Byline: Emily Krone
Consider the scenario:
A prominent figure at a large Illinois university lifts chunks of his thesis from other sources. A university panel investigates and determines the instances of academic theft were minor and inadvertent.
The accusers are infuriated. The accused claims he's being persecuted. University officials stand by their findings, despite charges they are excusing blatant academic fraud.
That chain of events made national news when Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard was accused of plagiarizing parts of his dissertation. Now, the same scenario has played out at Northern Illinois University.
It's the latest in a string of academic "outings" of alleged plagiarists, and comes amid growing questions about how universities define and deal with plagiarism.
It also demonstrates the tightrope university officials must walk between preserving academic integrity - and preventing academic witch hunts.
The NIU case
In May, four tenured NIU engineering professors filed a complaint against Promod Vohra, the dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at the DeKalb university.
The professors provided evidence that Vohra's master's thesis - earned at NIU in 1988 - included at least 20 sections taken verbatim from engineering textbooks and manuals, but did not include any quotation marks or internal citations.
Some of the lifted passages took up more than half a page, a Daily Herald review of the thesis found.
Still, a university panel determined the copying did not constitute plagiarism - demonstrating that not all academics adhere to a single interpretation of the term.
The NIU English Department defines plagiarism as "a paper copied in part from one or more sources, without proper identification and acknowledgment of the sources."
The committee charged with investigating Vohra's case decided the definition was not that simple.
The committee took into account that Vohra is an engineer. For engineers, the panel concluded, the central question is whether the problem is solved - not how it's written up.
The committee also maintained that plagiarism involves the intent to deceive.
Vohra, the committee determined, had not intended to deceive anyone about the nature of his contribution. Rather, he hadn't been coached in proper methods of citation.
SIU in Carbondale made a similar finding in the Poshard case.
SIU professor Gerald Nelms, who investigated Poshard's dissertation, documented 40 citation infractions; yet, Nelms said in a written report that Poshard did "not warrant the label of 'plagiarist,' which, I think most academics would agree, should be reserved for those individuals found to have adopted textual material from other sources with the intent of cheating."
But many academics - and plenty of laymen who spoke out against the ruling - don't agree that the label of plagiarist should be reserved just for those who intended to cheat.
"With the absence of attribution, there's no defense," said Timothy Dodd, director of the Newnan LSA Academic Advising Center at the University of Michigan and a senior scholar with the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. "Ignorance of the law is no defense."
Citation requirements are in place for practical, as well as ethical, reasons, explained Daniel Wueste, director of the Rutland Center for Ethics at Clemson University in South Carolina.
"If someone's going to make a move from where you've gotten, they've got to be able to go back and see how you got there," he said.
And the rules, Wueste said, should apply equally to engineers and English majors.
"If you write a thesis, there are a whole set of expectations that come with that," Wueste said. "If they want the cache that comes with having students write theses, then they have to play by the rules of thesis writing. …