Plagiarism Actions

Drobetsky v. Chicago School of Prof. Psych. (Ill. App. 2016) [1152797_R23]

There is no general cause of action for ‘plagiarism’ – it comes up most often in student and employment cases.

Drobetsky was a masters degree student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.  In her assigned 5-page reflection paper of the Benjamin Button movie, she apparently copied from Wikipedia and a blog post by Richard Larson.   The allegations are “that a portion of one sentence in the reflection paper was copied word for word from the Wikipedia article, and portions of two other sentences were copied word for word from the Larson blog, without quotation marks, citation or attribution.”

The school dismissed Drobetsky for plagiarism in violation of school policy – she sued in Illinois state court for readmittance, recover of the $53,000 paid to the school, etc.

The trial court offered an interesting decision. On the one hand, it sided with Drobetsky that the school had breached its contract and acted in an arbitrary & capricious manner by: (1)  “failing to notify plaintiff in advance of … the names of the [campus hearing committee] members so that she could properly vet them”; (2) “failing to have Dr. Adames [the professor making the allegations] present at the hearing”; (3) “failing to consider Dr. Adames’ [own] plagiarism” (he had copied portions of his syllabus from another professor without attribution); and (4) “failing to inform plaintiff of the basis for her dismissal.”  Despite all these deficiencies, however, the court ruled in favor of the school because Drobetsky had failed to follow the internal appeal process and because the plaintiff had “failed to prove damages.”

On appeal, the Illinois court affirmed – but first rejected the finding that the school acted in an arbitrary & capricious manner in its hearing process. “[T]he 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.”

 

 

 

About Dennis Crouch

Law Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. Co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship.

21 thoughts on “Plagiarism Actions

  1. This story is mildly entertaining and a poor reflection on the institution involved, but how the heck is it related to patent law?

  2. I think it’s reasonable to remind students in advance of their essay assignment that if they fail to provide attribution for any copied text they will fail the class. But kicking a person out of the school (!) for a single instance of such a failure, without any reimbursement for classes not yet taken, seems a tad extreme.

    If you have the option, you may want to avoid this particular “School of Professional Psychology.” Why risk getting hauled before some “internal board” and kicked out of school because, e.g., you drafted some text that happens to be identical to “a portion” of some sentence in Wikipedia?

    1. (3) “failing to consider Dr. Adames’ [own] plagiarism” (he had copied portions of his syllabus from another professor without attribution);

      This amusing discovery might have made the entire process worthwhile.

    2. MM, do you really think this was about plagiarism? The accusing professor himself was guilty of that it appears.

      There was something else going on and denying the accused the opportunity to confront his accuser to me was the ultimate failure of due process here.

      I can only hope the kid here takes this up to an even higher authority. But that takes bucks.

      1. There was something else going on…

        Gen er ally speaking, academia is a cessp00l. I do not know of any administration that would have taken the side of the student.

        1. As to –I do not know of any administration that would have taken the side of the student — that can depend on “who” the student is at the time of the review. Right in Illinois, one sees that Glenn Poshard survived his plagiarism problem at Southern Illinois University.
          See the post on IPBiz [Poshard’s revisions to plagiarized thesis completed ]. Von der Layen was recently cleared in Germany. And, of less known people, the Ohio University students were basically all cleared. And the meaning of “the side” can be tricky. Biden plagiarized 1/3 of a paper as a 1L at Syracuse and the school found out, but he was not dismissed by the school, and went on to greater things. There was no doubt he copied, but it’s not clear that Syracuse was not on Biden’s side.

          1. Thanks Lawrence – I was unaware of those incidents.

            But judging from your tone, this does not appear to indicate any type of rational and objective (read that as evenly applied) rendition of rules.

            Sort of like my comments here about the “actual” posting rules being those rules that I see are consistently and objectively applied. Without any such type of application, the “rule” is merely a sham and a pretense – it is not a true rule.

