A colleague on my campus calls me the "scourge of student plagiarists." I'm proud of that reputation. But I had an experience this year in which plagiarism nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe's core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.
While I was resigned to fighting plagiarists in my classroom, I had not expected to have to fight one for credit for my own dissertation. A doctoral student at Northeast Urban University -- I'll call him Mr. X -- presented my dissertation as his own. He received a Ph.D. and took an excellent research job at Prominent African University. Through my subsequent efforts, he lost his degree, his job, and his reputation.
Here's what happened: Some years ago, just after I defended my dissertation, I received a call from Mr. X. He had read one of my publications, and because we were studying the same African social movement, asked whether I had written anything else on the topic. An innocent enough question. I've made similar requests myself.
Since my dissertation was not yet bound in my university's library, I put a copy of it on a disk and mailed it off to him. I put his name and address in my rolodex and kept a lookout for his work.
Last summer, I discovered that he had defended his dissertation three years after I defended mine. I requested a copy of it through interlibrary loan. As soon as the dissertation was in my hands, I flipped first to the bibliography to see which of my works he had cited. Yes, I'm vain.
"Humph. He didn't cite my dissertation," I thought. I flipped to the table of contents. "Wow, he asked the same questions I did." I read the abstract. "Damn! Those are my words."
My heart pounded; this was my dissertation!
In the acknowledgement, he thanked his beloved for her patience during the years it took him to write it. Write it? He didn't even have to type it; I sent it to him on disk.
He copied many of my chapters word for word. Other chapters were slightly altered so as to make the arguments totally fraudulent. I did research in three African towns; Mr. X said he had studied two other towns. So where I quoted statements by an activist or scholar from town A, he changed the names and said that they were speaking about town Z.
It was equivalent to taking a quotation from Garrison Keillor about life in Minnesota and saying that Woody Allen said it about New York City.
I immediately contacted the dean at Northeast Urban University who quickly started an investigation. Even though my dissertation predated Mr. X's, the dean still asked me for copies of my interview tapes with informants and for copies of some primary sources that I had quoted. Colleagues thought I should be incensed and hoped Mr. X was being asked to produce documentation as well.
While gathering evidence to prove that my dissertation was actually mine, I confronted many dark thoughts about this profession. Mr. X must have thought that he would get away with his theft because nobody reads dissertations. Was he correct? Was all that work simply a hoop to jump through to get the Ph.D.? What is the value of a doctoral degree if dissertation committees take as little care with their students as Mr. X's did with him?
His adviser is a prominent scholar I've met at conferences. Although he is not an expert in the country or social movement covered in my dissertation, shouldn't he have known Mr. X's ideas and writing style well enough to recognize that the submitted dissertation did not sound like Mr. X's work? Shouldn't the committee have expected to see the process of Mr. X's arguments evolving or read drafts of chapters? At the very least, shouldn't the committee have told Mr. X to update my literature review and rework some of my convoluted logic and awkward prose?
Is cheating so pervasive that even someone who seeks a career in academe will violate the fundamental principle of giving other scholars credit for their work? If so, what hope do I have of inculcating that principle in students eager to escape quickly with their B.A. in hand?
People have asked whether I felt like an idiot for having sent Mr. X my dissertation. Did I want to sue him? Would I share my work in the future?
There certainly were moments when I was furious. Reading Mr. X take credit for conducting, transcribing, and analyzing my 109 interviews did bring tears to my eyes. Once a student asked me, "So how long did it take you to write the dissertation?" Standing before the class, I realized that Mr. X had essentially taken credit for years of my full-time work.
However I have not given up on the profession. Even though I have new evidence of plagiarism's power -- how people will take great risks to cheat and others will avoid the hard work of keeping them from cheating -- I am renewed in my campaign against it.
Certainly, I have learned that researchers must hold on to their primary sources. I've written this article in part as a cautionary tale to fellow scholars. Send copies of your primary sources to archives if you desire, but keep the originals yourself.
Because I had overwhelming evidence that my accusations against Mr. X were true, Northeast Urban University was convinced that it had to take the ultimate step of rescinding his Ph.D. Yet the university consistently signaled to me its desire to maintain confidentiality, which I interpret as evidence that it feared being sued by Mr. X. In fact, the university appeared far more afraid of Mr. X than of me, which I found quite frustrating.
The experience has not changed my willingness to share my unpublished work with other scholars or to post my conference papers on Web pages and hope that readers will heed my "not for purposes of quotation" statement -- and not copy my work either.
The bottom line is that we write to be read. Hopefully we inform others who build upon our work. So we have a great responsibility to share our work; that is our raison d'être.
But we have another, equally great responsibility to police ourselves, our students, and other scholars to maintain the trust and honesty upon which sharing work and knowledge depends.
I don't believe Mr. X planned on presenting my dissertation as his own when he first received it from me. But for some reason he became sufficiently desperate to commit a tragic and foolish fraud. And I do regard this as a tragedy rather than a personal victory. I heard from another faculty member at Prominent African University that Mr. X had been admired by his colleagues and was a role model for young scholars, all of whom subsequently came to feel betrayed by him. He called Mr. X's ouster "a nightmare" for all concerned.
I shared this experience with my students; they found it fascinating. But they still don't get it. We have a tradition on my campus where seniors "will" wishful gifts to faculty members. This past spring the seniors said they hoped that I could someday "bitch-slap the ass who stole my dissertation." They also wished that I would have "the ability to not check every single source a student uses in a research paper."
Note that they did not will me the ability to not have to check every source. Instead they think it's unreasonable of me to take such care to ensure that they are not plagiarizing. I fear they think that is some vile pleasure of mine.
Clearly they think it was outrageous that Mr. X plagiarized my work. But they do not yet see that Mr. X got away with what he did precisely because he did not have a professor who checked all of his sources. They do not yet see that I check their sources so that I can teach them a skill and a principle that could keep them from someday losing a degree, a job, or a reputation.