Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Plagiarism is hard to detect 

I'm trying to figure out the subtext of a story in The Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscriber link) in which a grad student appears to have discovered "a culture of cheating" in 44 theses that may have been plagiarized.
Thomas A. Matrka, who received his master's degree in mechanical engineering last summer and now works at a chemical plant, said he stumbled on several instances of plagiarism after his adviser told him initially that his thesis was unacceptable.

"I went to the library to see what he had approved and see why mine wasn't satisfactory," said Mr. Matrka on Monday. As he was looking through the theses, he noticed passages that were identical and were not cited. In one case, he said, more than 50 pages had been plagiarized from a previous Ohio University thesis. Mr. Matrka estimated that he spent 10 hours a week for four months looking for evidence of plagiarism.

Think about that. That's about 170 hours spent searching. I'm glad he did it, and I'm glad the school is now investigating the charges. Disciplinary action against the faculty who signed these theses is a possibility.

But let me also add that 170 hours is a LOT of time out of a faculty member's workplan, in return for which she or he has the headache of trying to prove the charge to an administration that may not want to hear it, and threatening to end a grad student's career. It's hard for me to imagine many faculty choosing that risk/return profile. It may be that the only people incented enough to take on the task are disgruntled grad students. I'm not sure that's a great enforcement mechanism, but I also wonder what other cost-enforcement mechanism we could use. Software?