The Arizona Desert Lamp

Open-source dissertation defense?

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 3 June 2009

Plagiarism, by JSU President Meehan

This picture is rightly getting the rounds, thanks to the ever popular Boing Boing. A summary of the story from the Chronicle:

Back in April, William A. Meehan, president of Jacksonville State University in Alabama, was accused of plagiarism. According to a lawsuit, Mr. Meehan copied large portions of his dissertation verbatim from a dissertation published three years earlier.

At the time, a university spokesman said there was no substance to the accusations, and the matter has since faded from the news.

But that changed on Monday, when a chart (click on “Download PDF” icon in order to read the document) surfaced online. The chart highlights portions of Mr. Meehan’s dissertation that mirror the work of Carl Boening, chairman of the behavioral-studies division at Shelton State Community College, also in Alabama.

. . .

Patty Hobbs, a spokeswoman for Jacksonville State, said the plagiarism charges had been investigated and refuted by lawyers at both Jacksonville and Alabama. “This is not new,” said Ms. Hobbs. “It’s taken on a life of its own on the blogs. Our stand on it is still the same.””

Mr. Meehan received his doctorate in education from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1999. The university reportedly reviewed the plagiarism charges, though questions have been raised about the thoroughness of that investigation.

Mr. Meehan has run into trouble with allegations of plagiarism before. In 2007 newspaper columns supposedly written by him turned out to have been copied. —Thomas Bartlett

One of the comments brings up the specter of Ward Churchill, and between these cases a common question emerges: “How the hell did these people ever get to be doctors in their field, let alone (in the case of Churchill) gain tenure?” It’s a interesting question. The process for gaining a doctorate is largely buried within the various departments, but the end-tail of the process (after completing core requirements) basically boils to the following steps:

1. Choose a faculty advisor(s)

2. Write a dissertation

3. Defend dissertation before a committee of professors in your field

This process depends based on program and school, and the amount of intra-department politics that go into it are somewhat astounding (or utterly unsurprising). Students aspiring for doctorates must play these power politics as much as they must research, striving to get a more amenable professor on their review board in lieu of someone else. Usually, this is a side effect of a general good; yet the case of Mr. Meehan is a dramatic demonstration of how someone can slip through the system.

Currently, dissertation defenses are open to the public. Students on campus can occasionally espy fliers advertising the defense of the paper, “Design of Multi Modality Fundus Cameras” (Biomedical Engineering). It probably won’t be as bad as Pearl Harbor, but few if any of those with interest will want to, or will find the time to, attend.

Suppose, though, that these papers were published online? Ideally, they would be accessible at a resource center for the department, easily viewable by experts – amateur and otherwise – around the world. The papers would include a commenting section, where viewers could submit questions/concerns. The author could either respond to the comments online, or use the comments to help prepare for questions that s/he might face in an oral defense.

There are two ways to go about implementing such a format. One would be to publish the dissertation two weeks before the actual defense. Google News Alerts would be dinged, RSS feeds would be updated, and those with an interest in the field would have to time to go through the paper. Yet I suspect that those seeking doctorates might find this an unfair amount of scrutiny to be subjected to prior to an oral defense; in that case, papers could be posted after the oral defense had been passed, again for two weeks. The same process would continue, but the approval would only be reconsidered in light of the comments with the approval of half of the professors on the board.

By no means is this a fool-proof plan – in all likelihood, Mr. Meehan would still have gotten away with his plagiarism no matter what sort of system of establish. But by bringing some sunlight – that most effective disinfectant – into the docorate granting process, perhaps there might some chance of combating the system’s worst vagaries.

(Any thoughts from those in graduate school will be greatly appreciated.)

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One Response

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  1. chodgin said, on 6 September 2009 at 10:10 am

    I am working on the abstract for my dissertation, and would actually welcome some public feedback at this point in the process. It would be helpful to have other academics suggesting research that I should read, or ideas that I haven’t considered. Even at the point where I am proposing the dissertation topic, public feedback would be helpful and welcome. But two weeks before or after my defense is entirely too late! If I was using one source so much that it appeared to be plagarism, or sloppy research, two weeks is not enough time to fix it. An after the fact comment period from the general academic public would be akin to waterboarding – just shoot me and get it over with!

    If the object of this process is to avoid plagarism, then more daylight is the answer. But it should come by publishing the names of the committee members who voted to grant a doctorate to a person that produced shoddy work. Although I have not faced a full dissertation committee, my department requires an oral defense of my qualifying exam. The professors on my committee were very familiar with the research background for my topic and definitely put me through my paces to make sure that I was up to the task of researching and writing a dissertation.

    Finally, my university does publish dissertations online, and most scholars are familiar with the database “Dissertations Abstracts International.” If plagarized work is being accepted in dissertations, then the answer is not to make it impossible for legitimate researchers to get their doctorates. Hold those granting doctorates to the scrutiny of the public, and let their academic reputations (and their institution’s) suffer.


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