Thursday, August 25, 2016

Harsh penalty dealt to student copying from wikipedia

Ten years ago, in August 2006, in a post titled Plagiarism in academic contexts: a look at the past , IPBiz discussed several academic plagiarism cases, including a certain case at Princeton University, 186 N.J. Super. 548; 453 A.2d 263.

In August 2016, the blog PatentlyO, authored by a 1997 graduate of Princeton, has some discussion of an Illinois case, Drobetsky v. Chicago School of Prof. Psych. The Drabetsky case, involving copying of fragments of wikipedia text into a paper for a class (based on viewing a movie; here, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) bears some haunting similarities to the earlier case of Alison Routman, who was "expelled" from Semester at Sea for copying wikipedia fragments into a paper about the movie Europa Europa. [For details, see the 2008 IPBiz post UVa expels plagiarizing OhioU student from ship! ]

Apart from the factual similarities [fragmentary copying from wikipedia of facts into a course paper based on viewing of a movie; harsh penalty], there is an interesting attitudinal issue. Several students were caught copying at Semester at Sea (same crime), but only those who did not repent were expelled (different punishment for same crime). As to the Drobetsky matter, from the decision:

Dr. Koonce explained that the reason why plaintiff was dismissed after having been found to have committed plagiarism, instead of being allowed to participate in the academic development plan like the other five or six students, is because of her conduct at the hearing, in which she was argumentative, interrupted questions posed to her by the committee members, and "did not address her behavior or conduct as it
related to the allegation of plagiarism."

[In passing, one recalls Joe Biden was caught copying 5 pages of a 15 page paper as a 1L at Syracuse Law, and flunked (and repeated) the course, but was not expelled, and went onto to bigger things. The plagiarizing Princeton undergrad (who applied to law school) sustained only a delayed graduation.]

As to standards of review, the Drobetsky court cited to an earlier decision involving the University of Chicago:

Plaintiff bears the "heavy" burden of establishing arbitrary, capricious, or bad-faith
conduct, and to meet the burden she must show that her dismissal was " 'without any discernible
rational basis.' " Id. (quoting Holert v. University of Chicago, 751 F. Supp. 1294, 1301 (N.D. Ill.
1990)). A dismissal is without a discernible rational basis when " 'it is such a substantial
departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee
responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.' " Raethz, 346 Ill. App. 3d at 732
(quoting Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 225 (1985)). When, in
dismissing a student, the private college or university substantially complied with its own
standards and procedures for student discipline, no breach of contract action will lie if the
dismissal had a rational basis. See Holert, 751 F. Supp. at 1301.

As to legal matters, the reviewing court in Drobetsky sustained the outcome (Drobetsky loses), but not for the reasons articulated by the trial court:

In conclusion, we find that the trial court's finding that plaintiff met her heavy burden of
proving that defendant acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or in bad-faith by dismissing her without
any discernible rational basis was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The trial court found that plaintiff's failure to appeal her dismissal to the dean of
academic affairs, as provided for under the academic catalog, necessitated judgment in favor of
defendant on plaintiff's breach of contract action, notwithstanding its earlier findings that
defendant had acted arbitrarily and capriciously when conducting the hearing and in dismissing


We may affirm the trial court's judgment after a bench trial on any basis in the record,
regardless of whether the trial court relied on that basis or whether the trial court's reasoning was
correct. Northwestern Memorial Hospital v. Sharif, 2014 IL App (1st) 133008, ΒΆ 25. We affirm
the trial court's judgment in favor of defendant on plaintiff's breach of contract action, not on the
grounds stated by the court (which were based solely on plaintiff's failure to appeal her dismissal
to the dean of academic affairs and on the lack of proof of damages) but rather on plaintiff's
failure to meet her heavy burden of proving that defendant acted in an arbitrary, capricious, or
bad-faith manner by dismissing her without any discernible rational basis.

Thus, it might seem that a school's dismissing a student who copied fragments from wikipedia, and argued about the significance thereof, is not arbitrary, capricious, or in bad-faith.

An interesting line from the reviewing court:

On appeal to this court, the parties struggle to explain the basis of the trial court's

Also, as to the definition of plagiarism, from the school:

"Plagiarism is intentionally or unintentionally representing words, ideas, or data
from any source as one's own original work. The use or reproduction of another's work
without appropriate attribution in the form of complete, accurate, and properly formatted
citations constitutes plagiarism. Examples of plagiarism, include but are not limited to,
copying the work of another verbatim without using quotation marks, revising the work
of another by making only minor word changes without explanation, attribution, and
citation, paraphrasing the work of another without the appropriate citation. Students are
expected to produce original work in all papers, coursework, dissertation, and other
academic projects *** and to follow appropriate rules governing attribution that apply to
the work product. (...) Further, a single example of failing to
use quotation marks appropriately may be considered plagiarism."

[One recalls in the case of Glenn Poshard at Southern Illinois University, much was made of the defense of "unintentional" plagiarism, which might not have been effective at Chicago School of Prof. Psych. See the IPBiz post
Poshard: unintentional plagiarism?
BUT self-plagiarism might get a pass at Chicago School of Prof. Psych. See IPBiz post
Self-plagiarism and the "repurposing" of research



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