Saturday, June 4, 2016

Plagiarism: When professors are to blame

I’ve just discovered that it's not just certain students who don’t understand what constitutes plagiarism. It's much worse: It’s some professors and even deans.

A while ago Miguel Alcíbar, a professor at the University of Seville, Spain, called my attention to a master's thesis which had just appeared online. Miguel pointed out that the author had copied several paragraphs of Infografía 2.0., my first book about infographics, published only in Spain back in 2008. The student submitted this thesis as part of his Masters studies at the school of design of the University of Rosario, Argentina.

I took a quick look at the thesis and recognized my words in one paragraph. As I saw my name quoted as a source in the bibliography and in one chapter, I thought that the student had just been sloppy and had forgotten to add quotation marks to that paragraph. No big deal. Anybody can be absent-minded. I know I can be (see here), so I tend to be a bit lax with everybody else (see here), certainly much more than most of my colleagues. A simple correction suffices in a case like this, I thought.

But Miguel insisted: He suggested to open Infografía 2.0, put it side by side with the document, and compare both. Miguel was right. At the bottom of this post you can see the evidence for yourselves. On the left side of each of those images I put the original words from Infografía 2.0; on the right, I put the pages from the thesis. I didn’t scrutinize the whole thing. I just picked pages from one or two of its chapters.

I then contacted the professors who were part of the committee, Javier Armentano, Horacio Gorodischer, Gabriela Nazario, Damián Vezzani, and the dean of the school, Olga Corna. They promised to look into it.

The first response I got from the dean was disheartening. She claimed that, upon preliminary evaluation, they hadn’t detected true plagiarism. She explained that students from her school don’t always follow APA citation standards. My reply was that this is not a matter of following any kind of citation guidelines, but of good manners. I’d be fine with the student using a couple of sentences without quotation marks, but full pages? How can a dean justify that?

Well, I’ve just received the evaluation of the entire committee, and it's not any better. It begins by saying that the student will correct all pages where paragraphs without attribution appear. Fine.

But what comes next is bad: the professors double down on their claim that this is not a case of plagiarism because the student mentioned me here and there as a source. This is outrageous. If you read the images below carefully you'll see that my words are mixed with his. In none of these pages it is clear which words were extracted verbatim from a book and which were written by the student himself. I guess that the next step should be to send all the evidence and the committee's response to the Ministry of Education of the province of Santa Fe, where Rosario is.

You know the worst part? I'm not even upset by this. Not with the student, at least. I feel ashamed for some reason, perhaps because I fear that this kind of blindness to even the most elementary rules of academic decorum is becoming widespread. Not just among students, but among damn professors, as well.


NOTE 1: I worry that I am not the only one who has been plagiarized in this thesis. I was about to put a link to it so other authors mentioned in it could check it, but it has been erased.

NOTE 2: Infografía 2.0 isn't available as an e-book, so either the student typed all this stuff —which is absurd; if you are willing to put so much effort into that, why not writing your own words?— or got an illegal PDF copy on the Internet.





4 comments:

  1. I propose another interpretation. The professors understand perfectly well that this is a case of plagiarism, but they cannot use the word: in many universities, rules against plagiarism are so strong and inflexible (including life-changing implications such as kicking out the student from university even if plagiarism was committed for an assignment, deprive them of their diploma and recognition of all the course of study if it's for a thesis, give back their scholarship if they received one, etc.), that professors and deans would go at great length in order not to say the "p" word.
    This, I believe, is often related to a disconnection between teaching practices and regulations: not enough attention is put on explaining what plagiarism is, and how bad it is in BA and MA programmes. So when a case such as this one happens, and you have inflexible rules and formal procedures that need to be applied once you mention the "p" word, you don't want to apply them, as you feel that yes, the student has made a mistake, but since he has not been warned enough, then he shouldn't be punished so harshly.

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    Replies
    1. It's a plausible interpretation. There may be perverse incentives at work. Still...

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    2. Agree that this appears plausible.

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  2. Alberto,

    This is disheartening to say the least. The integrity of the written word in academics must always be held to the highest standard.

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