Arizona prof plagiarizes student’s thesis, gets reprimanded, but keeps her job

Susannah Dickinson, University of Arizona
Susannah Dickinson, via University of Arizona

An architecture professor at the University of Arizona has been sanctioned — lightly — for plagiarizing from the thesis of one of her masters’ students.

According to a report in the Arizona Daily Star, the professor, Susannah Dickinson:

received a “formal admonishment” from the university’s provost after the student accused Dickinson of poaching material from his master’s thesis and presenting it as her own.

Nicholas Johnson, 28, the alumnus who reported Dickinson, said pursuing the matter was an exhaustive effort that ended in disappointment.

In one of the cases he complained about, the UA’s own analysis showed “roughly 20 percent” of a conference paper Dickinson wrote was copied from Johnson’s thesis without citations or footnotes. Even so, the UA ruled no plagiarism occurred in that instance.

Johnson, who works for a local architectural firm, said the situation has left him afraid to publish his thesis, lest it appear that he plagiarized his professor rather than the other way around.

Although Dickinson  removed from the web a document containing lifted chunks of Johnson’s work, she was not forced to remove the conference paper. Why? According to the Daily Star, Dickinson’s citation of Johnson’s work in the manuscript immunized her against the plagiarism charge:

Dickinson did include a “one-sentence acknowledgment on Page 2” that Johnson did much of the research the paper discussed, but that didn’t excuse her failure to properly cite material taken directly from his work, the review panel found.

A later UA review found the reverse: that Dickinson’s mention of Johnson’s research role effectively canceled out his plagiarism claim.

“Although the committee found that Professor Dickinson did not cite Mr. Johnson’s work conventionally (i.e. she did not follow common or established practice), it nevertheless concluded (her) use of Mr. Johnson’s work in this context did not rise to level of misconduct – i.e. plagiarism,” [Provost Andrew] Comrie’s decision letter … said.

In a letter of determination, Comrie decreed that:

l. Professor Dickinson, in consultation with the Dean of the College, should develop a series of workshops focused on, among other things, proper citation and attribution as part of the process of collaborative work.

2. In order to clarify Mr. Johnson’s contributions to Professor Dickinson’s Proceedings Paper,  Professor Dickinson should send to her publisher an erratum adding Mr. Johnson’s thesis as a fully-cited reference, including the origin of the figures and tables.

As the news account notes:

Comrie’s ruling in the second case runs contrary to what the UA tells its students about plagiarism.

One of its plagiarism prevention websites says a common form or plagiarism involves “using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citation.” (The word “and” appears in bold type with asterisks for emphasis.)

Indeed. The school’s code of academic integrity also has this to say:

Faculty members shall foster an expectation of academic integrity and shall notify students of their policy for the submission of academic work that has previously been submitted for academic advancement, as well as any special rules of academic integrity or discipline specific ethics established for a particular class or program (e.g., whether a faculty member permits collaboration on coursework; ethical requirements for lab and clinical assignments; etc.), and make every reasonable effort to avoid situations conducive to infractions of this Code.

Read more details from the Daily Star.

13 thoughts on “Arizona prof plagiarizes student’s thesis, gets reprimanded, but keeps her job”

  1. proves that the student excels above the teacher. I share Johnson’s concern–I have been there. I would throw Dickinson out the door!

  2. Yes, as so often, someone in a higher position gets excused while a student never would have gotten the same lame treatment…

    Between the lines, you can possibly read that the case involves the old problem of proving intent. If you believe that it is only intentional acts that constitute misconduct, a reference can be enough to allegedly show your good will and thus the case is treated as an unfortunate case of sloppy scholarship rather than a case of misconduct. I haven’t read about the details linked to above but this is often the rationale for dismissing accusations of misconduct.

    We do better with a non-intentional definition, me thinks!

    1. We do better with a non-intentional definition, me thinks!

      If you wish to extend a legal metaphor, mens rea does not apply in the case of negligence, which requires only (1) a duty and (2) breach of that duty (as well as prongs of causation and damages, which are irrelevant for this purpose).

  3. There may be more at play here: maybe the writing of both the thesis and the conference paper were highly collaborative? Was the student listed as a co-author on the conference paper? My field doesn’t do “conference papers” so I’m a bit fuzzy on what’s entailed, but when I give a talk at a conference, I certainly present my students’ work, with credit of course. When they compile a thesis, it is expected (hoped!) that much of the work will have already been published in the regular scientific literature, with both our names on it. And for those papers, especially for students who need help with English, the first draft was their own words but the final draft is much more mixed!

    1. Possibly. With regard to your last sentence thought if writing assistance adds nothing but style then its ALL
      the original work of the language compromised person.

      1. My field of science is a highly collaborative enterprise – almost nothing is “ALL the original work” of one person. Generally as the PI the overall ideas are mine, I’m the one who sweat blood to get the grant to pay for it, and depending on the student and what stage of learning he/she is at, I’ve had some involvement (ranging from dictating to commenting after the fact) in deciding exactly what experiments should be done and how they should be interpreted.
        I have no patience at all with real plagiarism and have actually given students negative grades for plagiarized writing assignments (because its worse than not doing the assignment at all) – I’m just trying to point out that within one working group, “ownership” may be more much complicated than you think and thus maybe you shouldn’t be so judgmental in this particular case.

        1. PR, you were sounding good until your last sentence. Because you missed the operative word “if” in my comment. The mind can play tricks on some people such that they can actually come to believe that
          someone’s original idea/finding is theirs. I have seen this several times in my long career. Some people
          lack the ability to be self critical because its hard and idea theft is so tempting. For those it is largely a subconscious process.

  4. Most fields are “highly collaborative”, that is there are contributions from students, postdocs and professors. A paper should acknowledge all substantial contributions through authorship, lesser ones by acknowledgement and, of course, cite work. Attribution of data needs to be explicit – one cannot pass off data as one’s own if it is published, and a thesis is a publication.

    This does look rather like plain old theft, the student does the work and gets a one sentence acknowledgement somewhere. The mirror of guest authorship. So another case of double standards, where the institution enforces its rules for students, but is somewhat more lax to the interpretation of these rules when it comes to staff. Sadly this is not an isolated case, as pointed out in the article in the Arizona Daily Star.

  5. Are there other examples on about professors plagiarizing their students? I couldn’t find one. The only other case I’m aware of was the awful Demas case (from before RetractionWatch started its chronicles.) There are some interesting parallels between these two cases (see e.g. which surprises me: a faculty member plagiarizing student is such a man-bites-dog situation, you’d expect that each case would be uniquely odd. Maybe there’s something to learn from comparing the two incidents.

    1. Don’t look at retraction data to find this sort of information. Take a gander at the misconduct cases that the NSF OIG investigations. Lots of profs behaving badly with student labor. ORI is loathe to take any action on plagiarism alone and does not get into issues of writing much (won’t touch ghost writing, eg, or professional ownership disputes). Look at the semi-annual reports to Congress on this page.

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