The Committee Report – Plagiarism and Translation

November 18, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m jumping on the sympathy-for-plagiarists carousel.

When Rachel Maddow called out Rand Paul for plagiarism, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg offered a defense of sorts in his six minutes of airtime on NPR. So what if Paul speechified Wikipedia sentences as though they were his own (or those of his speechwriters)? Lots of people do the same and worse, says Nunberg, and besides it’s no big deal.
Paul may not have been guilty of dishonesty, just cavalier disrespect for the rules.
And those rules Paul was dissing – you know, the ones that schools put in the student handbook and that we put on our syllabi – in Nunberg’s view, they’re sort of like rules about which fork to use for salad.
The rules for quoting and attributing can seem arbitrary at times, with little connection to the respect for intellectual property that originally motivated them. You could think of them just as a kind of literary etiquette.
Basically, no harm, no foul.

Now there’s a more egregious case here in New Jersey.  The associate VPAA at Kean University, Katerina Andriotis, wrote a 15-page report on “enrollment management” with large portions copied and pasted from similar reports at other schools.

The Star-Ledger put it on page one.
Kean exec out after plagiarism allegation
I confess I have not read the nine pages she plagiarized or the six she didn’t. But from the news story, I’d guess that the report consists mostly of the vague, the meaningless, and the obvious, all of it painted in the dull, don’t-read-me colors of bureaucratic ed-speak.
It is vitally important to Parkland that meaningful research focus on the factors which influence student decisions, to ascertain which ones have a positive influence on student retention behavior. In addition, a key to helping to retain students is the ability of Parkland to identify ‘at-risk’ students early enough to permit intervention strategies to work.
Find-and-replace Kean for Parkland, and you’ve got an Andriotis paragraph. Does it matter that the Parkland report was written 18 years ago for a 2-year community college in downstate Illnois while the Kean report was about a university in urban northern New Jersey? Not if this paragraph reflects the report’s overall level of analysis (and I’d bet it does). Translated into plain English it says,
We have to find out why students drop out, and if we don’t get to them early on, nothing will work.
If this is all that a retention committee is going to say, then the reports are interchangeable. And if they’re interchangeable, why not interchange them? Yes, what Andriotis did was plagiarism. But I get the impression that the plagiarism was a joint effort between her and the higher-ups in the administration who would, supposedly, read the report.  She wasn’t trying to fool them so much as she was helping them fool themselves. That joint effort says, in effect: We may not be able to do anything to keep our students from dropping out, but having a report gives the appearance that we’re trying really, really hard.

(I am speculating about all of this. Maybe the enrollment management committee will spark some changes that have a real effect. )

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