sexta-feira, 8 de julho de 2016


I reported plagiarism in a PhD, but my university ignored it 

After discovering a few dodgy lines in a book, I found a PhD thesis full of ‘borrowed’ phrases – yet the cheat has faced no repercussions


Early last year, I was looking through the first book of a creative writing graduate. It was a book of poems based on their PhD, and I recognised some of the lines in it as possibly plagiarised.

Some of them came with named sources, but a handful didn’t and clearly should have done. When I looked harder, I found chunks from blogs and other websites, chopped up with line-breaks, no quote marks and no acknowledgements.
Clearly, poetry written as part of a doctorate should not such show cavalier disregard for referencing. I knew a senior lecturer in that student’s department, so I emailed them my findings. I received an “oh dear” acknowledgement and a chatty note to say that they were “just heading over to the library now to check this out”.

I wish I’d headed over first. The PhD was withdrawn from the library shelves, and soon disappeared from the university library’s catalogue. For more than 12 months afterwards, I was unable to verify whether these plagiarisms were also in the bound PhD thesis. 

I checked with the British Library because they have rights to a second copy and only need to ask the awarding university for it through the Electronic Thesis Online Service (Ethos). I asked them to request it, but the awarding university or the author said no.

My contact with the lecturer went quiet, so I made a handful of freedom of information requests to the university, asking when the PhD would go back into the library and if there was any sort of plagiarism enquiry under way. In each case it took 10 days for them to reply. Each reply would invite a follow-up question. Confidentiality needed to be respected, they said. Could they give a time frame, I replied. No. Why not? No answer.

After a year, I sent a very precise question: can you confirm if this author is still entitled to use the title “Dr” with a doctorate from your university? The university said yes. I also received an email telling me that the PhD thesis would be going back onto the shelves that weekend, and on to Ethos at the British Library.
I checked that Monday and found that the poems in the PhD were presented identically to how they’d been printed in the book, with no acknowledgment. (I’d half-dreaded that the university would give the candidate time to add corrections as if they’d always been there).

Moreover, there was a critical component: a long essay about contemporary poetry, comprising two-thirds of the PhD. This is the part where candidates show their academic ability. But I found this prose component was also rife with uncredited verbatim sentences from other academic criticism. Sentences specifically discussing one artwork had been cut and pasted to refer to another; sentences about an exhibition of painting were applied to an anthology of poems; sentences about the specifics of one poem inspired by jazz were transposed to discuss a poem by a completely different author. It was waffle.

I vetted the thesis and found that it had 75 pages with uncredited verbatim sentences, often more than one per page. Sometimes they were from items cited in the bibliography, suggesting amateur citation skills – cut and paste instead of paraphrase (even though the candidate knew full well to use quote marks when quoting elsewhere in the thesis). On at least 10 occasions sentences were from items not cited in the bibliography at all, but from academic articles and reviews. You could make a case for postmodern ghosting in creative writing, but copying verbatim sentences from uncredited sources in a critical analysis is simply academic plagiarism.
I wonder what will happen if I report these latest findings. Will the university remove the bound thesis from the shelves, and deny permission to the British Library for use of its copy? Will it investigate? Will it stall its response again? 

This PhD sets a precedent that suggests other candidates would not have their doctorates stripped from them for using multiple uncredited texts in their creative writing. This also sets a precedent that a PhD with nearly a 100 verbatim borrowings in its critical writing does not lead to the removal of the doctorate from the doctor. Once it’s passed, it’s passed.

This creates a legal minefield, one that other universities should be concerned about.

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