In Her Own Words

A Brown professor says she's sorry for unintentional plagiarism in her book, but that the thoughts were hers. While some in her department have expressed dismay, others say it's a mistake all too easily made.

April 25, 2014

Brown University’s investigation into a professor accused of plagiarism was supposed to remain confidential. But after it was leaked to the student newspaper, the professor is speaking out both to apologize for what she says was unintentional plagiarism and to assert that her thoughts – if not always her words – remain her own.

While some colleagues criticized the university’s response to its inquiry into Vanessa Ryan, assistant professor of English, especially in light of the fact that she recently was named as an associate dean who oversees a graduate teaching program, others have come to her defense. Plagiarism is often framed as an ethical choice, they say, but unintentional plagiarism is easier and maybe more common than many believe.

“In August 2013, I learned that my book contains inadvertent errors of attribution, which resulted from mistakes I made in documenting my research as I worked on the project over many years,” Ryan said via email. “I take full responsibility for these mistakes.”

At the same time, she said, “While, as a result of these mistakes, my book uses words from other scholars’ writings without attribution, the substance of the ideas in the book is my own.”

Last year, Brown University received an anonymous allegation that Ryan’s book, Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel, published in 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press, contained numerous instances of plagiarism.

David Savitz, vice president for research at Brown, said his predecessor determined that there was enough cause to convene a three-member panel of senior faculty members familiar with Ryan’s area of research but without personal ties to investigate.

After a “very serious” inquiry, “what they found didn’t rise to the level of the research misconduct,” Savitz said of the panel. Although there were unattributed quotes, Savitz said the panel found they weren’t central to Ryan’s argument, and were related to “peripheral or contextual issues.”

Quoting from the panel’s report, Ryan said the investigators found the “passages did not reflect the co-opting of others’ views as [my] own and notwithstanding these passages, the contribution of [my] book still stands.”

Ryan said she took immediate action, notifying her publisher, her department chair, other colleagues and the scholars improperly cited in her book.

She added: “I want to underscore how seriously I take academic integrity and how distressed I am to have made these unintentional mistakes. As my students and colleagues know, I am passionate about my work as a scholar, teacher, and member of our academic community.”

Still, some at Brown are not satisfied by that apology or by the university’s response to the query. Someone with access to the confidential plagiarism report leaked it to the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald. The paper ran a story and also reported that 13 English professors had written to the administration questioning the findings of the report and Ryan’s appointment in January as associate dean of the graduate school, in which she leads a training program for teaching assistants. To some faculty, it seemed like the wrong job for someone accused of bad academic behavior, however unintentional.

Ryan is still also an assistant professor, but is on administrative leave from that position until her contract expires next year, a university spokeswoman said.

James Egan, professor of English, said via email: “I stand behind what we wrote in the letter,” referring to the faculty letter saying that the university had acted inappropriately. But he declined further comment, saying he'd been asked by the department chair not to speak to the media. (Note: This sentence has been updated from an earlier version to clarify that Egan said the decision not to speak to media was the department chair's.)

Philip Gould, department chair, said he was not immediately available for comment.

Despite the criticism from some of her colleagues at Brown, others have stood behind Ryan since the allegations went public.

Kate Flint, a Victorianist who is familiar with Ryan’s work, and who is chair of the department of art history at the University of Southern California, said that Ryan’s response to the allegations demonstrates her academic integrity. Immediately, Flint said, Ryan called her to explain and offer an apology (although Flint’s work was not part of the investigation, to her knowledge).

Flint also said she agreed with the report’s findings that the plagiarism did not change the original value of Ryan’s work, which Flint said is at the forefront of a strand of research that applies cognitive science to Victorian literature.

Ryan’s colleague said she thought the case demonstrated how easy it could be – even for the brightest young scholars – to accidentally mix their words with others’ after hours, days, and even years spent in libraries covering vast amounts of material. In time, she said, Ryan’s case might even be used a “lesson” for up-and-coming graduate students.

“Any of us could do this,” she said. “It’s a really, really unfortunate, even tragic case of somebody who has done something unwittingly they should not have done being made to pay far more than people usually are.”

Of course, critics have noted that Brown warns its undergraduates about such matters and expects them to get it right. "Word-for-word inclusion of any part of someone else's written or oral sentence, even if only a phrase or sentence, requires citation in quotation marks and use of the appropriate conventions for attribution," read the university's Academic & Student Conduct Codes.

David Bromwich, Ryan’s adviser at Yale University, where she attended graduate school, shared Flint's perspective, saying Ryan is “among the most scrupulous and thoughtful of all the younger scholars I've worked with. Her conduct in this matter, after being informed of her errors, has confirmed my estimate of her probity and honesty.”

He added: “The best immediate remedy would be the publication of a corrected edition of her book, properly annotated and acknowledging the errors of attribution in the first edition.”

Savitz said that generally, plagiarism happens two ways: through “carelessness and sloppiness” in note-taking, and “willful misrepresentation” of another’s work as one’s own.

“In either case it’s absolutely vital to avoid, and it’s a very serious breach of the standards of research, there’s no question about that,” he said.

The Modern Language Association's Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing defines plagiarism as "Using another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source.” It says that "[w]henever scholars draw on another's work, they specify what they borrow -- whether facts, ideas, opinions, or quotations -- and where they borrowed it from."

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers also offers a discussion on unintentional plagiarism.

"Plagiarism sometimes happens because researchers do not keep precise records of their reading, and by the time they return to their notes, they have forgotten whether their summaries and paraphrases contain quoted material that is poorly marked or unmarked," it says. "Recording only quotations is the most reliable method of note-taking in substantial research projects."


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