there's using foot-notes. This is clearly the former.

Also, were talking about Alabama... come on.

Lou said...

Is this some kind of surprise? I can't get administration to enforce our weak-ass policy in the high school where I work. I have been directly told that failures hurt our NCLB numbers.

Lou

Anonymous said...

Since Meehan cites Boenings dissertation, it's ok. (j/k)

Boenings -- *damn, i shouldn't have published it with a CreativeCommons copyright*

drmk said...

Okay, it's definitely plagiarism. I'm not going to argue that it's not.

On the other hand, though, some of the things that are highlighted are things that can't be counted as plagiarism. If both dissertations cite a particular article as a reference, you can't count as plagiarism the name of the authors of the article and the date. In other words, if you say, "As X, Y and Z (1993) show, ..." the phrase "X, Y and Z (1993)" isn't plagiarized. [If it's within the context of a longer plagiarized quote, that's a different story, but with a topic this narrow, it's no surprise that they were citing the same prior research. There are places within the document where they've just highlighted the names of the cited articles and claimed that's plagiarism, and it's not.]

Also, if he's replicating the earlier study, he's very likely going to be using similar table titles. I wouldn't call those plagiarized either.

Some of the highlighting is done of whole phrases -- other highlighted areas are of single words. The sections of whole phrases are much more damning than the individual words -- if you're writing about faculty sabbaticals, you can't mark every time someone uses the phrase "faculty sabbaticals" as plagiarism!

So yes -- while this does appear to be plagiarism, I think there are things that this highlighted document is calling plagiarism that really aren't plagiarism.

Michael Leddy said...

Paul, I agree that the content of these dissertations is not exactly profound. I've chosen in writing about them to take them on their own terms. To my mind, plagiarism in a dissertation is serious stuff, whatever the topic.

Drmk, I'd say that phrases such as "X, Y, and Z (1993)" are more telling in context. I noticed that too with phrases such as "the first section," "the second section." There, it's not the phrase itself but the phrase in context that shows the problem, with the one writer following the other, sentence by sentence, the sentences' content clearly derived from an original, though not reproduced word by word.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting.

nihilists are overly optimistic said...

I don't know what disturbs me more: the blatant plagarism or the fact that someone can get a doctorate for writing about such a banal and ultimately meaningless tripe. Both hurt everyone who has ever actually worked to find a worthy topic on which to do original research. I didn't know one could get a PhD in banal. Maybe if no one cares about the topic it doesn't count as plagarism......

Michael Leddy said...

Ed.D., not Ph.D.

GateTree said...

Chuck (Carl) was one of my best friends at Alabama. I remember him doing all this research. It may be banal to the general populace, but the University was very interested in the results on the efficacy of sabbaticals. Doubt it's how he expected to become internet famous, however.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has privately investigated a few presidents (at the behest of student and faculty groups) I can tell you that this is the norm. The top level of administrators is populated largely by politically and socially privileged players, not accomplished academics.

Anonymous said...

At least Hamilton College did the right thing:
http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/03/education/03HAMI.html

Anonymous said...

His professionalism may suffer, but in the meantime he makes a nice fat salary.
Students lose money and get expelled, should not the University expel their President and also take back the money.

Paul Gowder said...

Hmm... I'm a little uneasy with the confident declaration that, as you put it in your previous post, "it's possible to plagiarize bland, everyday prose." It seems to me that there's a sense in which the things you quote there could be unavoidable -- if you have a results section, and a previous paper on which you rely on and cite a lot has a results section, is it really plagiarism to call your results section "results section" too? Like this sentence:

The current chapter was designed to provide a summary of the study and to offer conclusions and recommendations for further study.

I'm sure it exists in hundreds of dissertations a year, word for word. It's more than "boring, everyday prose" it's totally generic.

I might be convinced differently if the "what plagiarism looks like" site were still working, since then it would be possible to get a real sense of how much of the replicated text was like that, and whether its sheer quantity is enough to convince.

But in the absence of that, I'd like either a) replication of more unique, and substantive, phrases, or b) some kind of quantitative analysis showing the extent to which these two dissertations match at a significantly higher percentage than randomly selected dissertations on the same topic.

