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American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Fields of Fuel - By Bethany Halford
Higher Ambitions - By Alvin P. Sanoff
The Burden of Plagiarism - By Thomas K. Grose

REFRACTIONS: Identifying Ourselves - By Henry Petroski
LAST WORD: Gender Bias in Academe - By Alice Merner Agogino

Piecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne Shallcross
Book Review: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin Tatu
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Conversation With a Center- By Karl A. Smith
On Campus: Winning Combination - By Lynne Shallcross

FEATURE: The Burden of Plagiarism - The cheating scandal at Ohio University has raised all sorts of questions. - By Thomas K. GroseFEATURE: The Burden of Plagiarism - The cheating scandal at Ohio University has raised all sorts of questions. - By Thomas K. Grose - ILLUSTRATION BY KEN ORVIDAS  


A major plagiarism controversy that recently erupted in the mechanical engineering department of Ohio University (OU) has American universities—particularly colleges of engineering—grappling with a thorny set of ethics questions concerning one of the capital offenses in academic scholarship: plagiarism.

Some questions are basic: What constitutes plagiarism? Others are, perhaps, more nuanced: When it occurs in a master’s thesis, does it matter where in the document the theft appears? Is it the responsibility of faculty advisers to ensure their students’ papers are plagiarism-free—and should they likewise face punishment if they fail? Are foreign graduate students more susceptible to committing the crime, either because of cultural influences, poor command of English or both? Finally, there’s the question of whether other engineering departments at other schools also have hidden plagiarism infestations. “This is a discussion the discipline needs to have,” says Dennis Irwin, dean of Ohio’s College of Engineering.

OHIO ENGINEERING DEAN DENNIS IRWIN HAS NO DOUBTS THAT THE SUSPECT PAPERS CONSTITUTE PLAGIARISM. “THIS IS NOT NIT-PICKING... HONESTY, INTEGRITY AND QUALITY CAN’T BE HALFWAY.” Ohio’s plagiarism scandal, which has garnered national attention, so far involves the master’s theses of 34 former students, most of them from overseas. It’s also led to the disciplining of two engineering academics, including the department’s long-serving and much-honored chairman (who earlier this year resigned from that post). The problem came to light when a former grad student in the department began reading published theses on file at the school’s library. He was looking for inspiration for his own stalled paper; what he found instead was an awful lot of egregious borrowing of copy with precious little attribution. Last May, a review panel reported finding “rampant and flagrant” plagiarism in many mechanical engineering theses, going back two decades. The suspect papers were filled with many pages of material swiped from not only previous theses but textbooks and software manuals.

Jay Gunasekera, the former department chairman who has the title of “distinguished professor,” could not be reached for comment. But he’s suing OU for defamation. And he and his attorney have been quoted in other publications as saying that, while the accused students are guilty of sloppy citation practices, their crime is not plagiarism. Gunasekera and his defenders stress that all of the offenses occurred in the literature review sections of the papers, where there’s not much original thought and where much of the language covers a lot of the same ground. Moreover, they note, none of the students is accused of plagiarizing or falsifying research results, which they say would be a more serious violation.

Those arguments, however, fail to resonate with many engineering academics and ethics experts. David Munson, University of Michigan’s dean of engineering, says that while definitions of plagiarism can vary, “I wouldn’t want my master’s students to copy verbatim any part of another thesis and not provide a citation.” Barbara A. Masi, director of education and innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering, says no part of an academic paper should be held to a less-than-stringent standard. “The fact that you can download an amazing amount of material is not a reason not to put it in citations.”

“THERE’S A PATTERN HERE OF FACULTY  TURNING A BLIND EYE” TO A LACK OF PROPER  CITATION, DUKE’S TIMOTHY DODD SAYS. “THAT TAKES IT OUT OF THE REALM OF FORGIVENESS AND INTO THE REALM OF CULPABILITY. “Masi also disagrees that literature review sections are mainly “boilerplate.” Timothy M. Dodd makes a similar point. Dodd, who is the executive director at the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI) at Duke University, says a literature review is “not just a bibliography,” because it should highlight the author’s analytical abilities by showing which previous tracts the author deems critical. “We’re treading some shaky ground trying to parse a definition of plagiarism.” Certainly Ohio’s Irwin has no doubts that the suspect papers constitute plagiarism. “There is no elementary-school definition of plagiarism,” Irwin contends. “This is not nit-picking, either. Honesty, integrity and quality can’t be halfway.”

