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Nevada students, faculty demand answers about plagiarism scandal

Nevada professors and students want answers after learning the agency that oversees higher education in the state lifted large parts of an early draft of a think tank’s report word-for-word, scooping researchers on their work.

The allegations of plagiarism and intellectual property theft have raised questions about whether the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education understands basic principles of academia.

“It surprises me not because plagiarism is so difficult to define, but because plagiarism is something in academic life we are especially aware of,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “When you are involved in academics in any way it is something you have to be very conscious of and there seems to be a lack of consciousness.”

NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich has rebuffed the plagiarism allegation by saying, “You don’t plagiarize when you identify the author.”

The final version of the agency’s report included an asterisk, after Brookings requested to be credited, that read “*Based in part on a framework and study provided by Mark Muro, Senior Fellow and Policy Director, Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, Washington DC.”

Whole passages from Brookings Mountain West remained in the final version without quotation marks. Brookings Mountain West is a partnership between UNLV and the public policy nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“It is disappointing that ‘identifying the original author’ of an idea has been stated as enough to avoid a plagiarism charge. Any UNLV student writing a paper knows that that is not enough,” said Dawn Matusz, a senator with UNLV’s student government. “We are students, and are still learning, whereas NSHE officials are professionals who have already been through the learning process. If we are going to be disciplined while still learning, how much more so should NSHE officials be held accountable for making such a mistake?”

DIFFERENT STORIES

The report in question concerns a multi­million-dollar grant program designed to improve the workforce in “STEM” industries: science, technology, engineering and math. Brookings Mountain West rolled out its final proposal, which included this report, in November. It estimates it spent $200,000 on the overall proposal. Brookings’ idea will now compete at the Legislature with NSHE’s copied version of Brookings’ early draft.

The worries for those trying to boost Nevada’s much-maligned reputation in the academic world don’t stop there.

Chancellor Dan Klaich has given explanations that are contradicted by his own emails, researchers at Brookings Mountain West and Frank Woodbeck, the executive director within NSHE who copied and presented the report to an interim legislative committee without attribution.

Woodbeck has said the only mistake was not citing Brookings when he presented the report to the committee; yet Klaich has said Muro, Washington director of Brookings Mountain West and lead author of the Brookings report in question, agreed the agency could present its work to the committee and asked NSHE to “fuzz it up” and remove the Brookings’ name.

When Klaich emailed that explanation to the regents, he said Muro had reviewed this statement. Muro told the Review-Journal on Dec. 11 he was surprised to see Brookings’ work in a public proposal by the agency. Muro said Friday he didn’t want to comment further on the issue.

Klaich’s accusation that Brookings would give unfinished work to a state agency, ask that the language be blurred and the Brookings name be removed offended Robert Lang, who as director of Brookings Mountain West published and funded the report and would have needed to approve any use of it. Lang has said that doing such a thing would not only be a horrible way to create public policy, it also would be a form of plagiarism.

Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, agreed doing that would be plagiarism.

The entire ordeal raises a host of disturbing ethical issues, perhaps the most frightening being that the work appears to have been taken when it was shared in confidence as part of the early research vetting process, Fishman said. Klaich has said his agency had permission to use the work. When asked if the draft his agency copied was labeled “do not circulate,” however, Klaich said, “That’s absolutely correct.”

Taking work that was received as part of the confidential feedback process is a huge harm to academia, Fishman said. There has to be trust to share work; that’s essential to good research, she said.

“It’s kind of stealing it out from under them,” Fishman said. “In this case there is very real harm that has taken place.”

The idea that the agency had thrust Brookings’ work into the public eye before the researchers were ready also worried Alex Murdock, a UNLV senior and former student government senator.

“I don’t think that’s right at all to take someone’s first draft and present it as a final copy,” Murdock said.

Murdock said he didn’t know all the details of what had happened as the situation is still unfolding, but as someone who writes papers in school, he’s always revising and wouldn’t want someone to use something he wrote before he was done.

DOUBLE STANDARD QUESTIONED

The chancellor’s brush-off of the plagiarism allegation is also problematic, Fishman said.

“They should know, especially being in education, that the proper way to format your quotations is to put quotation marks,” Fishman said, noting that’s a standard even students easily grasp.

The two explanations Fishman sees for the incident are both troubling: Either the chancellor doesn’t understand plagiarism, or it was intentional.

The result, she said, is the person who runs higher education for the state sending the message: Do as I say, not as I do.

“My big problem with forgiving an academic or a politician or an administrator is we expect our students to pay a penalty for this,” Green said. “I tell my students plagiarism is the academic equivalent of grand theft.”

There’s a tension building. The scandal calls into question if a double standard exists.

“Academic honesty and integrity are of the utmost importance to NSHE faculty. As teachers, scholars and researchers, we recognize that we have been entrusted as public servants. We have the responsibility to uphold and exemplify academic honesty and integrity when we write, teach or speak on issues and topics related to our areas of expertise,” said David Steel, executive director for the Nevada Faculty Alliance, when asked to weigh in on the situation.

“The Nevada Faculty Alliance, as an advocate for NSHE faculty, expects institutional and NSHE leadership to be held to the same level of academic honesty and integrity to which NSHE faculty are held.”

Murdock said those in the Nevada System of Higher Education should be held to an even higher standard than faculty and students as the agency overseeing higher education.

“If there is any ambiguity as to whether or not something was ethical, I think NSHE needs to review its own policies to include the chancellor,” said Murdock, who noted the situation is even more serious as it concerns work that was sent to the state Legislature as a bill draft request.

Matusz, the UNLV student senator, said that as a Brookings public policy minor she has had limited interaction with several Brookings fellows and found them to be “smart and are also upstanding professionals.”

“Ownership of intellectual property is both protected and respected. I have no reason to believe that they gave permission for use of their ideas and are now claiming otherwise,” Matusz said. “Surely it will all become clear as the email trail is pieced together. If at that point, it is shown that there is plagiarism, I would expect the one who plagiarized to apologize and face any professional repercussions with dignity.”

The Review-Journal has put in a public records request with the Nevada System of Higher Education for all emails between Klaich and Woodbeck dating to April and all emails between Klaich and Muro, the report’s lead author, dating to January.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes.

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