In yet another news story that involves a college professor facing allegations of plagiarism, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) has had plagiarism allegations against her dismissed after a committee declined to refer it to an investigative level.

While this is great news for Christi Kasa, the associate professor facing the accusations, the investigation leaves a lot of questions unanswered. This is because the committee ruled the alleged plagiarism took place in writing that “did not meet the definitional criteria for research” and, therefore, was outside of their scope.

The case raises a lot of questions about what obligations universities have to police the work of their faculty that is created outside the university as well as when (and if) it’s appropriate for them to take action on such issues.

These aren’t easy questions but they are ones that schools need to begin thinking about. The reason is that headlines like this aren’t becoming less common. instead, as we’re seeing here, they are featuring in the news with increasing regularity.

The Background of the Case

The case itself began in May when David Rostetter, a consultant that helps school districts and government agencies comply with laws that protect the need of special needs students, filed a complaint with UCCS officials claiming that Kasa had committed “research misconduct.”

According to Rostetter, he recognized similarities between an expert witness report filed by Kasa and a different report filed four years prior in a separate case.

The lawsuit Kasa was involved in centered on a parent who wanted their elementary-school-aged daughter with disabilities integrated into mainstream classrooms. Kasa wrote an expert witness report about the daughter but, according to Rostetter, up to 40% of it was copied from the earlier report, including the conclusions.

Kasa, however, contends that she did not plagiarize and that she simply followed a “template” when drafting her report. In a quote to The Gazette, she said:

“I used what I considered a template from a colleague to summarize some of the industry-wide accepted best practice research. Many professions such as lawyers and expert witnesses use template language in writing that is not research.”

Despite this, Rostetter filed the complaint in May and, in an October 10th meeting, the Committee on Misconduct in Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities determined that the case did not “meet the definitional criteria for research” and, as such, would not be forwarded for investigation.

Rostetter points to elements of the report that were “lifted verbatim” and that it included a great deal of research in it. However, the university’s decision appears to be final.

For Kasa’s part, she fully denies the plagiarism saying that her conclusions, “Are based on my 25 years of experience working with people with disabilities and their families.” She also believes that the allegations might be politically motivated, noting that, “My colleagues and I are doing important work that challenge the systems in education and when systems are challenged, some people fight dirty.”

Rostetter, though disappointed in the decision, says that he isn’t surprised. In a response to the university’s decision, he said, “I was reasonably certain that your institution would find a way to avoid accountability of her unethical and damaging work.”

As for the report itself, it did not become a factor in the case as it was settled.

Unpacking the Case

The case itself has a lot of layers, however, there’s one main question that comes from it: Should schools do more to police and investigate non-research-related activities from their faculty?

On one hand, this seems obvious. Any activity that a professor does where they benefit from their position at the university could, in turn, harm the university if it turns out that plagiarism or another ethical violation took place.

In this case, for example, there’s little doubt that her position at UCCS played at least some role in getting her chosen as an expert witness. Her position at the school lent her credibility and, if she committed plagiarism, that could harm the school, its integrity and its reputation.

But it isn’t really that simple. For one, not every type of writing has the same citation and originality standards as research or academic writing. The legal field is a good example. Often times with legal writing it is much more important to say something the correct way than an original way. That is much less true in academia.

Would an academic tribunal be well-equipped to interpret whether an expert witness report is plagiarized or would they have to bring in outside experts more familiar with this kind of writing?

The other question is: How far would this extend? If a professor wrote a children’s book would plagiarism in that put their job at risk? What if they worked on a TV show that turned out to have other ethical issues?

While an expert report might seem and even be adjacent enough to academic writing for the school to pass judgment, professors work on a wide variety of material outside of the classroom and there is no way that universities are equipped to handle them all.

Though it may appear that UCCS took the easy way out by saying it’s “not research,” it may actually be the smart approach. After all, stepping too far away from their core area of expertise risks kicking a hornet’s nest that they, nor any school, are ready for.

It may not be a satisfying answer, but it may be the best one for the school.

Bottom Line

Schools need to think more about these issues but they have to strike a balance between protecting the integrity of their school and entering into fields where they lack expertise or attempting to control every aspect of their professors’ lives.

A line clearly has to be drawn though it’s impossible to know if this was an appropriate time. Without access to the reports, it’s impossible for me, or any outsider to know just how serious the alleged plagiarism is and if the work produced is close enough to research that UCCS should have investigated farther.

However, it’s important to note that, if Kasa had been just an expert witness and not a professor, none of this would have happened. We wouldn’t have had this news story nor this limited investigation. It probably would not have gone farther than a complaint.

Ultimately though, this issue may be somewhat moot. The trend right now is for schools to get less involved in their professors’ work and it’s becoming more and more difficult for any such plagiarisms to be addressed at all.

It doesn’t seem likely that schools are going to change to a more aggressive stance on these issues, even if it may be the best thing to do for their own integrity and reputation.

UCCS Photo: By Jeffrey M Foster Licensed Under CC BY-SA 4.0