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Flexible view of plagiarism at Southern Illinois University
By David McGrath | Guest Columnist
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Published: 11/7/2007 12:18 AM

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Apparently, I owe an apology to a college student I failed in 1985 for plagiarizing his thesis on space travel. That's because Southern Illinois University now indicates that his particular "style" of doing research was commonplace and forgivable.

And since I cannot possibly recall all their individual names, I suppose a blanket apology is required for the scores of students I failed for the same reason in all the classes I ever taught, now that SIU has forgiven its president, Glenn Poshard, for filling his Ph.D. dissertation with pilfered paragraphs.

While I'm at it, I need to say sorry to my wife and to my boss, for neglecting my responsibilities to them during the many hours exclusively devoted to my own thesis on Irish playwright Samuel Beckett back in 1974. Because now they tell me -- they being the SIU seven-member faculty investigating committee -- that Poshard's padding his paper with multiple paragraphs copied verbatim from other sources, without quotes or footnotes, was "consistent with the style used at the time by other graduate students", according to a Chicago Tribune story. Apparently, I was too naïve to know I could have saved hours and headaches by simply copying thousands of words from published sources to submit as my own.

The committee members, who work for SIU President Poshard, assigned no penalty, told him he may keep his job and to correct his dissertation. They justified their decision on the basis that SIU had no "definition" or "code of conduct" regarding plagiarism in the olden days of 1984. Poshard himself had protested that he did not remember discussing plagiarism in his classes, and that his teachers did not teach how to avoid it. Nor, evidently, was his plagiarism an issue for his Ph.D. advisers.

"No one on my committee said that when you reference and cite something correctly that you have to go up and put quotes around it," Poshard said in a story in the Daily Egyptian, SIU's student newspaper. Furthermore, he was not responsible, couldn't help it, didn't know the ropes, and was too busy at the time.

"I worked two jobs," Poshard said. "I was running for the Illinois State Senate. I was trying to get my dissertation finished."

About the only thing left out of his plea was that his dog ate his bibliography. Give me a break. Are my ears not working right, or is this not the number one educator at a state university, echoing the same tired claims of countless students caught cheating in school over the years? What's more embarrassing is the rationalizing of the SIU committee. You don't need a "code of conduct" to know that such cheating is wrong. Just as wrong in the 70s and 80s as it is today.

Granted, copyright laws and MLA (Modern Language Association) style rules are voluminous and complex -- Poshard is just one of the thousands of students each year who characterized his plagiarism as an "honest mistake," of merely forgetting citations or a set of punctuation marks. But those rules all are anchored on the same single principle: when a student signs his name to an essay, he is saying that every one of the sentences is his own, except for those he tags with a citation. When any portion of that for which he claims ownership turns out to be someone else's, then it's theft, plain and simple.

In Glenn Poshard's doctoral thesis about programs in education for the gifted, the committee found 14 passages copied from other sources without citations (presenting others' findings as his own), and 16 other passages copied and cited, but not placed in quotations (presenting others' words as his own). Thousands of students in American schools have received F's for considerably less.

Glenn Poshard can keep his job, if SIU so desires. But his degree is another matter. Degrees and diplomas are supposed to be guarantees, and his does not guarantee the scholarship and integrity it's supposed to.

McGrath is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage