University Dean Cleared in Plagiarism Probe

In October 2021, Andrew Azzopardi and a student he was mentoring, Andrew Camilleri, published a literature review entitled Risk and Protective Factors in Violent Youth Crime in the first edition of the journal Studies in Social Well-being. 

However, in November that same year, the article became the subject of controversy as two researchers, Saviour Formosa and Janice Formosa Pace, both from the same university as Azzopardi, claimed that parts of the article were plagiarized from their earlier work.  

Specifically, they highlighted text that, while cited, was not placed in quotes or blockquotes. This accusation led to the paper being retracted and prompted UoM to begin their own investigation.

That investigation has since concluded and found that though there was evidence of “lazy writing” and poor paraphrasing, that there was no deliberate attempt to take credit for the work of Formosa and Pace and that no action would be taken against either Azzopardi or Camilleri, the latter of which was listed as the first author. The only action the committee did recommend was a strong encouragement that both authors give apologies to the researchers they copied from.

Though the committee did not find any malicious plagiarism occurred, it also found that Azzopardi should have mentored Camilleri closer to prevent such a mistake. 

The case made headlines in Malta because Azzopardi, in addition to being a member of the faculty at the university, is also the Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing and a prominent radio host in the country. It is through that program that Azzopardi and Formosa have repeated clashed over prison reform issues.

Azzopardi, for his part, is pleased with the verdict. In an interview with Lovin Malta, he said, “The truth has prevailed, the inquiry was crystal clear there was no plagiarism – neither from me nor from the first author…”

This case, other the celebrity of Azzopardi, is a fairly mundane one. However, it sits in stark contrast to the case we covered last week, where a lack of transparency left us with more questions than answers. 

Why this Case Matters

Last week we looked at the case of Steven Newmaster, a botanist that rose to prominence in the field after conducting a study that showed that many herbal products were not as advertised on the bottle.

Though that research propelled him to a nearly decade-long career both as an academic expert and as an entrepreneur in the space, serious questions about his work have been raised by several others in the field. This includes allegations of plagiarism and data manipulation.

In Newmaster’s case, both the journal BMC Medicine and his university, the University of Gelph (UG), declined to take any action against them. The article in question remains unretracted and unaltered, barring an editor’s note. UG, for its part, declined to take any punitive action despite expressing some reservations about Newmaster’s work.

Though the outcomes of the investigations are, largely, the same. There’s a huge difference in the amount of information available about those investigations.

While we know very little about the process BMC Medicine and UG used to reach their conclusions, the University of Malta has been very clear about its reasoning. 

In short, since the researchers were cited, just not properly quoted, they felt that this was not a deliberate attempt to take credit for their work. This was bolstered by the fact that they were conducting a literature review, which is entirely based upon previous research, and that it was Camilleri’s first publication.

However, the findings were also nuanced, noting that the paper wasn’t up to standards. Furthermore, though the committee understood why Azzopardi assumed Camilleri knew about and adhered to the conventions of academic publication, they said he should have been mentoring him more closely to ensure something like this didn’t make it to publication.

Though the committee didn’t hand down any formal reprimands, it did encourage Azzopardi and Camilleri to apologize to Formosa and Pace. Formosa, for his part, had previously called for the resignation of Azzopardi.

The result of this is simple. Even those that disagree with the decision have an understanding of how and why it was reached. The committee isn’t asking others to take their findings on faith, but explaining their reasoning and setting a standard that can be used in future cases and compared to previous ones.

In short, the transparency here, if nothing else, goes a long way to bringing an end to this case, even if some will not be happy about the findings.

My Thoughts on the Decision 

It’s important to remember that, even though he’s the celebrity in the story, Azzopardi is the second author of the paper. He was mentoring a student and his level of involvement, almost certainly, wasn’t that great.

Even though he was a student and this was his first publication, Camilleri is the one most directly responsible for the issues with the paper. To that end, the committee found a lot of reason to be sympathetic toward him. 

In addition to his limited experience, the nature of the plagiarism points to an issue with paraphrasing, not an issue of trying to take credit for the work of others. In fact, the nature of a literature review is that there is no original research.

So, I agree with the committee in that this is a situation where sympathy is due. Destroying an academic’s career over a single case of poor paraphrasing seems more than a bit extreme. 

That said, I would have liked to seen more done. Instead of just strongly encouraging an apology, I would have liked to see Camilleri take a remedial course on research writing that included guidance on how to properly paraphrase and cite material. 

The same goes for Azzopardi. Ending his career over a lapse by a student he was mentoring feels excessive. But, having him take a remedial course on mentoring students and on the use of plagiarism detection tools could help prevent a repeat. Also, he could be paired, for a time, with another member of the faculty to monitor his mentoring process.

The goal, as I see it, should be to show sympathy while, at the same time, ensuring that the mistakes are never repeated, by either person.

As for the paper’s retraction, it is difficult for me to say whether it was warranted or not. On one hand, it seems that the issue could have been adequately addressed with either an editor’s note or a correction. This is what the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE) recommends in cases where the plagiarism is minor and there is no misattribution of data.

On the other hand, journals have become much slower and much more reluctant to retract papers that contain plagiarism. It may make sense to retract the article, but allow it to be resubmitted once the issues are fixed.

Either way, a retraction without hope of republication does seem harsh, especially given the nature of the plagiarism.

Bottom Line

To be clear, any decision by the UoM would have controversial and divisive. Given the individuals involved, this was always going to be a very public and very heated case.

Overall, the university handled the case well. It took a carefully measured approach and was transparent about its findings and how it arrived at them. Even if you disagree with those decisions, it’s hard to argue that the school didn’t carefully weight the issues and consider all the factors.

Though the decision will likely leave some feeling shortchanged, it’s hard to feel that they weren’t heard, and that their opinions weren’t considered. It’s a simple thing, but it goes a long way to actually bringing an end to this dispute. 

This, when compared to the Newmaster case, highlights the importance of transparency in this space and how it helps not just the public, but those involved in the dispute, move on from it.