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Case Study Plagiarism

We present here all seven cases of plagiarism and cheating discovered between the fourth (2011) and seventh (2014) classes of the Masters program, although other cases probably remained undetected because of limited surveillance, particularly before 2011. The information presented is based on the experiences of faculty directly handling the cases. All conversations with the students at fault took place in private settings, and class discussions about the events preserved their anonymity. All cases are described as male here to further support anonymity. Figure 1 summarizes key information of the cases and the response measures implemented by our program.

Plagiarism Case 5: Research Methods III Course, October 2013

One week after the class discussion of the previous case of plagiarism, the final assignment of a student (full thesis proposal) had several sections strongly suggestive of literal plagiarism. A Google® search evidenced that these paragraphs were identical to the content of several websites, including Wikipedia®. The program and course coordinator discussed the incident with the student, and after a long explanation of the definition of plagiarism, the student recognized having plagiarized inadvertently. Given the thorough discussion of plagiarism in the Research Integrity course, writing workshops, and the previous plagiarism case a week before, the student was failed in the course and separated from the program for the rest of the year. The event was reported to the university, and a misconduct report was filed in the student’s permanent academic record. When given the opportunity to address the class, the student described the case, accepted all responsibility for having plagiarized, and warned the class about the severity and importance of preventing plagiarism. The class recognized the severity of the event, but unanimously asked for a more lenient sanction, arguing that the student may have missed prior warnings. Despite accepting misconduct, the student argued the sanction was too harsh and presented a notarized letter requesting a formal decision. The student’s work supervisors contacted the program coordinator in coordination with the student, inquiring about the incident and the program’s response, and full details were provided. The university confirmed the sanction imposed by the program and the student recently contacted the program to try to finish the coursework. Prior to the event, the student had a low performance (ranked 24 of 26).

Most of the cases of plagiarism and cheating detected involved students with a record of suboptimal academic performance in the program. Indeed, 20 % of students in the lowest quartile of their class were involved in plagiarism and cheating compared to only 2 % of students in higher grade quartiles (risk ratio = 12.2; 95 % confidence interval: 2.5–60.2, Fisher’s exact p value = 0.008). Also, none of the four cases described above who actually completed their coursework later had successfully defended their dissertations. No cases were detected in the 2014 class, which suggests a very strong impact of the policy implemented, despite the fact that the reduction in the incidence of plagiarism and cheating is only marginally significant (Fisher’s exact p value = 0.187).

Discussion In three consecutive annual classes of our Epidemiology Masters in Peru, we detected five cases of plagiarism and two cases of cheating, including literal plagiarism, self-plagiarism, inappropriate sharing of work, and appropriation of other students’ work. We believe that these are not isolated events, but rather the manifestation of a widespread and frequent misconduct that has probably gone undetected beyond our program. This is consistent with the high rates of cheating and plagiarism reported worldwide among high school and undergraduate students (McCabe 2005; McCabe et al. 2001), including students of medical and allied health sciences (Rennie and Crosby 2001; Taradi et al. 2010). It is likely that plagiarism and cheating may originate in high school and undergraduate education, and continue to graduate education. Thus, the widespread occurrence of plagiarism at all levels of education suggests that prevention, detection and response to plagiarism should hold a much higher priority in academic institutions in contexts like Peru and Latin America.

Students committing plagiarism and cheating shared several predisposing characteristics, including poor awareness of research integrity and plagiarism, widespread deficiencies in writing and referencing skills, poor academic performance, and a high tolerance to plagiarism. However, a significant portion of the rest of the class also shared a limited awareness of research integrity and tolerance to plagiarism, and many students had difficulty in grasping research integrity concepts. This is consistent with previous reports evidencing insufficient knowledge of RCR and plagiarism in graduate students in the U.S., particularly among international graduates (Heitman et al. 2007; Ryan et al. 2009). These knowledge gaps may be particularly severe in Latin America, where shortcomings in higher education neglect the discussion of plagiarism and academic and research integrity. In addition, lack of development of analytic and writing skills may lead some students to use plagiarism as a maladaptive, compensatory writing strategy. The situation is further complicated by a widespread tolerance to plagiarism throughout the education system in Latin America (Vasconcelos et al. 2009; Heitman and Litewka 2011). In Peru, for example, the National Assembly of Rectors reduced the sanction of two undergraduate law students guilty of literal plagiarism from a semester suspension to a simple reprimand, arguing that “copying without indicating the source is a natural behavior in students” (Tantaleán Odar 2014), and that “teaching consists fundamentally in a constant repetition of external ideas, often omitting the sources for brevity” (Tantaleán Odar 2014). Furthermore, several authors have reported that a large proportion of undergraduate research and approved theses contain plagiarism (Saldana-Gastulo et al. 2010; Huamani et al. 2008). The synergic effect of limited awareness of plagiarism, RCR, and scientific writing, and the widespread tolerance to plagiarism highlights the need to couple intensive anti-plagiarism education with stronger response policies.

