Perceived Plagiarism at Ohio U.

One former grad student's charges have prompted some changes -- insufficient, he says -- at an engineering college.
November 1, 2005

Thomas A. Matrka has his master’s degree in engineering from Ohio University and a good job in the private sector as a mechanical engineer. So why is he still spending so much time and energy trying to prove that as many as 30 master’s theses in the university’s engineering college contain unoriginal work?

“They’re compromising the value of the degree of honest students by not distinguishing between the plagiarism and the honest works,” says Matrka. He has spent lunch hours poring over hundreds of pages of theses in the university’s library and writing university officials and accreditors on a one-man quest to spur an investigation by those better qualified than he is to judge plagiarism. “I’m no expert – I’m one guy over there poking around the library. I just want them to look into it and remove these from the public record, because you’ve tainted all of us by leaving them there.”

The dean of Ohio’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Dennis Irwin, rejects Matrka’s view that a widespread plagiarism problem exists in the engineering program, and says the former student is wrong to believe that Ohio officials haven’t taken his charges seriously. The college, he says, has investigated the “four or five” cases that Matrka has brought to his attention, and while Irwin asserts that a federal student privacy law prevents him from discussing details of the review, he acknowledges that “a thesis or theses have been removed” from the library.

Irwin says college officials have also altered their policies in ways that will improve their ability to monitor potential plagiarism in student work in the future, including by requiring electronic submission and using software to check new theses against those previously submitted electronically. But the university has no plans, the dean says, to invest the faculty time necessary for what he calls a “witch hunt” to review the hundreds of past engineering theses and dissertations in the library.

“I’m not sure what action I could take beyond the action I’ve taken up to this point,” Irwin says.

Looking for Guidance

Thomas Matrka did not set out to become a whistle blower.

In 2003, 10 years into his engineering career, he enrolled at Ohio to get a master’s degree. He got good grades, but as he worked on his thesis, he says, his adviser, M.K. Alam, the Moss Professor of Mechanical Engineering, repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with his work. (Alam did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) Hoping for insight into projects that had previously won Alam’s approval, Matrka spent some time in the university’s library in the summer of 2004 thumbing through past theses.

He was struck by what he found. As he looked the papers over, Matrka says, he noted similarities -- occasionally blatant, extended ones -- between many of them. He discovered four theses, for example, in which the third chapters on “fluent and multiphase models” were virtually word for word. Two were from 1997 and two from 1998. Three others, from as many as six years apart, contained paragraphs and drawings that were almost identical. (Matrka provided pages from some of these theses to Inside Higher Ed for review.)

 “Some of them were so blatantly obvious, where there was page after page copied from one another or from a textbook,” says Matrka. Some of the overlap is so obvious, he says, that it would be impossible for the professors who oversaw the theses not to have known about it. “It’s a faculty approval problem,” Matrka says. “It’s hard not to conclude that advisers condoned this.”

Those are serious charges, and Matrka first brought them to the attention of Irwin, who Matrka says told him that he would investigate but did not take him up on his offer to share more information (for his part, Irwin says that Matrka gave him four to five theses but has not offered to provide other examples).

Perceiving a lack of momentum, Matrka says he “went up the chain,” taking his charges to the university ombuds office, an associate provost, and a number of other officials at Ohio and elsewhere. At every stage, he says, officials either have expressed little interest in what he has found, discouraged him, or said it was outside their scope of responsibility.

Matrka switched advisers and prepared a project thesis (“Design of an Experiment to Measure Plane Strain Flow Stress at Elevated Temperatures”) that passed muster; he earned his degree in June 2005. Though he has left the university, his campaign has continued.

In recent weeks, he has sent packets of materials containing examples of the alleged plagiarism to Ohio University’s Board of Regents, the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology, a national accreditor, and the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Ohio University as a whole. Last month he laid out his allegations before the university’s Graduate Student Senate. (The president of the senate, Mark M. Mecum, said in a statement Monday that it was investigating Matrka's charges.)

His basic theme is that the university undermines the value of all of its degrees if it does not revoke its approval of work that has been done fraudulently. As he wrote this month to the North Central accrediting body: “The college faculty has disregarded its policies and procedures by approving graduate student’s theses and dissertations that contain plagiarism…. The credibility of Ohio University’s students, graduates, and accrediting commission is compromised by Ohio University’s record of defending and maintaining graduate degrees of students who violate basic academic policies.”

'We Take These Charges Very Seriously'

Irwin, the engineering dean and the Moss Professor of Engineering Education, bristles at the suggestion that faculty members and the college have looked the other way either in approving fraudulent academic work or declining to aggressively investigate Matrka’s charges.

“We take these charges very seriously, as even a single instance can undermine the reputation of a department, a college, a university, and hence the value of the degree,” Irwin says. “My personal opinion is that the problem that is ongoing is due to the fact that Mr. Matrka cannot be told what has happened.”

Initially, Irwin cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits the release of personally identifiable information from students’ educational records, to explain why he cannot reveal what actions the college has taken in response to the “four to five cases” of alleged plagiarism that a college committee investigated in the wake of Matrka’s charges.

When pressed to explain how revealing the college’s actions, without names attached, could violate the federal law, Irwin said that at least one thesis had “been removed” from the library, but that no students had had their degrees revoked, nor any professors punished in any way. (To the dean’s statement that at least one thesis had been removed from the library, Matrka says that all of the works that he identified as containing possible plagiarism remain in the university library’s catalog, and by virtue of its appearance there, “anybody can go to the library annex and pull the archived version.

Irwin says the college has begun “briefing graduate students on the nature of plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid plagiarizing others’ work,” and that it now requires electronic submission of theses and dissertations and a statement of originality signed by all students. Beginning this winter, he says, the college will “begin using comparison software to screen all of the theses submitted against all of those we have in electronic form.”

What the college will not do, he says, is ask his faculty to review what could be “tens of thousands of pages” of hard-copy theses and dissertations” in the library. That could take a huge amount of faculty time for an uncertain payoff, he says, “so you can probably see our problem in meeting any demand that all instances of plagiarism be removed from the library.”

Irwin adds: “I know Mr. Matrka is not satisfied with our actions to date, but all I’ve heard are accusations, and I haven’t been presented with any evidence that those accusations are true.”

Part of the problem, the dean says, may be a “different in interpretation between what [Matrka] considers to be plagiarism” and the university’s own interpretation. With technical works like engineering theses, he says, “there are going to be similarities, particularly in equations and diagrams.”  He adds: “If the same two people worked on the same experiment or apparatus, it is conceivable that they would jointly develop schematic drawing of that that might be used in both of their theses.”

Matrka admits that that possibility could explain some of the cases that looked fishy to him – which is why he has encouraged the university to turn the review over to faculty members more knowledgeable than he is.

But many of the other examples he has identified, he says, don’t require an expert’s eye. “Some of this stuff you wouldn’t get away with in high school.”


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