Professor Plagiarizes Students, School Mishandles Investigation

Yesterday, ABC News in Australia reported the story of an unfolding plagiarism scandal at Charles Darwin University. 

At the center of the scandal is an unnamed PhD supervisor who was accused of plagiarizing the work of two of his “some journal articles, and maybe in some book chapters as well.”

The students complained to the school in 2021. The school began an investigation but, when the students weren’t satisfied with the handling of that investigation, they filed a second complaint.

However, according to CDU vice-chancellor Scott Bowman, that is when the school made a critical mistake. The second investigation was rolled into the first. 

That combined investigation then took two years to complete and found that plagiarism had not occurred. That, in turn, prompted the students to appeal the decision, which finally resulted in the case being brought before an independent panel.

That panel came up with significantly different findings.

In a report filed with the school, the panel found that plagiarism had occurred and that the administration had made a number of errors in its original investigation. According to the chair of that panel, the report has a long list of recommendations, including making the findings of the panel public.

As for the alleged plagiarist, the ABC report says that they have since died via illness. While this means that no action can or will be taken against them, it also puts the focus solely on the school and its failings in this case. 

To that end, there were many failings, something Bowman acknowledged, repeating that he made mistakes in the investigation and that he “learned a lot from the process” and will “strive to do better in the future.”

While it is good to see the school acknowledge the issues, these aren’t issues unique to CDU or Australia. This story, quite literally, could have happened almost anywhere. 

That’s why it’s an important one to discuss.

Background on the Problem

Since the report hasn’t been made public, we don’t have many details of the case. That said, the allegations are straightforward.

Two students alleged that a PhD supervisor copied work they did and published it under their name in journal articles and a book. Such cases are rare, but are far from unheard of.

For example, in 2015, a University of Arizona professor as given a “formal admonishment” for taking work from a student’s thesis and submitting it as part of a conference paper after a year-long investigation. Five years later, the professor was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor

But the University of Arizona is far from alone in this space. Many schools have been criticized for treating plagiarism by professors lightly, as we discussed in 2019, professors often face weak investigations, light punishments and little consequence for a variety of plagiarism and research integrity issues.

This comes from schools that are aggressively combatting plagiarism by students, including CDU, whose academic integrity policy states:

“Any form of cheating, plagiarism, collusion, or dishonesty, devalues the quality of learning for every student and undermines the academic standards of the University. Allegations of academic misconduct will be taken seriously and dealt with fairly, consistently, and transparently.”

Compare that to how the supervisor’s investigation was handled, and it’s easy to see that there is a two-tiered system, one where professors are rarely held to the same standards as the students they oversee.

What Makes the Case Unique

On paper, there’s not a lot that makes the CDU case unique. The school spent two years to perform an inadequate job of investigating the allegations against the supervisor in question.

That’s a bad look, but, as we discussed above, it’s hardly unique to CDU. I’ve personally been involved in investigations that took longer than two years, and have watched as schools have twisted and contorted their own policies to avoid having to dole out any real punishment.

It’s frustrating, but it’s common. Whether it’s a desire to avoid legal headache, embarrassment or to just avoid hurting colleagues, schools routinely drag their feet, perform inadequate investigations and dole out weak punishments to plagiarizing faculty.

What makes this case unique is twofold.

First is the plagiarism itself. Though issues of authorship are common between professors and their students, they usually don’t manifest in what appears to be a “copy and paste” job like this one, but in disputes over paper authorship.

For example, one of the most famous papers in the field of cosmology saw a professor add another author for the sake of a bad pun. But while that case is an exceptional one, disputes over authorship in published content are legion, with instructors motivated to push for greater authorship than was earned and students largely powerless to stop them.

The second unusual element of the case is that the school did eventually do the correct thing. They brought in an outside panel, and they performed a more thorough investigation that found the issues. Further, that panel is pushing for full transparency, something that wasn’t present in the original investigation.

As with the University of Arizona case, such investigations typically unfold with little transparency, light (if any) repercussions and no deeper examination into the issues. 

The fact is that what makes the CDU case so newsworthy isn’t the plagiarism itself or how long the case took, but that anything significant happened at all.

Bottom Line

To be clear, CDU did not handle this case well. It still took far too long, the original findings are still suspect, and the case points to a myriad of issues in their process.

However, these issues aren’t unique to them and, if anything, they’re a step ahead of other schools because they openly acknowledge the issues and say that they are working to learn from their mistakes.

That is potentially huge. While such cases may be rare, it’s still important to have an effective process for dealing with such complaints and ensuring that such issues are addressed promptly, fairly and transparently.

This requires significant work and is an uphill battle given the legal and social challenges that come with such an investigation. 

However, the CDU case isn’t just an opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes, but for other schools to do the same.

The best time to draft a policy is before it is needed. So, this story is an excellent opportunity for schools all over the world to have the difficult conversations now, rather than wait for when the questions become pressing and serious dialog becomes impossible.

Header Image: Michael Coghlan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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