Any attempt to expunge plagiarism is unlikely to succeed without institutional commitment with scientific integrity (Whitley and Keith-Spiegel 2001; Park 2004). Institutions should have a transparent, comprehensive and uniformly applied policy that is embedded in a context of promotion of academic integrity. UPCH has an established institutional policy against academic misconduct, which is supplemented by the regulations of each school (Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia 2009). However, such a framework focuses almost exclusively on punitive aspects, neglecting preventive and detection strategies. Additionally, regulations have not been widely disseminated and/or discussed across the university’s academic programs, and their application seems inconsistent across programs. Nevertheless, our findings are probably not an isolated case, as lack of comprehensive policies against and widespread tolerance to plagiarism appear to be nearly universal in educational institutions in countries such as Peru. Thus, the institutions’ commitment and proactivity to address plagiarism is critical for the implementation of any effective and sustainable intervention against cases of plagiarism in the future. As a program, we are disappointed to see our students falling due to misconduct, but are not embarrassed to admit we had these issues. We believe many other programs face the same challenges and should come forward to admit it openly and therefore create greater awareness and response.

In this complex scenario, we adopted a “zero tolerance” policy against plagiarism (Titus et al. 2008), in which we actively searched for potential research misconduct and all suspected cases are reported, investigated and sanctioned as dictated by the severity of the case. Although there is no current consensus worldwide on the best way to respond to plagiarism findings, we believe that a zero tolerance approach is the most acceptable alternative, as it results in a clear, strong message that plagiarism and other forms of research misconduct are wrong and can never be justified. In low-resource settings, resource constraints and dependence on external funding may discourage investigating apparently “mild” cases to avoid the associated costs and potential damages in reputation. However, the long term adverse consequences of tolerating plagiarism and therefore graduating student with poor RCR knowledge, outweigh any of these short term apparent benefits. None of the students who committed/attempted plagiarism were known to engage in further events during the program and no additional misconduct events have been detected in the 2014 class.

Our “zero tolerance” policy was actively complemented by intensive education on research integrity and scientific writing. Also, policies were reinforced through discussion sessions, written statements describing the policy in all course syllabi, and a modified honor code in the form of a signed agreement to maintain research and academic integrity and report any observed cases. Honor codes constitute a simple, low-cost strategy that has been shown to prevent academic misconduct (McCabe et al. 2001). However, our experience collaborating with several Latin American educational institutions, has led us to believe that honor codes are not frequently used in Latin America. Furthermore, we feel that although many Latin American educational institutions may have codes of conduct, these are probably not discussed with students, faculty and researchers. We feel that signing a short but very clear and explicit honor code may be a more effective alternative for preventing misconduct by directly engaging students and all the academic and scientific community.

Education in the RCR is a critical pillar for maintaining research integrity and preventing plagiarism (Steneck and Bulger 2007; Kalichman 2007), and comprised the medullar aspect of our policy. Seminars on plagiarism and scientific writing were upgraded into an obligatory course on research integrity. Short online research integrity courses were used as additional activities, including both the required CITI basic RCR course for biomedical researchers (Braunschweiger and Goodman 2007; Litewka et al. 2008), as well as the optional, free, online RCR course recently created by UPCH and NAMRU-6 (http://www.cri.andeanquipu.org/index.php/es/). The definition, forms, implications and case studies of plagiarism were thoroughly discussed, and practical advice was given on preventing plagiarism (Roig 2009; Fischer and Zigmond 2011). Frequent maladaptive forms of writing, such as “patchwriting”, in which original and borrowed text are intermixed (Cameron et al. 2012), and “copy/paste” were thoroughly discussed, emphasizing their intimate relation to plagiarism. Students were advised to express ideas taken from external sources in their own words, always linking each idea to its original source, and never to copy and paste. Other educative interventions implemented included: (i) breaking down extensive written assignments into multiple, smaller assignments, to allow the incremental development of writing skills (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); (ii) provision of templates, so that students have a clear idea of what is expected for each assignment (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); (iii) review of progress in an increased number of writing workshops, to provide detailed and timely guidance, allow early detection and correction of maladaptive writing strategies (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); and, (iv) requirement of more student-advisor meetings, in order to increase the oversight of the students’ work, and promote mentoring, an important strategy for maintaining research integrity (Anderson et al. 2007).

