Plagiarism Involving Foreign Students Stirs Controversy at Ohio University

Scandal Involves Former Foreign Grad Students

ATHENS, Ohio

To earn his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Ohio University, Vipul Ranatunga aimed to make improvements to a computer-aided design system developed by other researchers.

In the fourth chapter of his 1999 thesis, the Sri Lankan student described that system in detail. He identified one researcher responsible for it as Zhizhong Zhou, a Chinese student who had received his master’s degree at OU the year before.

Ranatunga didn’t, however, use quotation marks or footnotes to indicate that, with only slight variations, he had taken about seven pages directly from Zhou’s thesis.

Ranatunga, now an engineering professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, acknowledges copying the material but says he didn’t think he was “doing something wrong” because he’d named the author in his text and bibliography.

The lapse of attribution has embroiled him in one of higher education’s largest plagiarism scandals. Acting on allegations made by a former graduate student who discovered the duplicated material while combing through past theses, the 20,000-student public university is taking action against 39 mechanical engineering graduates, 36 of them from abroad. It has ordered them to address plagiarism allegations involving theses dating back 20 years or risk having their degrees revoked.

Professors are under fire for not catching the missteps of students they were supervising. The mechanical engineering department’s longtime chairman has stepped down and a second professor has been told he will lose his job.

A faculty review committee recently said plagiarism in the mechanical engineering department has been “rampant and flagrant” for years, adding that “there can not be any tolerance of individuals who participate in this serious misconduct.” In addition to taking action against students and their faculty advisers, the committee recommended removing questionable theses from the university library.

The affair raises questions about how well the nation’s universities are teaching the fundamentals of research to foreign students, who have become an important source of tuition dollars and research talent in engineering. International students accounted for 43 percent of master’s degrees in engineering awarded in the United States in 2005 and 59 percent of doctoral degrees, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

No evidence has surfaced that the accused OU students, who come from China, India, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, South Korea and the United States, doctored lab data or fraudulently claimed others’ discoveries as their own. The alleged plagiarism was found in the so-called “literature review” sections of their theses, which often account for as much as half of a finished work. In it, students are supposed to set the stage for their original research by discussing previous inquiry in the field.

But one 2001 thesis about manufacturing metal tubes includes a 28-page chapter that is nearly identical to a section of a 1995 thesis by another student. Both theses contain paragraphs from a textbook written in 1989.

This isn’t the sort of misconduct that can lead to the cancellation of government research contracts. But ethics specialists say it represents a troubling erosion of standards. “What is going to happen as those people become the next generation of faculty members and researchers?” asks Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego. “What will their understanding be of what is acceptable and what is not?”

Plagiarism, of course, isn’t limited to international students. According to a 2005 study by Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity, 40 percent of all U.S. college students admit to having woven unattributed material from the Internet into their written work. Still, international students may lack the English fluency needed to read and paraphrase scientific literature, and may come from countries with less-rigorous academic standards.

In the United States, many international students receive little instruction in the mechanics of scholarly writing. “We end up very often assuming people know the rules and don’t tell them what the rules are until they get into trouble,” says Dr. Elizabeth Heitman, a professor of ethics at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Moreover, because original research is considered the core of a thesis, literature reviews often get little scrutiny for plagiarism. “It’s not any malicious or devious effort to suppress the problem,” says Dr. Nicholas H. Steneck, professor of science history at the University of Michigan and consultant to the federal Office of Research Integrity. “It’s simply that, on a scale of 1 to 10, it doesn’t come up to the level of other things faculty have to do.”

That still might be the case at Ohio University if not for Thomas Matrka from Columbus, Ohio. He enrolled full-time at OU in 2003, aiming for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Unable to get his thesis proposal approved, Matrka began going to the university library in June 2004 to seek ideas from past theses. He discovered the plagiarism.

Matrka says he was frustrated because he couldn’t get his thesis proposal approved “and you had students who were cheaters moving on.”

Some of the former OU graduate students accused of plagiarism say faculty advisers monitored their original experiments and research on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Students from abroad got help smoothing out their written English, sometimes from department secretaries, but received little instruction in citation rules or research ethics.

“We had no idea of what to put on a thesis when we took material from someone else’s” work, says Ranatunga. He says he assumed the three-member faculty panel that reviewed and approved his thesis would tell him if he’d done something wrong.

Dr. Bhavin Mehta served as faculty adviser for 11 theses under scrutiny. A native of India, the 44-year-old earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from OU and joined its faculty in 1988. Since then, he has advised nearly 80 graduate students.

He says many of the accused students he advised were foreign and had arrived at the university with little experience in such writing. “They were not really intending to copy,” he says. “They were just ignorant about those kinds of things.”

Mehta says he has always worked closely with thesis writers to make sure their own research was properly represented. He says he didn’t notice the plagiarism because he assessed literature-review sections primarily for the flow of language and to see that students had relevant and adequate background material.

Mehta has been barred from advising graduate students and was told his employment contract will not be renewed after the coming academic year. He says he has hired a lawyer but not decided what action, if any, he might take.

Dr. Jay Gunasekera, a native of Sri Lanka, served as faculty adviser for Mehta’s 1992 doctoral dissertation and has supervised nearly 100 OU graduate students since 1983. He contends it isn’t possible for a professor to insure that every sentence and paragraph in a literature review is original. “But if I knew this was coming, I would have checked them” more closely, he says.

After he was criticized by a faculty review panel over theses he supervised, Gunasekera stepped down as chairman of the mechanical engineering department in June. University officials say that in the fall, they will consider whether to strip him of an endowed professorship.

Gunasekera says his reputation has been destroyed. He is suing the university in state court, accusing school officials of “recklessly” publicizing false statements about him and of failing to distinguish between major and minor plagiarism. John Marshall, his attorney, says much of what the school has called plagiarism is simply “a failure to attribute.”

The school has begun requiring engineering students to submit their theses electronically so they can be scrutinized with plagiarism-detection software. Irwin says two papers this spring were referred to the university’s judiciary office for possible disciplinary action.

— Associated Press

 

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