On Campus Blog

Why Macalester student says international prof plagiarized him

I've heard of students ripping off the work of professors, professors plagiarizing other professors, even profs muscling in on the work of the grad students under them.

This is the first time I've heard of a professor lifting the work of an undergrad.

The Mac Weekly student newspaper has reported the case of Macalester College's Alex Park, who graduated this year but recently came to suspect that a couple of academics working for a journal in South Africa had plagiarized his senior thesis. (Clarification: Park said it's believed one is a professor/fellow and the other is a graduate student.)

And one of them had Harvard credentials.

I called Park's adviser, associate professor Erik Larson, who said: This is a man-bites-dog story.

Park was apparently surfing the Web this summer for references to his sociology thesis, "A Tale of Two Townships: Political Opportunity and Violent and Non-Violent Local Control in South Africa," when he found disturbing similarities in a University of Johannesburg paper titled "Khutsong and Xenophobic Violence: Exploring the Case of the Dog That Didn't Bark."

The piece's authors attributed only one out of seven sections, Park told me. Park sent me a list of the suspicious snippets, which you can view here.

After an exchange of e-mails, the journal's publisher said it appeared the authors had "borrowed heavily" and took action to rectify the situation. The Mac Weekly reports the publisher reissued the piece with the proper citations.

Looks like the South Africa authors picked a good piece to lift from. Park's thesis got first place in a national competition and was published in the refereed journal Sociological Insight, which focuses on undergraduate sociology research.

Out of 50 submissions, Larson said, Park's was one of only three accepted for publication in the first round of review, and one of seven that got published.

Larson told me:

It’s professional quality. It’s something that, if somebody didn't know it was written by undergrad, you'd think it was a solid (piece by a) grad student and possibly a professor’s piece.

He said his former student should be flattered, and Park told me in an e-mail that he is.

But he likened the duo in South Africa to a "bully in the playground."

(The lead author) has a full time position at a decent university and he ripped off me, a then-student from a liberal arts college in Minnesota, that he and most of the world of higher education has never even heard of.  It was perhaps because of that discrepancy in position that he thought he could get away with taking off my ideas and passing them off as his own. He didn't.

Park is back living in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., interning at some Bay Area media outlets and working as a free-lancer. He'll apply to Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in the fall.