Educating Verity

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I don't know what one should do in this situation. What I have done doesn't seem to have got me anywhere, so you should probably treat the following as a recipe for failure.

The first thing that occurred to me was, that before bandying the word 'plagiarism' about, I had better check my conclusions with a grown up. Kevlin Henney needs no introduction to the serious C++ community; his is a computing name of considerable weight, and experience showed him to be a soft touch when invited to perform unrewarding favours. 

I sent Kevlin the paper, and a longer, more detailed version of the explanation above. He replied, concurring that Madanmohan and De' had indeed copied their paper as I have described.

I sent my data to my OU tutor. His reply left me with the strong impression that he had still neither read the paper nor my critique of it: 

I'm not qualified to comment on whether a paper published by the IEEE is acceptable or not. If you have an issue with the paper, it would be worth contacting the OU e.g. the Course Manager […] As regards your study, I'd suggest taking the paper at face value irrespective of any doubts you may have over its provenance, and continuing to answer the question. 

I approached the course manager, and, after a few days, got a long reply from the chair of the course team, expertly disclaiming any responsibility for the article, and advising me to bog off and buckle down: 

[...] the course team agrees that you should follow your tutor's advice and answer the TMA question as set. Note that we have used the article […] in good faith (IEEE Software, the journal in which the article is published, is a prestigious peer reviewed journal).  Note also that when we choose an article for the reader it does not necessarily mean that we agree with it or even think it is a good article […] You may be right about plagiarism and we would encourage you to raise the issue with IEEE Software, as it is the responsibility of the journal's editorial board to assure the quality of all their published material…

The admission that the OU course M885 knowingly gives its students 'non-good' articles to read notwithstanding, this took me no further forward. I submitted my homework without answering Question 2 - for how could I answer it, believing to be based on deliberate gibberish? Should I have constructed more gibberish of my own? - and duly paid a 15% mark forfeit for my trouble.

So I sent my complaint to IEEE Software, and here, at last, I found someone who took the complaint seriously. The current editor in chief, appointed long after publication of the article in question and therefore quite innocent of direct involvement, took the trouble to examine the Madanmohan and De' paper, and grokked it. However, I soon discovered he was limited in the action he could take.

The cogs of the IEEE turn at a similar rate to those engraved on the obverse side of a £2 coin. The editor in chief initiated two inquiries: one to determine whether the article was plagiarised, and a second to determine if the plagiarism invalidated the paper as a whole. 

After six months, Madanmohan and De' were deemed guilty of Type 4 plagiarism by the first enquiry. (Type 1 plagiarism, the worst, is stealing a whole paper, for example publishing Jeremy Bottlewasher's Theory of Relativity. Type 4 is just swiping the odd sentence, Type 3 is theft of paragraph sized chunks. The penalty for Type 4 plagiarism is simply to apologise to the 'plagiarees'.)

A few months after that, the second committee, the committee that was to determine if Open Source Reuse was invalidated, determined that

53% of the statements are actual well supported pieces of evidence, 20% are weakly supported statement, [sic] and eventually we have 27% of statements that are pure claims […] The framework of OSS usage in industry depicted in the paper is close to reality. Although [sic, I think they mean 'altogether' - VS] circa half of the pretended [sic, presumably a Freud-influenced attempt at 'presented' - VS] pieces of evidence are actually supported by the empirical investigation.

We cannot recommend the removal of the paper from the digital library.

A fascinating judgement, but not without precedent. For was there not once a curate who, in so many words, famously observed that 53% of his egg was good?


So, despite my best efforts, for 29 bucks you too can enjoy Open Source Reuse in the privacy of your own internet café. Other authors of other papers will presumably continue to cite it. The OU course M885 is free to include it in its selection of 'bad' papers, and more unfortunate students everywhere must continue, unknowing, to struggle through the bastardised, meaningless version of Tony Byrne's words. 

The main practical upshot that I am aware of is that the little dialog box that the OU's website puts up when you upload homework, threatening dire consequences for submitting plagiarised work, now makes me laugh like a drain.

I realise that I am being naïve, but I really have been quite shocked by this experience. It is a commonplace belief that less good academics, securely tenured, can publish any old rubbish. But, sharing xkcd's discipline snobbery, I had previously associated this sort of thing with fashionable humanities, not our own beloved Comp. Sci. And it is one thing to suspect in a vague, generalised way that local government can be corrupt, quite another to witness your own local councillor trousering a wad of £50 notes.

Oh, and by the way, despite Open Source Reuse: I passed. ®

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