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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Recent Macalester alum becomes victim of plagiarism

By April DeJarlais

In the age of widely accessible online scholarly materials, academic honesty is easily compromised. One case of dishonesty directly affected Alex Park ’09 who discovered parts of his Sociology senior thesis “A Tale of Two Townships: Political Opportunity and Violent and Non-Violent Local Control in South Africa” were unattributed six times (out of seven references) in a University of Johannesburg paper titled “Khutsong and Xenophobic Violence: Exploring the Case of the Dog That Didn’t Bark.”

The Johannesburg article is co-authored by two figures in the university’s Centre for Sociological Research. One of the authors is a Harvard graduate and a doctorate, Park and his Macalester advisor Erik Larson said, but it is unknown as to which author improperly used Park’s work.

Park learned of the incident this summer while searching for any references of his paper that might have been made. After recognizing material from his work that had not been properly cited he contacted Larson with his concerns.

“I was a little worried, and felt nervous that he [one of the authors] was a professor,” Park said, concerned that his case would be difficult to prove against established academic figures.

Larson then brought up the issue with the publisher of the offenders’ article, which was published through a non-profit organization and edited through the University of Johannesburg.

After viewing Park’s evidence of pointed comparison between the two papers, the publisher readily agreed that “heavy borrowing” had occurred and acknowledged that it was a “serious problem,” Larson said.

The offending article was republished with proper citations, at which point the potential academic harm to Park ended. The process of contacting the university and solving the problem began July 14 and was finished by the end of the month – a rate Larson termed “light speed in academia.”

Any further punishment to the authors is decided within the University of Johannesburg. While legal implications are rare or minor, scholars who engage in the misuse of academic work risk losing faculty positions as well as their credibility with peers and colleagues.

Park’s thesis was available on Macalester’s Digital Commons, an online database that allows worldwide access to Macalester student and faculty scholarship. The Commons has a reserve of 2,059 papers with 81,297 downloads since January and 196,154 downloads since its founding in 2005.

Macalester students are not required to submit their work to the Commons. The library receives digital copies of honors work, so students must opt out if they do not want their work submitted to the database.

Over 100 liberal arts colleges use a method similar to Digital Commons to share academic work. The Commons “help demonstrate the scholarship that goes on on campus,” library director Terri Fishel said. “Sharing research is what scholarship is all about.”

Neither Fishel nor Larson know of other Macalester students’ work that has been improperly referenced or outright plagiarized, whether through Digital Commons or elsewhere. Fishel says students’ use of Digital Commons protects their work, since students are able to track where it has been used or downloaded.

The Macalester library has no control over who uses Digital Commons material, but that the point of the website is to make valuable student work available, Fishel said.

The Commons has a usage policy detailing the copyright ownership of the authors and creators. The policy existed before the incident with Park’s work, and has been placed more prominently on the website since then.

“I hope that people will see it [the usage policy] and think twice about the next time they rip our papers off,” Park said in an email.

And even though imitation may be the best form of flattery, the strength of the worldwide academic community relies on the crediting of others’ ideas.

“If it [Park’s thesis] had been referenced, we would have avoided complications,” Larson said. “The fact that a peer-reviewed article included material from Alex’s thesis-whether properly or improperly attributed-demonstrates the high-quality of Alex’s work.”

Editor’s note: A previous version incorrectly stated that Park’s paper was unattributed seven times. It has been edited to reflect the correct number.

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