The other defense mounted by Gunasekera and those sympathetic to his plight is that if a student is guilty of plagiarism, then he or she should be punished—not the faculty adviser, because trying to verify all the material in a literature review would be too onerous a task. Gunasekera told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “There’s a vast amount of literature out there. It’s hard for me to know what’s taken from where. It’s not that easy to find plagiarism.”

Flimsy Oversight?

That’s not an argument that impresses many other scholars, either, although they stress that judgments should be meted out on a case-by-case basis. If, for instance, it’s a single instance involving one professor and one student, then that’s a pardonable sin. Wallace Fowler, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, says it’s his responsibility to look for plagiarism in all parts of a paper. That said, he adds: “I’ll check things as best as I can, but I know some things could slip by me.” In other words, no professor is infallible. But as Duke’s Dodd points out, the problem at OU’s mechanical engineering department wasn’t just one paper, one scholar, but rather many papers over many years, most of them involving multiple pages of unattributed copying. “There’s a pattern here of faculty turning a blind eye” to a lack of proper citation, Dodd says. “That takes it out of the realm of forgiveness and into the realm of culpability. There was flimsy oversight there over plug-and-chug theses.”

Irwin says he doesn’t believe the disciplined advisers collaborated with the students. But there wasn’t enough oversight, which requires ongoing dialogue with and mentoring of students. “It is unlikely someone could read (the disputed papers) carefully and not find problems,” he adds. Irwin, who’s an electrical engineer, says when he worked with graduate students he was closely involved with each document’s development, reading every draft of every chapter. Fowler says plagiarism in papers written by foreign students is often easier to detect because many of them do struggle with the language. His suspicions are raised “if something looks too polished . . . if (a student) can write that well in the introduction, why doesn’t he write as well in the rest of the paper?”

Foreign students are at the crux of OU’s scandal. And that’s got to be worrisome for engineering schools, given that students from overseas are their bread-and-butter. Last year, 43 percent of master’s degrees awarded in engineering went to foreign students. Beyond possible language difficulties, some foreign students, particularly those from Asia, come from countries where definitions of plagiarism are looser than in the United States.

To be sure, not all researchers are comfortable saying the problem was imported from overseas. “I am leery of this kind of cultural argument, it smacks of paternalism. I’m rather dubious of that proposition,” says Jonathan Knight, of the American Association of University Professors’ Program in Academic Freedom and Tenure. Indeed, this country has its own problems with cheating. A study last year by the CAI found that 40 percent of American university students admitted to swiping stuff off the Internet and using it without attribution. Still, clearly in some Asian countries, particularly China, plagiarism is running amok according to numerous press reports. In fact, a Google search on the term “China plagiarism” turns up more than 4 million hits. Another issue, Dodd says, is the fast-track schedule many foreign students are on. Many come to America on government grants and are under heavy pressure to get their degrees and return home. “Many are mostly interested in getting to the finish line as fast as they can,” he says. And that makes them susceptible to using shortcuts they shouldn’t. “This is where proper oversight comes in,” Dodd says. The foreign origins of most of the suspect students were “a contributing factor,” Irwin says.

Many graduate schools still operate on the assumption that successful applicants already know how to write research papers. One way to address the problem without singling out foreign students would be to require all grad students to attend writing seminars that cover all aspects of research papers, including proper attribution. That’s one of the fixes OU has set in place. Other schools are ahead of the pack. Duke has a year-long Ethics in Research seminar that all grad students must take. And MIT’s grad students are required to take two writing courses. “It certainly helped our students, and it’s good for the institution, too,” Masi says. Many academics like the idea, as well. Says UT’s Fowler: “It would make my job easier if the theses I have to read were better to start with.”

The lingering unknown: Is the problem widespread or was OU’s mechanical engineering department an isolated case? Masi calls the Ohio situation “unique,” but others aren’t so sanguine. “I am sure that you could find instances of plagiarism in student work—undergraduate and graduate—at any university if you looked hard enough,” Fowler says. But, he adds, more often than not it’s probably detected and corrected before it’s published. Irwin suspects the worst. “Given the circumstances here, my expectation is it’s fairly common.” In Ohio’s mechanical engineering department, he says, the problem was student misunderstandings and a mentoring system that broke down. “I don’t think that factor is in any way unique to this university.” Which is why a new debate about plagiarism that results in better ways to combat it would be a healthy thing.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelancer for a number of national publications, including Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report.



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American Society for Engineering Education