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« A suggestion for a future cultural studies project | Main | Ongoing agonized relationship to Google Books »

November 29, 2007

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Dr. Weevil

I've always suspected that that's how many academic plagiarism scandals happen. Big-name Ivy scholar needs to crank out a tenth or twelfth book, sublets the task to a team of grad students, instructs one of them to write a chapter summarizing the conclusions of sources A and B, boiling them down to X pages, and connecting them at beginning and end to the general outline of the book. (Or perhaps s/he provides the beginning and end ready-made.) Under time pressure, the grad student scans some pages of the sources and starts boiling them down and paraphrasing, and then gets sloppy and lets a page or two slip through entirely unprocessed. The famous scholar can't admit to putting his/her name on books actually written by others, so the scandal all lands where it should, though not for the right reason.

Belle

I've a better one: a grad student who gets her husband to read/summarize her research so that she can write a dissertation based on his reading of the various works.

Yep. Seen it happen. Horrified, but he seemed to think it was worth peace at home. She's now using said doctorate to teach....

Vance Maverick

It strikes me as strange to say that the purpose of research is "to learn". I would have said (for what it's worth, I'm an ex-academic) that the purpose is to create and diffuse knowledge or understanding. Now of course most researchers are motivated in part by their personal desire to learn; but if they only learn, and never diffuse, does that even count as research?

In this case, the research is being produced, and can be judged on its own merits. What's embarrassing is that these "stars" are claiming credit for others' work.

Udge

I think Vance is confusing research with teaching.

What's really embarrassing is the extent to which this appears to be common practice. I've always wondered how self-proclaimed "business gurus" could write forty books while still running businesses; I guess I now know.

Julie

This actually happened to me in a grad-level Medieval History class. I was given the choice to either take an exam or write a twenty page paper on the history of Medieval medicine. The professor was pursuing a PhD at some overseas university and his dissertation was on the same subject. I didn't feel comfortable with this but I had to finish the paper to complete/pass the class, so what is a student to do?

Dawn

This happened to my college roommate our first year. Her English TA was working on a Masters (I think) and was doing a lot of research on the Vietnam war. Strangely, all of Roomie's class papers had to do with Vietnam war subjects. She was really angry about it, but, like Julie, didn't feel there was much she could do about it.

Dr. Weevil

What to do in such a situation?

1. Plagiarize word-for-word a source obscure enough that you won't be caught until you have safely graduated and the statute of limitations has passed -- perhaps something only available through Interlibrary Loan. Then wait until the teacher's dissertation is successfully defended (or book published, or both) and send an anonymous hotmail message to the dissertation committee (or all other scholars writing on similar subjects). This is a long-term plan, and the teacher would know you did it, but wouldn't know you did it to ruin his/her career -- you could have just been a lazy plagiarist. In any case, you know what they say about revenge as a dish best served cold.

2. Here's a better plan, if you can bring it off, and if you're pretty sure the teacher plans to incorporate your stuff word for word. (Of course, the more thoroughly you research it and the better you write it, the more likely that is to happen.) Include an acrostich or acronym with an embarrassing message. Make the initial letters of your sentences in the most likely to be plagiarized parts spell out "written by [your name]" or "plagiarized from [your name]" or "I'm too lazy and stupid to do my own research" or something grossly obscene. Then e-mail the appropriate authorities after the dissertation is approved or book is written. Since you won't have done anything illegal or immoral in this case, you can sign your e-mails.

Marya

I'm not sure I really believe that anyone could write a dissertation based on patched-together undergraduate research papers. It seems more likely the teacher couldn't concentrate on any other subject at the time so he assigned papers in the area he was obsessed with.

I do recall a graduate professor of mine who assigned a letter annotation project from all his Bibliography students for years, and later came out with an edition of letters for the same author. On the one hand, he probably knew the material well enough to grade the annotations without much extra research. On the other hand. . . surely the students came up with stuff he hadn't happened on.

richard

Dr. Weevil comments above,"I've always suspected that that's how many academic plagiarism scandals happen" - but most such scandals have been relatively minor. In some of the more noted cases, there have been some additional issues around personality or publicity that lead to the perception of scandal. Mostly these cases don't get noticed, so they can't really be called scandals.

Which is, in itself, scandalous. These people should be wildly embarrassed, when it purports to be a single-author original text!

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