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Professors’ plagiarism reported

New software introduced to prevent problem

Senior Staff Writer

Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012

Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 16:12


UCF has implemented several new policies to curb plagiarism and cheating among its students. One recent effort is the Z designation, which places a Z on students’ transcripts if they are accused of academic dishonesty. But students aren’t the only ones getting busted.

Three federal investigations into faculty plagiarism led the university to send a mass email to faculty on Sept. 24 declaring a new plagiarism-detection program, iThenticate, mandatory.

iThenticate is similar to Turnitin.com, which is used to detect plagiarism in papers submitted by students. It has been available to faculty as an optional tool since 2010, UCF spokesman Chad Binette said, and was made mandatory this fall by M.J. Soileau, vice president for the UCF Office of Research and Commercialization.

The investigations involved plagiarism in research proposals and were launched by the National Science Foundation in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

“Plagiarism has been an issue for universities and funding agencies nationwide for years,” Binette said. “Three cases equate to 0.1 percent of the total number of proposals during that time.”

The email, sent by the Office of Research and Commercialization, said the university hopes the requirement will protect it from further allegations.

All three investigations involved improper citation of someone else’s work in the background section of the proposal where authors introduce previous studies and information that led to their research. They did not involve issues related to the researcher’s findings, Binette said.

The first was launched in 2007 when Guifang Li, Ph.D., a professor of optics and physics at UCF, submitted similar proposals to three different agencies for funding. One agency, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, alerted UCF to the potential plagiarism.

“In the scientific world, you reference something by putting a bracket,” Li said. “If the written copy is the same, then I need to put a quotation mark or indent, which, obviously, I did not know I needed to do that. The NSF considers this stuff high school students should know. Of course, I never attended high school here,” said Li, who was born in Jiangsu, China.

Not growing up in the country that a researcher works in isn’t an excuse for not knowing plagiarism laws, said Omar Khan, a senior micro & molecular biology major.

“Even if a professor had just came from overseas,” Khan said. “I think it is still not a valid reason to evade their responsibility of sticking to plagiarism rules since that is their job as a researcher, and they should consciously know how this may affect their career.”

However, Khan doesn’t think students should let these plagiarism cases affect their outlooks on faculty as a whole at UCF.

“If we always let the few who may have fouled in their field or within a recognized group represent that group in its entirety, then I don’t think we as people would be able to move forward in just about anything,” Khan said.

If students at UCF are found guilty of plagiarism, it could lead to an F on the assignment or in the class, a Z designation attached to their transcript or, in severe or repeat offenses, suspension or expulsion from the university.

In Li’s case, UCF conducted an internal investigation and decided the presence of citations, though improperly used, diminished Li’s fault and did not find him guilty of research misconduct, according to the NSF report.

NSF and AFOSR disagreed with UCF and issued a finding of plagiarism. They said Li should have known the correct citation regulations due to his multiple accomplishments in research. Li is the recipient of the NSF CAREER award and the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award, and is also a fellow of the Optical Society of America, deputy editor for Optics Express and an associate editor for Photonics Technology Letters.

“I did slack, looking back,” Li said. “But there was no bad intention there. I’m trying to focus on the future; certainly I won’t make the same mistake again.”

As a result, AFOSR prohibited Li from being a reviewer of proposals for three years and required that he take an ethics training course.

NSF debarred Li for two years after closing the case in spring 2011. He is unable to receive federal funding for research until 2013.

“When you attach the word plagiarism to a scientist, what everybody thinks is you stole somebody’s idea, and it can destroy somebody’s career,” Li said. “You just don’t do this lightly.”

The other two investigations involved similar citation mishaps.

Swadeshmukul Santra, Ph.D., an associate professor of nanotechnology, was found guilty by NSF in March 2011 of research misconduct due to plagiarism. He had to take an ethics course and provide proof, in the form of a written certification or guarantee, that his work during the following year was plagiarism free.

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