            From my own personal research from when I considered a career path in academia, the rampant lack of meritocracy (replaced instead by a fervent “follow our line of thinking or else”) remains true and is the basis of the cessp001 comment.

      2. It’s not clear whether or not an appeal to “an even higher authority” would be helpful. As to ” the ultimate failure of due process here,” this is a contract case, not involving state actors. The handbook did not explicitly say the “complainant” had to be present at the SAC hearing BUT it did say
        — Each party, as well as the committee itself, has the right to question all individuals and examine other information presented. —
        The definition of plagiarism in this handbook is broad, in part because there is no guidance on the “amount” of copying: –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. —
        The review procedure is not that dissimilar from that of other schools, and a more well-known school (UVa) probably was more problematic in execution in the Routman affair than this school was as to Drobetsky. But there were problems. The email of July 17 only stated Drobetsky would be dismissed, without giving reasons, which would have made the drafting an appeal to the dean of student affairs a bit difficult.

        1. Lawrence, this case sound a lot like the Shukh v. Seagate case where an inventor was fired for complaining that he had been wrongly omitted as an inventor. The Federal Circuit found a basis for jurisdiction because of reputational harm.

          Now this may have been contract action, but the basis for it was an accusation of plagiarism that causes reputational harm. That is why the Supreme Court said, at least with State actors, there has to be due process when there is real harm being done to the accused.

          I still think the Illinois appeals courts is wrong.

          1. Thanks for the comment. Both PatentlyO and IPBiz [CAFC in Shukh: concrete and particularized reputational injury can give rise to Article III standing ] covered the Shukh case. But I do not think reputational harm ALONE gives standing. As the CAFC later wrote:
            — concrete and particularized reputational injury can support Article III standing for a § 256 claim even where an employee has assigned all of his interest in an invention and cannot pursue an infringement action. See Shukh, 803 F.3d at 661. But reputational injury alone is not sufficient; rather, it must be tied to economic consequences, such as loss of employment prospects. Id. at 663 (“Dr. Shukh presented evidence from which a trier of fact could conclude that these reputational harms had economic consequences—namely, that [he] was unable to find employment after he was terminated from Seagate.”); id. at 667 (“Dr. Shukh’s inability to obtain employment is a concrete and particularized financial harm that suffices to create Article III standing.”). —
            Underlying the Shukh case were his H-IB work visa and his national origin being as a native of Belarus, which made him vulnerable to his employer. Of the Illinois matter, Drobetsky did lose employment chances because of being dismissed (economic harm was shown). One question I have concerns the failure of the school to afford all procedural opportunities spelled out in the handbook. The Illinois appellate court seems to believe that because Drobetsky did not object during the hearing, the deficiencies were somehow cured. Anybody have thoughts on this?
            Of a separate sub-thread [ the rampant lack of meritocracy (replaced instead by a fervent “follow our line of thinking or else”) remains true and is the basis of the cessp001 comment. ], the Poshard matter in Illinois was initiated because of campus politics.
            But whatever the motivation of the accusers, it is true that Poshard copied, and all the talk of “unintentional” plagiarism was smokescreen to make the immediate plagiarism problem go away [how the thesis committee missed the problem was never answered]. The funny thing is that the copying wasn’t the real problem; the copied text did not support the thesis. No one explored that. Similarly, Joe Biden’s more famous “plagiarism” matter was the copying from Kinnock. But the real problem, never fully explored, was that the copied Kinnock material did not apply to Biden. In a related vein, the Laurence Tribe “plagiarism” was not as bad as the apparent ghost-writing. Returning to Drobetsky, she apparently copied some facts from wikipedia (just as Routman did) to include in her paper on her feelings about a movie. Not clear that either person copied anybody’s movie review. Not clear that either one claimed to be the author of the facts.

