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Plagiarist Punished at Florida

January 15, 2009

A University of Florida professor who confessed this spring to committing plagiarism was suspended for five years without pay, and opted to retire shortly after the punishment was handed down, university officials confirmed Wednesday.

The professor, James Twitchell, was a longtime faculty member who was highly regarded for his writings about consumerism and popular culture. He was frequently quoted by national media organizations, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But when confronted with a significant body of evidence, collected by The Gainesville Sun, Twitchell admitted that he had “cheated by using pieces of descriptions written by others.”

The Sun’s article -- which was produced by this reporter, a Sun employee at the time -- was published in late April, but Twitchell’s suspension did not take effect until December 31. He continued teaching throughout the spring and fall, which his dean said was appropriate.

“We weren’t going to jump the gun,” said Paul D’Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We believe in due process like everybody else does, so we follow it.”

Twitchell was a tenured faculty member, but he waived his right to formally grieve the sanction, according to a letter sent by D’Anieri to Twitchell. In the letter, D’Anieri noted that Twitchell, who is in his mid-60s, would be reinstated after the five-year suspension only if he provided evidence that he had properly attributed sources in future writings. Any past writings that contained plagiarism could also be used to terminate him, the letter stated.

“Plagiarism in the published works of a university faculty member represents a most serious breach of the principles of academic writing and research and, indeed, the ethical principles governing our profession,” D’Anieri wrote.

The Sun’s article documented about 20 incidences of Twitchell closely paraphrasing or lifting passages outright from other authors without attribution. The university did not look for other evidence of plagiarism during the course of its investigation, according to D’Anieri.

“I think certainly the sense was that we had evidence that we needed to act on, and we did,” he said.

One of the authors from whom Twitchell borrowed was Roy Rivenburg, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and freelance writer. In his book Shopping for God, Twitchell lifted a passage from a 1995 piece Rivenburg had written on the marketing of Christian-related products. Rivenburg’s passage noted:

"Indeed, with the exception of furniture and major appliances, it is possible to outfit an entire home in Christian products -- bird feeders to body lotions, luggage to lamps.

Twitchell's passage was very similar:

"Indeed, with the exception of furniture and major appliances, it is possible to outfit your entire self and home in Christian products -- bird feeders to body lotions, luggage to lamps."

When Rivenburg confronted Twitchell about the passage, as well as several others, Twitchell assured him that a future paperback edition of Shopping would properly credit him. Twitchell also told Pamela Gilbert, his department chair, about the incident. Gilbert did not report the matter to research misconduct officers, however, despite a “duty” to do so as described in university regulations. When asked about the failure to report, university officials said Gilbert was unaware of the extent of the allegations.

It’s unclear whether Gilbert was investigated or sanctioned in connection with the Twitchell case, and D’Anieri said such information “would probably be considered a confidential personnel matter.”

What’s clearly not confidential, however, is the university’s report of its own investigation of Twitchell. The “entire file is a public record,” according to Tom Walsh, UF's director of sponsored research and compliance. Inside Higher Ed filed a public records request for the report Wednesday, but university officials have not responded.

Twitchell and Gilbert could not be reached for comment.

Another of the authors from whom Twitchell borrowed was Grant McCracken, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who writes a blog about popular culture and advertising, among other subjects. Asked about the outcome of the Twitchell case, McCracken was gracious.

“It looks like the university did the right thing,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As for Twitchell, it's sad. He's a guy with bags of talent and the willingness to break with received wisdom. I hope he keeps writing.”

 

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