The roots of plagiarism are deep

William Meehan—president of the Jacksonville State University—got his Ph.D. by copying largely word-for-word the dissertation of another student. He did not even copy an obscur thesis published in some remote country. In fact, he copied the thesis of a fellow University of Alabama graduate. And wait for it: they graduated nearly at the same time. And 3 professors were on both dissertation committees.

Call me naïve, but I am surprised.  We all know there are bad apples. Students will cheat. But cheating on a Ph.D. dissertation must be extremely difficult. It takes guts to copy a dissertation submitted recently, at the same school. It should not be possible. The University of Alabama seems like a respectable school, with actual professors and Ph.D. programs. What happened?

The thesis supervisor ought to know. A supervisor must provide feedback throughout the student’s work, from the proposal stage, to the final revision.  Either he knew about the plagiarism (I doubt it) or else, he played no role in supervising the student. The student came to him with a complete thesis. He read it over, made some minor comments, and approved it. Rubber stamping a thesis should be as bad as plagiarism.

(It seems that professor Howard Jones was his supervisor though I am unsure.)

Further reading: Alabama college president accused of plagiarism (USA Today)

7 thoughts on “The roots of plagiarism are deep”

  1. Unfortunately, the link is not available due to a “Bandwidth Exceeded” error. I looked at the “highlighted” picture though, and it seems that the “plagiarism” happens in a few chapters, not everywhere.

    Maybe an easier explanation is that they were collaborating and they both copied the paper into their theses? Bad style but not unheard of and not really unethical. As a PhD student I had a few papers with other PhD student coauthors and we had to explicitly coordinate who “gets the paper” to be in his thesis.

    I am not saying that this is the case here, but the either we have professors being accomplices to the crime, or something more benign is going on.

  2. @Panos Have you read the USA Today piece?

    I looked at the “highlighted” picture though, and it seems that the “plagiarism” happens in a few chapters, not everywhere.

    The highlighted part is what is verbatim. It includes all the research questions. What is not highlighted is also often highly similar. The two thesis are very similar in content… the methodology and all conclusions are identical. There is no mention anywhere that this is joint work. Lifted from the USA Today article:

    Boening wrote about applications for sabbatical leaves by University of Alabama faculty from 1986 through 1996. Meehan wrote about the same topic, but looked at what happened at Jacksonville State from 1988 through 1998.

  3. I initially thought it was from pre-Internet/PC days, when catching such cases via software was difficult. But seems like the dissertations are from 1999!! Surprising indeed!

  4. It’s worth taking a look at the actual dissertations (available from the first web site you link to). What’s amazing is how utterly worthless Meehan’s thesis is, even setting aside the dramatic plagiarism.

    I’m shocked that you can actually get a Ph.D. for this sort of work. Boening’s thesis looks to me like a mediocre undergraduate thesis. He gives a literature review on the topic of faculty sabbaticals, and then he does a cursory analysis of some easily available data from his institution. I wouldn’t even call this research.

    Then Meehan does exactly the same thing, just replacing Boening’s data with data from another institution. Even if he had rewritten it in his own words (which he largely didn’t), there’s absolutely no originality to it. Boening’s thesis was bad enough already, but Meehan’s is an insult to the very idea of scholarship. You shouldn’t be able to get a Ph.D. for “replicating” someone else’s study with different data (unless the data is exceedingly difficult to gather, which is not the case here).

    I suspect part of JSU’s reluctance to investigate is because they always considered the degree a worthless piece of paper anyway. They never had any illusions that Meehan was a scholar, and the only point to his Ph.D. was that it looks better if a university president has a doctorate.

    Of course I disagree vehemently with this cynical philosophy. Meehan’s plagiarism is a disgusting breach of professional ethics and he should be fired immediately.

    Incidentally, I’m not so surprised that this made it past Meehan’s committee. Given that the advisor’s standards are low enough to permit this sort of work, there’s not a whole lot more to explain. I bet Meehan said he wanted to replicate Boening’s work, and his committee somehow accepted that as reasonable. Then, when Meehan submitted thesis chapters, perhaps some committee members thought they sounded familiar. However, they probably just shrugged and assumed it was because of the close similarity with Boening’s work. I’m not sure it would have occurred to me that there was verbatim copying, so I can’t really blame Meehan’s committee for not digging up Boening’s thesis from a couple of years earlier to see just how closely Meehan followed it.

  5. This is awfull, I just wrote a post about copyright, where I state some facts that show some problems with it.
    But now that I read this I rearrange my thohughts about plagiarism. Fundamentally I came to the conclusion that what is fair depends on the context where it happens and on the degree of similarity (which is not thhat easy to measure).

  6. I used to think that plagiarism was extremely rare in my field. Until earlier this year, that is…

    In the course of about one month, I had to review for two conferences and came across two apparent plagiarism cases.

    The first was essentially a translation into French of a paper I had co-authored the year before. Somewhat flattering, but no, thanks.

    The second was more uncertain, and I blame the stupid double-blind reviewing system for making it impossible to see whether what looks like plagiarism may in fact be mere «recycling». Still objectionable anyway, at least in top tier conferences.

    All this to say that although it’s obviously not OK for a University president (or anybody for that matter) to copy part of his PhD on another student, this kind of practice is probably a lot more common that many scientists would like to think.

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