Life in Pieces of Revisiting Plagiarism

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Monica Crowley backs out of Donald Trump’s administration after plagiarism accusations. To be fair, I heard of Monica Crowley for the first time a few weeks ago and I truly have no opinion about her. She is simply the current name associated with plagiarism.

This article is not about Monica.

This article is about plagiarism and whether, in the age of Google (digital, instant access to information), there is an immediate need revisit our ideas about what constitutes plagiarism. Specifically, how references are cited in academic journals and publications and the associated penalties when it is not done correctly or at all. We need to incorporate an understanding of how knowledgeable we are as a society and the wealth of information that has become available with the simple tap of a keyboard. Not every accusation of plagiarism is the willful, intentional theft of another person’s work. The lines are no longer that black and white and we must stop acting as though they are!

I have several degrees, including a PhD and to earn it, I had to write a dissertation. There is some relationship between each of my degrees so I revisited many topics repeatedly during my academic career. As I began working on my dissertation, the more I read, researched, and wrote, the more often I found myself asking the question, “Is this my own thought or did I read it somewhere?” My dissertation chair would comment, “Citation needed.”. I would read the statement and then Google it and it was nowhere to be found. Why was my chair asking me to cite my own thoughts? Because as we do more research and work in a particular field, there are very few original thoughts. We all tend to have the same ideas and thoughts with some slight variations to our presentations.

When working on my dissertation website citations were daunting. Although they were allowed, they were not considered as credible as journals or books. Websites cannot only be credible but they can also be more current than any journal or book. Websites can provide a lot of detailed information that could not be included in other forms.

Using the web for research and citing websites should be considered credible and encouraged.

The ability to rifle through the muck that is on the web and find useful, meaningful sources is an artform and should be acknowledged. While writing my dissertation, I learned that the secret to meaningful results was to figure out how to form the correct search string. Rarely did I accomplish this on my first attempt but eventually, I would hit the jackpot. I should also mention that website owners should be required to put a date on each page. I found lots of good information on several sites but could not use the information because there is a limit (self imposed) to how often one can cite a website and use “n.d” (no date).  The name of the author would not hurt either.

In 2015, 55,000 PhDs were awarded in the United States (“Table 54. Statistical profile of doctorate recipients, by sex and broad field of study: 2015”, 2016).

Compare this to the number of bachelor degrees awarded in 2012-13, 1,840,000 (Fast Facts, n.d.). Using this data, one is left to assume that in 2012-13, even fewer PhDs were awarded and that one of the two following facts are true, if not both. PhD programs do not have a lot of candidates and/or a PhD is very hard work. I can say, without any doubt and due to direct experience, a PhD is a lot of work and it is hard and so many times, it seems easier to drop out than to continue. To give you some background, it took me only 1 year to complete my coursework. It took me three years to complete my dissertation.

Coursework without dissertation equals nothing or as some people like to say, “I am ABD” (all but dissertation), which is nothing because no degree is awarded. They did the easy part but the hard part became insurmountable. I am not judging, just stating the fact.

The dissertation takes a commitment and dedication that is not required at any other degree level. Standard coursework comes with set guidelines, clear objectives, and grades. You are aware of your performance every step of the way. The dissertation comes with advisors/mentors/chair’s who are writing their own works, timelines that are fluid, and objectives that are clear to the school administrators but way more fluid/flexible for the advisor/mentor/chair. I have heard stories of people who spent several semesters trying to find a faculty member willing to chair their committee. Why? Because the faculty is already overwhelmed with existing priorities and they are not REQUIRED to accept any dissertation hopeful. This rule is not written in the clear objectives provided by the school. I will not go into more details, but trust me, the process can be daunting and discouraging.

the-first-draftFinally, you seat a chair, form a committee and begin writing. Then, your outline is denied. Why? Because your plan is in opposition to what your chair believes you should research, which was not the case when you last spoke.

He/she wants your topic to align with some research that is already underway. You change your focus, if only slightly, and get to work. You submit the first draft. You get zero feedback or you get, meh, change this, that, and this other thing. You go back at it still inspired because you can do this. You submit and… crickets. Your chair has disappeared, returning 2 months later with, “This looks good”. You learn this statement really means, I have not read this, I just need to get it off my desk.

 After a year, you receive notification that you have completed Step 1 of 15. Your proposal has been approved. Yippee. NO, wait, one of you committee members emails to inform you that he/she can no longer participate due to a promotion. Then, your chair resigns and you have to stop to find a new chair and committee member. That takes months. Finally, your new chair is reviewing what you have done so far.

You get his/her feedback and the email is encouraging. “What you have done is great! Good job, let’s make this work.” You are encouraged until you open the document. Changes every where. Entire pages have been deleted. When you finally finish making the changes, which require additional research, you have reduced Chapter 1, your only chapter, from 30 pages to 6 paragraphs. You want to quit. You cry. You say a lot of mean things about the school, the chair, and the process. However, you keep going. Researching, writing, and researching some more. Until finally, one day, you get the phone call, Congratulations Dr. Fulton.

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I ask you this, after such a process, would anyone, at this level, intentionally plagiarize someone else’s work? Going back to my original example, Monica Crowley, did she intentionally steal someone else’s work? I doubt it. Even if she did, the fact that information is everywhere and readily available likely played a big part. After working on a dissertation, did her lines blur between her original thoughts and what she heard/read/studied for many years. Would anyone intentional plagiarize knowing the risk to reputation and credentials? Again, I think not. Currently, she stands to lose everything that she likely spent years working towards. According to the current rules, she plagiarized so the PhD is gone. What about the hours and years that she gave to the work?  I will quickly mention that an article that she wrote is also being called into question. Should I mention the pressure and deadlines at the office that perhaps prevented a final review?

Here is what I think! We need to revisit how we view plagiarism and work to modify the rules.

There is a huge difference between the college kid who copied/pasted an entire report and the person who put in years of work and 20% of their document is suspect.

When working on a dissertation, the student is either paying a very hefty tuition or receiving some type of grant/aid. Every aspect of the dissertation is left to the student.The university is only there to sign off at strategic points and happily confer the degree. Support for proofreading and the like vary by university. It is my opinion that universities should also be held accountable when a dissertation is deemed suspect. The university must take some responsibility because collecting money and accolades from PhD candidates should come with some responsibility. Take away the credentials, refund some money. Take away the credentials after giving the person an opportunity to fix the problem. The university receives a fine.

It is time to remove some of the dissertation burden from the student and place it with the university.

The American Psychological Association (APA), one of the organizations that sets the rules for how works are cited, should offer more support to those who are writing their dissertations. The organization should work to make the rules of citation a lot less complex and straightforward. The current APA manual, including the Publication Process chapter, is 240 pages. That is a lot of information that needs to align with the dissertation and other competing tasks. I admit that some of the information in the journal is not used everyday and there are definitely tools available, for a fee, that can assist with citations.

However, the APA should be required to revisit all of their citation rules and minimize them to the basics. The idea is to give credit to the original author, which is very simple. What citations often become is a gymnastics routine of figuring out how what you are about to cite fits into any of the rules in the manual. You must stay on the mat – within the boundaries of the manual even when your source is not even in the gym.

Like most things in the Google era, we need to revisit this topic and figure out how to make it easier and a little less judgemental when we consider how much work goes into writing a dissertation.

It is easy to sit on the couch and call a foul when you have never even held a ball!

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