News Story

Plagiarism Double Standards at Michigan State

It can take a year for Michigan State University to complete an investigation when a professor is accused of plagiarism. However, students believed to have plagiarized have a much shorter timeline and could be given a failing grade before the semester ends. One plagiarism expert believes this is because colleges have a double standard when it comes to investigating claims of plagiarism.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy claimed 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 titled “School District Consolidation Study in 10 Michigan Counties.” Shakrani's report received widespread media attention last summer.

The Syracuse University professor who is the original author of a paper that Shakrani says his study is based upon has said his work was “misapplied” by Shakrani.

MSU has announced that the investigation will take a year. Within weeks of the claim, the school changed Shakrani’s report and added missing attribution to the portions alleged to have been plagiarized.

MSU’s policy on academic dishonesty involving students is posted online. It quotes the late journalism professor W. Cameron Meyers, who said that “plagiarism not only is legally wrong but also morally corrosive…”

The MSU student policy states that a professor may give a student a failing grade for a course if the student is suspected of plagiarism. That means if a student had been accused of plagiarism at about the same time as Shakrani, the determination of guilt could have been completed by the time the fall semester ended in mid-December.

“There is a definite double standard,” said Jonathan Bailey, a plagiarism consultant who researches content theft for PlagiarismToday in New Orleans. “The reason we see this double standard, these schools are much more intimidated going up against their staff than their students.  … With a professor, it’s much rarer and much more scandalous and embarrasses the school in a much grander way. There is a lot more feet dragging.”

Jim Pivarnik, MSU’s research integrity officer, wrote in an e-mail that he can’t comment on an active case.

Other MSU officials have not responded to any questions regarding plagiarism policies at MSU. Rick Shafe, associate director of student judicial affairs, didn’t respond to an e-mail asking about how the school handles cases of students accused of plagiarism. The same requests were put to Kent Cassella, MSU’s director of media communications, and he didn’t respond to attempts to reach him via phone and e-mail.

Shakrani once served as the co-director of the Education Policy Center. His now controversial study found that consolidating schools in Michigan could save millions. MSU has defended the study, saying the alleged plagiarism didn’t impact the quality of the research being cited.

But a few weeks after the study was released, the Syracuse University professor whose original study was the model the MSU study's findings, told the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that his work was misapplied and that he wouldn't endorse MSU's findings. Syracuse Professor William Duncombe said the way his 2001 report was extrapolated to cover the state of Michigan was an oversimplification and the method "extremely naïve."

On Sept. 3, within weeks after the plagiarism accusation, Shakrani’s report was changed to include proper attribution for the contested sections.

“By changing the paper, by editing it and changing the way it’s cited and attributed, it sort of inadvertently admits there was a problem with the original study," said Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center education policy director who discovered the plagiarism.

“The larger issue is that it is poorly concocted and doesn’t hold up to any review or scrutiny,” Van Beek said. “Regardless of what MSU decides to do about the plagiarism issue, this paper has even larger issues because it doesn’t actually prove its conclusions.”

MSU has taken a year to investigate another plagiarism charge against another professor made in 2008.

Mariam Sticklen, a crop sciences professor at MSU, was disciplined for plagiarizing one paragraph in an article she wrote for a journal. Wood TV-8 in Grand Rapids reported that Sticklen was barred from pay increases and grants for two years. Sticklen’s paper was retracted from Nature Reviews Genetics.

According to the State News, MSU’s student newspaper, Sticklen’s investigation took a year.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.