The case for plagiarism

There’s been a recent tiffle about alleged plagiarism in the dissertation of a student who is now a university president. In this case, the entire research design is borrowed from an earlier study, which the author acknowledges and cites:

[T]his study replicated [...] a study [...] that had first been conducted at The University of Alabama in 1996 by Carl Boening.

What follows is that the structure of the document and extensive lengths of text appears to have directly borrowed, as well. The data is original.

Does that meet the standards of originality and substance that we associate with a doctorate? Many online commenters don’t think so; obviously, the granting university and review committee (which included 2 of the same members as the earlier study) thought so.

But is it a contribution to the scientific discourse? I think so. In another context — one without the traditional expectations of a dissertation — would this behavior be inappropriate? I don’t think so.

I won’t make the argument for students, who are still trying to “prove” that they have learned and mastered the research methodology — but for professional researchers, I don’t see any reason why standards should hew to the traditional structures of a publication, foreclosing the possibility of publications which utilize more extensive copying and linking.

It appears that citation patterns already are changing due to online access to publications. Debate remains about exactly how the patterns are changing, but it’s clear that change is happening.

Not all change is good, but not all change is bad, either.

The bogeyman of plagiarism is meant to guard against appropriating another’s work as one’s own without giving them due credit. It would be a shame if the taboo of plagiarism scared the research community away from the evolution and experimentation that can come with new technologies.

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