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July 13, 2004
"This was my dissertation!"

One of my duties now (for which I am actually paid!) is to write a short weekly piece for this blog.

I've already aired the subject of intellectual property on my Culture Blog. But here is an article on an educational theme which is also about an intellectual property matter. Someone stole Kim Lanegran's PhD dissertation.

Last summer I discovered that he had defended his dissertation three years after I defended mine. I requested a copy of it through interlibrary loan. As soon as the dissertation was in my hands, I flipped first to the bibliography to see which of my works he had cited. Yes, I'm vain.

"Humph. He didn't cite my dissertation," I thought. I flipped to the table of contents. "Wow, he asked the same questions I did." I read the abstract. "Damn. Those are my words."

My heart pounded. This was my dissertation!

In the acknowledgement, he thanked his beloved for her patience during the years it took him to write it. Write it? He didn't even have to type it; I sent it to him on disk.

He copied many of my chapters word for word. Other chapters were slightly altered so as to make the arguments totally fraudulent. I did research in three African towns; Mr. X said he had studied two other towns. So where I quoted statements by an activist or scholar from town A, he changed the names and said that they were speaking about town Z.

It was equivalent to taking a quotation from Garrison Keillor about life in Minnesota and saying that Woody Allen said it about New York City.

Lanegran righted this wrong, and ended the academic career of the plagiarist, but she was deeply depressed by it all:

While gathering evidence to prove that my dissertation was actually mine, I confronted many dark thoughts about this profession. Mr. X must have thought that he would get away with his theft because nobody reads dissertations. Was he correct? Was all that work simply a hoop to jump through to get the Ph.D.? What is the value of a doctoral degree if dissertation committees take as little care with their students as Mr. X's did with him?

His adviser is a prominent scholar I've met at conferences. Although he is not an expert in the country or social movement covered in my dissertation, shouldn't he have known Mr. X's ideas and writing style well enough to recognize that the submitted dissertation did not sound like Mr. X's work? Shouldn't the committee have expected to see the process of Mr. X's arguments evolving or read drafts of chapters? At the very least, shouldn't the committee have told Mr. X to update my literature review and rework some of my convoluted logic and awkward prose?

Is cheating so pervasive that even someone who seeks a career in academe will violate the fundamental principle of giving other scholars credit for their work? If so, what hope do I have of inculcating that principle in students eager to escape quickly with their B.A. in hand?

When people talk about the "expansion of higher education", they need to understand that this is the kind of thing they are talking about, as well as the better things that they obviously also have in mind.

The intellectual property issue here is not just that Kim Lanegran's property rights (if that is what they were) were violated, but that the employers of the plagiarist had been defrauded. He presented himself to them as the writer of something which he had not written.

And since this is all about correctly attributing ideas, I need to tell you that I only found out about this article because I consult Arts & Letters Daily, pretty much daily, and definitely today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:08 PM
Category: Higher education

Why not put a link to the "That's my idea" blog along with your link to Brian's Culture blog etc. ?

While you're at it, you could move that whole section up above your external links. It would be more convenient for those readers, probably quite a large proportion of the total, who regularly look at both your blogs.

Comment by: Natalie Solent on July 15, 2004 10:28 AM
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