September 7, 2015 - 10:33 am
An elected member of the Nevada Board of Regents is amending his 1995 University of Nevada, Reno dissertation following the discovery that more than four pages of it were copied from an uncited California report.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in late August that Regent Jason Geddes, who has defended the Nevada System of Higher Education against allegations it plagiarized a think tank’s report, had copied material in his own academic work.
Geddes has a doctorate in environmental sciences and health and has been a member of the Board of Regents since 2006.
Geddes’ adviser Glenn Miller was adamant Geddes did not plagiarize — despite pages of paragraphs being copied exactly, with the exception of an occasional word change and conversions to the metric system. Miller said it wasn’t plagiarism because dissertations aren’t widely read, the copied work was accurate and the copied language wasn’t creative — it was background that didn’t change Geddes’ scientific findings. He did stress what Geddes did was wrong and that the material should have been cited and in quotes.
Miller, a professor in UNR’s natural resources and environmental science department, has been with UNR for 38 years.
Before the story ran, Geddes said the work should have been cited and in quotes. He later emailed the Review-Journal a more detailed explanation, saying he stands by his work and his decision not to cite the work at the time, but is adding an addendum to his dissertation.
A question of standards
Geddes said his work was sponsored by the California Department of Fish and Game, and he shared reports regularly with a variety of California agencies. His dissertation, “Photochemical and hydrolytic fate of methyl isothiocyanate in the Upper Sacramento River,” is on the chemical impact of a spill caused by a train derailment.
“My understanding at that time was that each of us representing the various entities would use these same set of facts without alteration when addressing the spill,” Geddes wrote in an email. “Since this was the statement of facts the group agreed that we would all use in addressing the spill, I did not believe at the time that a citation would have been required or appropriate.”Geddes said this was evident in his inclusion of the same citations the California report used.
The person who oversaw the report Geddes copied didn’t see it that way. It is important for a reader to know whose version of the facts is being offered, wrote former chief of the Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology Program at the California Department of Health Services Lynn Goldman in an email. Goldman is the first person credited on the report Geddes copied but did not cite.
“Even if there had been quotes (or italics) and a citation, to take such a long chunk of text verbatim would not be acceptable in my field,” wrote Goldman, who is now dean of the the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
Elliott Cheu, who as associate dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Science handles academic integrity cases, said he understood the important distinction that copied background didn’t change the merit of the dissertation’s scientific findings. That said, copying language without citation — even in the background portion of a scientific paper — is plagiarism in his opinion.
“Plagiarism is what it is,” Cheu said. “I wouldn’t revoke the person’s thesis because of this, certainly, but in my view it’s a little disingenuous to say because of this, and this, and this, it’s not plagiarism.”
Plagiarism is considered high crime in higher education, with students at UNR and UNLV routinely drilled on the offense and its potential consequences, which could lead to expulsion for students and dismissal for staff.
Six UNLV students shown the dissertation and the copied report said that the breadth of the copied material was shocking and they would expect to be treated harshly if they did something similar.
That someone elected to oversee higher education would have done this is “surprising and it’s annoying” said Rebecca Newcomb, a senior majoring in English.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s statistics or facts. You still have to cite where you get them from,” she said.
Newcomb said she would expect to face expulsion if she were caught copying multiple paragraphs, and she would expect a professor would be fired — after all that is what happened to her former professor.
Newcomb said she was in former UNLV professor Mustapha Marrouchi’s class when the university decided to fire him in 2014 after determining he had plagiarized the works of 18 people.
“It doesn’t matter that this was written 20 years ago. It’s still plagiarism,” said Gavin Robertson a UNLV freshman studying geology. “I don’t think this is a mistake at all. It’s too exact. It’s too perfect. Every single word is exactly the same.”
Robertson called Miller’s statement that dissertations aren’t widely read a “cheap defense.”
“I wonder if this has maybe happened before.” Robertson said. “I think UNR should definitely look into this department.”
Mila Apisa has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Hawaii, Hilo and is now a pre-nursing student at UNLV. She was surprised Geddes’ adviser didn’t think Geddes had plagiarized.
“Somebody should really look into the department and try to discover and see if the upcoming students are doing the same thing too,” Apisa said. “This is a wake-up call for everybody.”
UNR doesn’t plan to investigate the department or take any action against Geddes, according to UNR spokeswoman Jane Tors.
“There is no indication of any attempt to claim the methods, analysis or ideas of others, and the inclusion of more than 140 citations in the full dissertation further demonstrates this,” Tors said in an email.According to the Nevada System of Higher Education code, a degree can be revoked for academic misconduct, but after seven years, the code no longer applies.
Miller said in an email Friday that it is clear that everyone wishes the California report had been in quotes and cited — especially Geddes — and said he will be more vigilant in the future.
Geddes said in an email Friday that he did not believe a citation was required at the time, and he stands by that. He wrote he is adding the addendum because in retrospect, now that he is being asked about the text, “it would have been advantageous to have included a notation and citation.”
Contact Bethany Barnes at email@example.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes