Thursday, October 1, 2009

Possible Research Misconduct by Professor to Cover Up Student Plagiarism

Back in March 2007, Ohio University publicized an internal investigation into plagiarism in the Russ College of Engineering. The lead investigator, Dr. Koonce, claimed that he checked a so called random sample of 32 theses that were supposed to be representative of the entire lot of theses published by engineering students since 1980 (about 1500 theses). In the Executive Summary of his final report, he wrote, "The number of documents in the sample found to potentially contain plagiarized material was three." In his conclusion he wrote, "at most, three (3) of the documents from the sample of 32 have apparent plagiarism." Dr. Koonce also told a reporter from The Post, Sean Gaffney, that he "found three instances of alleged plagiarism." In other words, the number 3 was used repeatedly.

Over the next year Ohio University began to slowly return theses to the library and I quickly began to discover more evidence of plagiarism. (Note the theses were all removed from circulation for about a year while Dr. Koonce conducted his investigation). Being suspicious of Dr. Koonce's conclusion, I asked legal affairs for the titles of the 29 theses that were cleared by Dr. Koonce.

It took months for Ohio University to fulfill my request, but when they did finally provide the list, they also provided an internal memo stating that really 7 of the theses might contain plagiarism. The number 3 changed to a 7 one year after Ohio University concluded their investigation. It is also worth noting that one of the theses from the list of 32 was published after Ohio University required all theses to be scanned for plagiarism prior to publication. In other words, Dr. Koonce appears to have stacked the deck with at least one thesis that was guaranteed to pass his Turnitin check.

There should be an investigation into Dr. Koonce's actions. How can he report that he found only 3 cases of plagiarism, but there were really 7? Did he fail to detect them all, or did he manipulate he research results to achieve his desired outcome?


Anonymous said...

One might wonder what advantage comes to Dr. Koonce for discovering a low number of plagiarism cases? And the nature of his "research" is certainly subject to question. Submitting 32 papers to Turnitin is one task of one instructor. It doesn't seem as if there was much effort that went into the research project. If this resulted in a publication listed on his resume, what level of scholarly effort went into other such publications?
On the other hand, Dr. Matrka, you should be aware, before seeing Koonce's work as inaccurate, that it may be possible for Turnitin to catch more plagiarism as time progresses. The Turnitin database keeps growing - and a later review should result in a document being compared against more source material. Just something to keep in mind when a result changes from 3 to 7.

Tom Matrka said...

Good point about the Turnitin database growth. That could explain why 4 more cases of plagiarism were found later (but I personally doubt it). So now we have to wonder if Turnitin will detect 10 cases next year and so on. The change in research results also proves to me that Turnitin should not have been the sole tool used to detect plagiarism in engineering theses. Turnitin might be useful for checking high school term papers, but it is clearly an unreliable tool for clearing 25 years worth of engineering theses. Why didn't Dr. Koonce just read the theses critically too. Thirty two is not that many to read.

When I have time, I will post some of the other cases that Turnitin missed.

Lastly, I am not a doctor (but maybe someday). And thanks for your thoughful comment.