A University of Arizona professor recently lauded as a top new teaching talent in her field has been reprimanded for plagiarizing the work of a former student.
Susannah Dickinson, an assistant professor in the UA’s school of architecture since 2009, recently received a “formal admonishment” from the university’s provost after the student accused Dickinson of poaching material from his master’s thesis and presenting it as her own.
The finding is a rare one in academia, where professors often are accusers rather than accused in plagiarism cases involving students.
But one national expert believes such cases happen more often than reported because graduate students fear potential repercussions if they complain about professors.
Nicholas Johnson, 28, the alumnus who reported Dickinson, said pursuing the matter was an exhaustive effort that ended in disappointment.
In one of the cases he complained about, the UA’s own analysis showed “roughly 20 percent” of a conference paper Dickinson wrote was copied from Johnson’s thesis without citations or footnotes. Even so, the UA ruled no plagiarism occurred in that instance.
Johnson, who works for a local architectural firm, said the situation has left him afraid to publish his thesis, lest it appear that he plagiarized his professor rather than the other way around.
Johnson gave the Arizona Daily Star access to his 3-inch-thick file of paperwork on the case, which included several internal documents on a UA letterhead.
Dickinson, an architect who recently won a national teaching award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, would not comment for this story when reached by phone at her UA office.
Provost Andrew Comrie, who had the final say in the UA’s handling of the case as the school’s chief academic officer, referred a request for comment to university spokeswoman Andrea Smiley.
Smiley said policy prevents UA officials from discussing specifics of personnel matters.
“However, the University of Arizona takes allegations of plagiarism and other research misconduct very seriously and follows the same process pertaining to such alleged research misconduct in every case,” she said.
“ABUSE OF power”
Dickinson was Johnson’s faculty adviser for his master’s thesis, a role that requires professors to be vigilant about plagiarism prevention, said the American Association of University Professors, which promotes best practices among academics.
“Professors who have the guidance of students as their responsibility must exercise the greatest care not to appropriate a student’s ideas, research or presentation to the professor’s benefit; to do so is to abuse power and trust,” the group’s statement on plagiarism says.
Johnson’s thesis was on biomimetics, a field that looks to nature — the way bees build a hive, for example — for clues to solve human problems. He and Dickinson shared an interest in the topic, he said.
Johnson, a Florida native who attended the UA from 2009 to 2012, said the plagiarism first caught his eye as he prepared to submit his master’s thesis for a review that would determine whether he’d graduate. He stumbled upon it, he said, while searching online for the thesis Dickinson had done for her own master’s degree, which he planned to compare to his to make sure he’d done it right.
Fearing his future could be jeopardized if he spoke up, he initially kept quiet, he said.
The document Johnson came across in his search was a “statement of interest” Dickinson posted online in 2010 to apply for a visiting professorship at an architecture school in London, UA records show.
Some of the wording was identical to Johnson’s thesis proposal. “At first it was hard to believe my eyes,” he recalled.
The UA ruled Dickinson plagiarized Johnson’s work in two of nine paragraphs of her London teaching proposal.
The proposal was taken offline at Dickinson’s request soon after Johnson complained, said a decision letter Comrie sent earlier this year to UA President Ann Weaver Hart.
The second document Johnson complained about remains online unchanged despite the UA’s finding that much of its content was lifted from his thesis.
The disputed material is part of a nine-page submission Dickinson made last year to an architecture conference in North Carolina.
The UA’s internal reviewers had opposing views on whether she committed plagiarism in that case.
One panel said she did, noting that she copied much of Johnson’s thesis word for word as if the writing was her own. Footnotes and citations, normally used by academics to credit the work of others, were omitted, the panel’s findings said.
Dickinson did include a “one-sentence acknowledgment on Page 2” that Johnson did much of the research the paper discussed, but that didn’t excuse her failure to properly cite material taken directly from his work, the review panel found.
A later UA review found the reverse: that Dickinson’s mention of Johnson’s research role effectively canceled out his plagiarism claim.
“Although the committee found that Professor Dickinson did not cite Mr. Johnson’s work conventionally (i.e. she did not follow common or established practice), it nevertheless concluded (her) use of Mr. Johnson’s work in this context did not rise to level of misconduct – i.e. plagiarism,” Comrie’s decision letter to Hart said.
Comrie’s ruling in the second case runs contrary to what the UA tells its students about plagiarism.
One of its plagiarism prevention websites says a common form or plagiarism involves “using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citation.” (The word “and” appears in bold type with asterisks for emphasis.)
Despite the finding that no plagiarism occurred in the second case, Comrie’s letter recommended that Dickinson belatedly revise her conference paper by adding citations to “clarify Mr. Johnson’s contributions.”
The provost’s letter is dated May 20. As of Friday, no revisions had been made to the paper stored in the online repository of the Architectural Research Centers Consortium.
Comrie recommended Dickinson receive a reprimand over the single finding of plagiarism.
“Although the nature of Professor Dickinson’s infraction was not necessarily severe,” he wrote, “there is nevertheless a need to make her aware that research misconduct by its very nature is of serious concern and is treated as such by the University of Arizona.”
It took the UA about a year to process Johnson’s complaints, which received five layers of internal scrutiny by various UA entities, records Johnson shared with the Star show.
Smiley, the UA spokeswoman, said the school’s complaint-handling process is modeled on federal guidelines and aims to “ensure due process is provided” to those accused of wrongdoing. She said the school typically receives about five complaints a year of “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism” involving professors. Most can’t be substantiated and are closed after preliminary review, she said.
Ronald Standler, a Massachusetts attorney the UA cites as a plagiarism expert in its advisories to students, said in an email interview that it’s rare for graduate students to formally accuse professors “because the student is then unable to get a favorable letter of recommendation from the professor.”
He wouldn’t comment on Johnson’s case but said he suspects many graduate students nationwide have faced similar problems.
“In informal discussions I have had with professionals who survived graduate school, I have learned that such plagiarism by professors happens much more frequently than is publicly reported,” said Standler, who specializes in academic issues in higher education law and copyright law.
Zachary Brooks, president of UA’s graduate student council, doubts that’s true locally. He said he’s never heard of another case of a UA professor plagiarizing a student.
Johnson said he’s seeking legal advice before deciding on next steps.
He used to think UA officials would do right by him if he raised his concerns through proper channels, he said.
Now, he said, “I think their main goal was to keep what happened under wraps.”