As a complement to educative interventions, we now screen academic products for plagiarism (Barret et al. 2003; McKeever 2006) using widely-available search engines (e.g. Google®) (McKeever 2006). Searching actively for plagiarism allowed close monitoring the policy’s efficacy, and early identification and guidance of students with inadequate referencing skills (Barret et al. 2003; McKeever 2006). This measure closely parallels the routine screening of submissions that has been increasingly implemented by scientific journals (Butler 2010). In Peru, NAMRU-6 requires that the final version of all articles reporting research conducted at the institution is checked for plagiarism before being submitted using iThenticate® (Andres G. Lescano personal communication, April 2015). In our program, plagiarism is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, after investigation and discussion among all coordinators and the faculty involved in the case. Penalties were also defined individually, following the program and university’s policy, and were complemented with rehabilitative measures (Whitley and Keith-Spiegel 2001), such as intensive counseling by an experienced faculty and remedial educative activities.

The case study approach we adopted does not allow a formal evaluation of the efficacy of our program’s policy against plagiarism and cheating, but it may expand the extant literature in Latin America. Our experience delivered several important learning points. First, plagiarism seems to be widespread, likely involving all stages of the educative system. Second, it is possible to implement a “zero tolerance” plagiarism prevention policy with a strong educational component in postgraduate research programs. We implemented a promising, feasible, low-cost policy tailored for postgraduate research students in Latin America, with the aim to offer educators and researchers practical alternatives to prevent and address plagiarism that they could continue to evaluate in their practice. Third, key features associated with plagiarism in Latin America that should be considered when discussing plagiarism in the classroom include the unawareness of plagiarism and its implications, the pervasiveness of poorly-developed writing skills, and the extensive use of “patchwriting” and “copy/paste”. Fourth, students with low academic performance may be at higher risk of committing plagiarism, and implement personalized tutoring and close surveillance to prevent them from plagiarizing. Given that our experience pertains a taught Masters program that receives students from several Latin American countries, we believe that our findings are applicable to postgraduate research students in Latin America. However, we emphasize that our findings may also be useful for educators and postgraduate research programs in other resource-limited, non-English speaking settings after critical assessment and a context-sensitive adaptation. Finally, it is urgent that educative institutions at all levels recognize the frequent occurrence of academic and research misconduct and integrity as an active, institutional duty. Furthermore, as the methods for engaging in dishonesty have expanded in the Internet era, preventive approaches coupled with zero tolerance for plagiarism and cheating will have a major role for controlling academic and research misconduct, even in low resource settings (Grieger 2007).

I have been privileged this weekend to be an Ethics Fellow at the 62nd Journalism Institute at Washington and Lee University.

The case study I will present to students today will deal with the plagiarism case of Fareed Zakaria, which I blogged about considerably in 2014. In presenting the case to the students, I will not tell his name or the names of the journalism organizations he worked for, but will just present some of the facts of the case. Then the students will discuss what they would do if they were in charge of one of those journalism organizations.

After they discuss for a while, I will fill them in on the rest of the details of his case.

Here are the blog posts I wrote about him and his case:

Attribution, quotation marks and links: They turn plagiarism into research

Thoughts on anonymity, identification, credibility and Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism accusers

Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism wasn’t ‘low-level;’ no one’s is

Bloggers call out CNN for double standard on Fareed Zakaria

Newsweek, Slate and Washington Post acknowledge Zakaria’s failure to attribute

My interview with Our Bad Media on Fareed Zakaria and plagiarism

In my closing, I may talk about the importance of linking in journalism ethics, and how it might help combat and prevent plagiarism. I elaborated on that point here:

Journalists need to use links to show our work

Here’s a piece Andrew Beaujon wrote for The Washingtonian about how Zakaria paid virtually no price for his plagiarism.



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