Authors of Miami Dade College textbook divided over allegations of plagiarism

08/14/2014 5:24 PM

08/14/2014 7:16 PM

The co-authors of Miami Dade College’s main communications department textbook have been embroiled in accusations that some of the text may have been plagiarized.

One of those sections, ironically, deals with the very definition of plagiarism.

It’s there on page 37 of The Freedom to Communicate textbook: Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work without giving them credit. It is, the textbook states, “a serious problem in today’s society.”

That’s what Isabel del Pino-Allen, a communications professor at MDC, charged that her colleague and co-author Adam Vellone did with a handful of passages — including lifting language nearly word-for-word from a paper defining 10 different types of plagiarism produced by the anti-plagiarism software company Turnitin, without providing proper credit.

Early this month, the college issued a report of its investigation of the controversy, finding that some contested passages needed to be clarified but also not stamping any of the scholars with the academic stain of plagiarism. The MDC report found that the Michigan-based publisher of the book, Hayden-McNeil Publishing, may have been responsible for removing quotation marks and citation links in the process of standardizing the textbook’s citations.

“It is unclear whether each of the four incidences of alleged plagiarism in the book can be explained by changes made by the publisher,” Beverly Moore-Garcia, MDC’s vice provost for academic affairs, wrote in the report. Moore-Garcia recommended that the five authors, all from the MDC communications department, work with the publisher to fix “incomplete citations.”

The MDC report also concluded that because the authors’ contract did not delineate who would write which chapters of the book, all five “bear an equal responsibility for the book’s integrity.”

Del Pino-Allen, who has taught at the college for 12 years, said she was “flabbergasted” by MDC’s final report. As authority figures who can discipline students who plagiarize, including expelling them from school, professors should be role models in their own work, she said.

“When you copy something, you’re supposed to attribute to the source. Plagiarism stems from one of two things: incompetence or dishonesty. And neither one has a place in academia,” del Pino-Allen said. “The chapter that has to do with plagiarism, maybe that was incompetence. But if [Vellone] didn’t know what plagiarism was, he had no right to write about plagiarism. If we tell [our students] to not cheat, then we can’t do it ourselves.”

Vellone, a professor of speech and communications who has been at MDC for 11 years, did not respond to calls and emails for comment. Neither did three other co-authors.

But Mark Richard, president of the United Faculty of Miami Dade College union, who spoke on the behalf of the book’s other co-authors, stressed that the MDC investigation had not charged Vellone or any of the textbook’s other authors with plagiarism. Moreover, Richard said that all of the referencing procedures in the textbook were done together by all of the authors along with the publisher.

“We respect people raising questions, but all of them were independently investigated by college academic leaders and the allegations were proven to be completely unfounded,” Richard said. “We believe the matter is now closed.”

Del Pino-Allen said she first became suspicious when she stumbled upon a question about refrigerator motor circuitry in an online bank of end-of-chapter questions for the textbook. The question turned out to have come from another communications textbook, del Pino-Allen said.

She said she found several other examples of improperly or inadequately credited material in chapters she said were written by Vellone, including a Pablo Picasso quotation, the definition of “pitch” as well as several additional online end-of-chapter questions.

Del Pino-Allen said she was most troubled by the test questions, but the plagiarism definition passage was particularly ironic, she said. Several paragraphs long, the passage uses the same bold-faced terms to name different types of plagiarism, and the definitions contain much of the same wording as a paper produced by Turnitin.

There were some minor changes in the textbook passage on plagiarism, including reordering the 10 definitions from how they appear in the Turnitin paper.

None of the references at the end of MDC’s textbook refers directly back to the Turnitin paper but there is a trail — albeit circuitous — that does link back to the original source: The textbook cites an MDC library guide, which does not contain the actual original text but does link to the website plagiarism.org. Although that link itself is defunct, plagiarism.org does link to the original Turnitin paper.

Jason Chu, education director at Turnitin, said that while the textbook’s roundabout citation of the plagiarism definition was problematic, he did not consider it plagiarism but rather “sloppy scholarship.” Citations should refer directly back to the original source and give credit to the source that referenced the reader there, he said.

Not citing the original source “gets kind of gray — it’s not technically plagiarism,” Chu said. “Is it unethical, improper? Absolutely.”

Meanwhile, as the new academic year approaches, the future of the textbook is uncertain. Communication between the five co-authors has broken down.

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