When Michigan State University officials refused to comment on a plagiarism investigation directed at a professor, Michael Van Beek decided to put in a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what was going on.
Van Beek, the education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, discovered the alleged plagiarism in a MSU study last year. He was shocked to find out what was returned by MSU in answer to the FOIA request. There was a two-page e-mail completely redacted as well as entire paragraphs from other e-mails where little was left except the person’s name, title and contact information.
“It basically is a useless document that they gave us back,” Van Beek said. “If this is meeting a FOIA request, it definitely changes the expectations of how public bodies can be held accountable through FOIA.”
In one instance, an e-mail states: “Bob, I am concerned about (redacted). It is certainly (redacted). Can we talk about this. I think it will not (redacted). Moreover, (redacted). Moreover, it demonstrates (redacted).”
Patrick Wright, senior legal counsel for the Mackinac Center said the FOIA’ed documents look “fairly ridiculous.” Wright said the Mackinac Center is reviewing its legal options.
One FOIA expert said redaction has become more prevalent.
Robin Luce-Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, handles media problems with FOIA.
“One of the more frequent problems now is redaction,” Luce-Herrmann said. “Redaction wasn’t something I was being called about as much three to four years ago.”
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy alleged that Sharif Shakrani, senior scholar at the Education Policy Center at MSU and a professor of measurement and quantitative methods, plagiarized more than 800 words in a study about school consolidation. The study was later amended to acknowledge the sources Shakrani used for his report that weren’t previously included.
MSU launched an investigation last fall that it said could take a year to complete.
To see the full FOIA response, click here.