Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

August 10, 2006

Plagiarism in engineering

Filed under: Personal,Social,University Life — cec @ 8:03 am

There’s an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, the link is behind the subscription firewall), about a mechanical engineering graduate student at Ohio University. After being invited to stay on after his masters and persue a Ph.D., he started having difficulty with his advisor. To help resolve his difficulties, he went to speak with the university ombudsman who advised him to examine disertations in the university library so that he might see where he was going wrong and what his advisor might want.

After reading through a couple of theses, he realized that he was starting to see the same material over and over again. Not just the same material, but the same words. In some cases, the same figures. My favorite example is that two of his advisor’s former students had an identical 50 pages in their theses. This has caused a huge scandal at the university which is now even requiring that some former students either explain why this isn’t plagiarism, rework those pages of their thesis, or forfeit their degrees. What is interesting is that similar investigations of other departments don’t turn up the same evidence. It seems to primarily be an issue with some international students in the school of engineering.

This reminds me of a situation from my own days in grad school. I had finished my masters and was working on my PhD when a faculty member asked me to help one of his masters students. He and I talked for a bit, he asked if he could borrow my copy of my masters thesis. A few months later, he asks if I would help proof his thesis. Reading through the material, I suddenly realize that I’m reading my own writing. Several pages of my literature survey, including some of the figures I constructed were sitting there in the middle of this other student’s thesis.

I spoke to his advisor and we resolved the issue, but I continue to wonder how common it is for graduate students to plagiarize former students. Moreover, if this is a common practice, not frowned upon by other cultures (as in my case, the student’s advisor suggested), then why isn’t this covered in the international student orientation?

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