Anonymous said...

To those who are surprised by the specificity and banality of the thesis topic: have you ever actually been in grad school?

Students are practically required to write their dissertations on specific topics that make tiny incremental contributions to academic understanding. I've written coherent 10-page papers in a Master's program that the instructor said contained 10 good thesis topics. Far-reaching topics are generally discouraged.

Paul Gowder said...

Oh, never mind, I just saw the highlighted parts in the scribd document. That's pretty damning. Actual substantive content was copied, like the definition of leave of absence on pg. 6 (pdf pg. 20), large portions of the summaries in the literature review, etc. I take back my prior skepticism.

Clare S. said...

Hey Paul,

I plugged your "generic" sentence into google. The only thing that came up was this webpage. Perhaps someone should try ProQuest. :-) I know you agree that this is plagiarism, so I'm not arguing with you -- only pointing out that even common-sounding things are often not word-for-word parallel writing.

Dennis Gentry said...

I'm as happy to get morally outraged as the next guy, and this may well be plagiarism, but the yellow highlighting actually goes overboard. For example, on page 27, they're saying that the phrases: "The first section," "The second section" and "the third section" are plagiarism, when they're widely separated by other text.

This seems disingenuous to me, and makes me doubt the motivation and judgment of the mob that's putting this together.

Dennis Gentry said...

Oh, and the other thing is that in an introductory paragraph, he says extremely clearly that this study is a replication of Boening's.

A bunch of the stuff he copied was just definitions and terms of the study. You'd WANT that stuff to be the same if it's a replication of the other study. Plagiarists generally try to CONCEAL their source rather than credit it.

Again, not saying there isn't plagiarism here, just that the first few instances I investigated further weren't convincing examples, so this whole story got way less interesting to me.

Michael Leddy said...

Dennis, I noted "the first section," etc. in a comment above: "it's not the phrase itself but the phrase in context that shows the problem, with the one writer following the other, sentence by sentence, the sentences' content clearly derived from an original, though not reproduced word by word."

And yes, Meehan does acknowledge Boening's work, as I've noted in another post. And yes, Meehan's work might've been fine with his committee, as I also noted in another post: "Is it possible that a committee saw nothing wrong with replicating a dissertation, even down to its sentences? Yes, in which case Meehan's dissertation, like that of Southern Illinois president Glenn Poshard, raises questions about the standards of scholarship in education programs."

My guess is that whoever created the highlighted document wanted to present the dissertations in the simplest way possible, with word for word passages, nothing that involves nuanced debate about the limits of paraphrase. But an independent expert on plagiarism, Jonathan Bailey, has also examined the dissertations and has concluded that "extensive portions" of Meehan's dissertation involve plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe people try to argue that it is NOT plagiarism. Come on! o.0 It may be a 'dry topic,' but there are many, many syntaxes and synonyms available to your average grad student.

And I agree - if a person gets away with something like this simply because he /acknowledges/ the person he stole from, so help me academic world!!!

Marc said...

Though agreeing with the above comments concerning the dubious character of the equation [highlighted parts = plagiarism], I have no doubt about the conclusion : it's a clear instance of intellectual misconduct, for which students are routinely sent to discipline committees.

I try to help undergraduate students understand what exactly constitutes plagiarism, for instance when one has to use quotes. I found that it's really hard, and maybe impossible, to formulate strict rules (like "put quotes when using more than X consecutive words"). One has to rely upon "obvious" examples, and these two dissertations make for a very rich case study. I should use them as an exercise.

One thing that struck me was that if you check the two dissertation commitees, you'll see that three professors (including the chair) were members of both. Had they completely forgotten about the first dissertation, or what?

Charles Gramlich said...

Unfortunately even students don't get expelled. Quite often student plagiarism is allowed.

mike said...

who reads the dissertations, this is the cause, no one reads phd or master dissertations. it is a waste of time to write an original dissertation.

Michael Leddy said...

It’s hardly a waste of time to engage in the work that a dissertation requires. It’s good for you. And people do in fact read dissertations, or portions of them, when they become articles and/or books.