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Filtering by Tag: dissertation plagiarism

In 2009 Chris Spence was heralded as an inspired choice as the new Director of Education at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). However, just over three years later, the school district and it’s 250,000 students are now scrambling to replace him following his sudden and immediate resignation over allegations of plagiarism.

The allegations of plagiarism began to surface earlier in the week when it was discovered that he had plagiarized passages of a January 5th, 2013 column he had written for the Toronto Star. The plagiarism was verified by the paper’s public editor and Spence quickly issued an apology saying that “I am an adult, and an educator. I should know better.” He also agreed to both correct the record as best he could and to enroll himself in the Ethics and Law in Journalism Course at Ryerson University.

However, the issue would not be so quickly put to rest as additional allegations of plagiarism began to surface against him including other articles and blog posts he had written. Even his 1996 doctoral dissertation fell under attack as The Globe and Mail learned that there were several, unattributed similarities in it to earlier works, in particular a 1991 book in the field.

As the new revelations of plagiarism were coming out, Spence handed in his resignation. He will receive approximately seven months pay, slightly more than what was left on his contract, which is worth $272,000 per year. However, it seems likely that the investigation into his work will be ongoing, in particular in regards to his dissertation, and that further action may be possible.

But even if no further action is taken, the scandal already represents an amazingly fast fall for Spence. The column that sparked the controversy was published on January 5th and, by January 10th, he had turned in his resignation.

Though the scandal may be far from over, it only took five days for it to engulf Spence’s career.

The reason behind the “quick burn” of the controversy can be directly tied to the expectations of integrity that are placed upon school officials, especially high-ranking ones. A breach of academic or journalistic integrity from someone in such a position is a breach of trust with the public and that motivates a quick and strong backlash that can quickly uncover any other misdeeds.

Equally important though, is that such positions, especially at large school districts, are inherently political. This makes such heads both a public figure and, almost always, a controversial one. Such figures are popular targets for scandals of any kind, plagiarism included.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it appears that Dr. Spence likely had a pervasive problem with plagiarism. Though the exact size of the problem is still unknown, to have found so many issues so quickly paints a very bleak picture for Dr. Spence’s body of work.

Still, what happens next is difficult to say. The TDSB has to immediately begin a search for a new Director of Education, a hunt that will be very difficult due to the size of the district, and may take nearly a year.

For Spence himself, there are already calls for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, his alma mater, to investigate and consider revoking his PhD. The school, however, has not commented.

All in all, it seems likely things will continue to get worse for Spence, at least for a while and a job in education seems unlikely for him.

For others, the Spence case is a stark reminder that, while you can build a career on plagiarized works, it’s impossible to tell when and how it will all come crashing down.

As other scandals have shown, you never know when that plagiarism from years ago can be exposed. As such, it is important to follow the best practices of integrity, no matter what your field, rather than create a time bomb that can destroy your career at any time.

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125 Harvard Students Investigated in Unprecedented Plagiarism Scandal

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Podcast featuring:Jennifer S., Graduate Student at Stanford University with a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s degree in Personality Psychology, and currently finishing up her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

Listen to Jennifer’s story (57 seconds):

“Trying to write in a very narrow focused area makes it easy to accidentally plagiarize. It (matched content) is defined as being seven words or more. The chances of getting seven words in the same order as someone else in over 150 pages is actually pretty substantial that you will do that at some point."

"It (WriteCheck) was useful as I wrote my dissertation to do a periodic check to make sure that there were no sections that I thought I re-worded, but I didn’t or that I accidentally plagiarized -- that can be an easy mistake to make. WriteCheck helped me have peace of mind that the work I was doing was definitely all my own.”

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The New York Times recently published an article in it’s Arts Beat section that gave a perspective on dissertation plagiarism from Dora D. Clarke-Pine, a professor of psychology from La Sierra University. Professor Clarke-Pine conducted a study to examine dissertation plagiarism by evaluating a sample of papers from psychology students at universities across the country. She also made a clear distinction between religious and non-religious universities to see if ‘moral values’ played into the incidence of plagiarism.

Her findings were pretty much what we’ve come to expect as far as high percentages of copied materials. From the NY Times:

“Four of every five dissertations examined contained examples of word-for-word plagiarism. Ms. Clarke-Pine found no difference between religious and secular schools.”

The study yielded the interesting notation that there wasn’t any distinction in plagiarism between religious and non-religious schools. Ms. Clark-Pine originally thought there might be a lower incidence of plagiarism in religious schools because of stricter moral codes that would deter students from cheating. The lack of differential could be taken as an indicator that students across the board were accidentally plagiarizing, or didn’t know exactly how to define plagiarism.

One part of the study that took heat was Ms. Clark-Pine’s methods for determining what constitutes plagiarism. In her study, she considered plagiarism as ‘copying 10 or more words without proper attribution.’ Many opponents of the study voiced their opinion that copying 10 or more words could be entirely accidental due to the limited constraints that certain phrases can be structured.

One article comment poster, “norman,” wrote:

“I'd like to see Clarke-Pine's paper. Defining plagiarism as copying 10 or more words sounds awfully slippery. If I write a sentence of 10 words on a common theme that can be found somewhere with a Google search or somewhere in a term-paper database, is that copying or coincidence?”

Although it is true that cases of accidental plagiarism can potentially occur, that doesn’t mean that many of the word-for-word matches in the study weren’t intentional cases of plagiarism. There is only a finite number of ways to structure a particular phrase or sentence, but that’s exactly what makes the content unique.

Some of the greatest words and phrases in written history have been ten words and under:

“Words may show a man's wit but actions his meaning.” - Ben Franklin “An unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” - Robert Frost

Though some cases of plagiarism may be accidental, that doesn’t mean papers shouldn’t be checked. Even if one single case of intentional plagiarism is discovered by checking hundreds of papers – it’s worth it.

Citations Cohen, Patricia. “Thinking Cap: The Seemingly Persistent Rise of Plagiarism.” The New York Times. August 23rd 2011. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/23/thinking-cap-the-seemingly-persistent-rise-of-plagiarism/

Proverbia.net Quotes http://en.proverbia.net/citastemas.asp

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