            1. And also as to Shukh, note from Larson, 569 F.3d 1319:

              Thus, we need not answer the question we left open in Chou–whether a purely reputational interest is sufficient to confer standing for a § 256 claim–because the issue is simply not presented by these facts.

  3. There was another matter involving harsh treatment of a student who copied factual matter from wikipedia for an assigned paper based upon viewing a movie
    [see link to ipbiz.blogspot.com ].
    The topic of non-attribution/misattribution arose in the Supreme Court Dastar case.

  4. How is a student obligated to “follow the internal appeal process” under penalty of losing her rights? Seems like a rigged system to me. (I used the word rigged, so maybe I plagiarized somebody famous?).
    This just demonstrates that students need to know that they have to consult a lawyer immediately after any allegation of plagiarism. They cannot possibly expect to meet all the details of “the internal appeal process” on their own.
    Also, in my limited experience, schools cave when the lawyer shows up and merely asks them to explain: What’s the dividing line between plagiarism and fair use of standard expressions, who decides, etc.

  5. Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 92 S. Ct. 2694, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570 (1972). link to scholar.google.com

    “The State, in declining to rehire the respondent, did not make any charge against him that might seriously damage his standing and associations in his community. It did not base the nonrenewal of his contract on a charge, for example, that he had been guilty of dishonesty, or immorality. Had it done so, this would be a different case. For “[w]here a person’s good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake because of what the government is doing to him, notice and an opportunity to be heard are essential.” Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U. S. 433, 437. Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U. S. 183, 191; Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath, 341 U. S. 123; United States v. Lovett, 328 U. S. 303, 316-317; Peters v. Hobby, 349 U. S. 331, 352 (DOUGLAS, J., concurring). See Cafeteria Workers v. McElroy, 367 U. S. 886, 898. In such a case, due process would accord an opportunity to refute the charge before University officials.[12] In the present case, however, there is no suggestion whatever that the respondent’s “good name, reputation, honor, or integrity” is at stake.”

    There was a hearing here, but was it fair? That really is the question, is it not? As others have noted, dismissing someone for such a minor violation seems outrageous even if true. The person involved here seems to have been denied the opportunity to prove that there were ulterior motives.

  6. Depending on the context, “plagiarism” can constitute a cause of action other another name. For example, plagiarism often constitutes fraud in many different context. More apropos here, plagiarism often constitutes copyright infringement. In any event, I don’t see how the title of the post follows from the rulings in the case. If anything, the decision confirms that plagiarism can form the basis of removal of student from an educational institution.

  7. “Plaintiff had ‘failed to prove damages.’ “?? One would think that dismissal/expulsion from the school would be sufficient proof in itself, especially considering how much these colleges cost.

    Also, outright dismissal for apparently copying “portions” of three sentences without attribution seems a bit harsh. Those must have been fairly length portions; more than an individual word or short phrase. Was this a repeat offender who had been previously warned? Were there quotes and citations in other parts of her work that might indicate accidental omission in those three instances or was this a completely quote-free work on her part? In any case, given that a universally agreed upon, precise definition of plagarism is absent in adademia, with variations of what is and what is not covered by the term, another due process argument might have been insufficient notice in the student handbook, based on a possibly inadequate or vague definition of the exact standard to be applied by that particular institution.

    I’m not really sure of the post to this website, since plagarism is different from copyright infringment. It seems to be more about “academic dishonesty” (quotes used here for emphasis rather than attribution, LOL) than IP law.

  8. The allegations are “that a portion of one sentence in the reflection paper was copied word for word from the Wikipedia article, and portions of two other sentences were copied word for word from the Larson blog, without quotation marks, citation or attribution.”

    How many words?

    Twenty?

    Ten?

    Two?

    One?

    Maybe the Professor screwed her because she wouldn’t let him screw her.

    1. Yeah…no chance in hell three people that have time to analyze Benjamin Button, one doing it for educational purposes, might stumble upon the same words for a fraction of a sentence or two.

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