Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium





Mentor vs. Protege
The professor published the student's words as his own. What's wrong withthat?


Dwayne D. Kirk was proud of his paper, and with good reason: It was the first time his name -- and his name alone -- had appeared atop a scholarly article. He had spent two months doing research and writing, carefully considering each example, weighing every word. Now, after all that work, here was something, he says, that he could "really call my own."

So he was understandably taken aback when, a year later, he saw his words below someone else's name. And not just a sentence or two, but paragraph after paragraph, all lifted verbatim.

What's more, the scholar who had appropriated his work was his mentor, Charles J. Arntzen, a professor of plant biology at Arizona State University at Tempe. Mr. Arntzen, 63, is a pioneer in the creation of edible vaccines, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a former member of the editorial board at the journal Science. In 2001 he was appointed by President Bush to the President's Council on Science and Technology.

Mr. Kirk, in contrast, is a 33-year-old graduate student whose career has barely begun.

This confrontation -- which until now has been going on behind closed doors -- is about authorship and giving credit where it is due. But like many other cases of alleged plagiarism, it is also about the power that a senior scholar can wield over a younger colleague.

When the Harvard University law professors Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Laurence H. Tribe were caught plagiarizing this fall, they immediately pointed to oversights by their research assistants. Yet far more common than research assistants' getting the blame for a professor's plagiarism are the graduate students fuming quietly about their work's being swiped by a mentor.

One reason for their silence is fear of retribution. After all, graduate students depend on professors to help advance their careers. Indeed, after filing his complaint, Mr. Kirk writes in an e-mail message, he now understands "why other people who face these kinds of situations choose not to make their grievances known."

Cutting and Pasting

Before charges of plagiarism soured their relationship, Mr. Kirk and Mr. Arntzen were close colleagues, even friends. When Mr. Arntzen was president of the Boyce-Thompson Institute, a nonprofit research
organization affiliated with Cornell University, he hired Mr. Kirk as a research specialist. From the beginning, Mr. Kirk impressed his boss. "He's a very bright guy," Mr. Arntzen says.

Mr. Arntzen left Boyce-Thompson for Arizona State in 2000. Three years later Mr. Kirk followed him, accepting a paid position as a researcher at the university and enrolling in the graduate biology program. The professor had written a letter of recommendation for Mr. Kirk, and the two had discussed the possibility of Mr. Arntzen's serving as his adviser. Mr. Kirk acknowledges that the professor "has certainly played a big role in promoting my career."

The aura of mutual admiration began to fade in July 2003. That's when Mr. Kirk discovered that Mr. Arntzen had copied large portions of his paper without his permission. About one-third of Mr. Arntzen's article -- which was published as a chapter in the 2004 book Vaccines: Preventing Disease and Protecting Health -- was taken directly from Mr. Kirk's paper, which was published two years before in the book Genetically Modified Foods. The graduate student's paper was not cited, but Mr. Arntzen did mention Mr. Kirk among the dozen people he thanked in the acknowledgements.

Mr. Arntzen does not deny copying Mr. Kirk's paper. He says that he "did some cutting and pasting," and that the practice is common in scientific circles. (In fact, most of the passages not taken from Mr. Kirk's paper come from an article that Mr. Arntzen wrote with another Arizona State researcher.)

The professor wrote his chapter over one weekend, he says, adding that borrowing passages is a way to "conserve energy." He felt justified in doing so, he says, because Mr. Kirk is a member of his research team and members often share materials with each other. Mr. Arntzen also argues that because his paper was not a peer-reviewed article, the standards for plagiarism are different.

Not so, says Mark S. Frankel, director of the program on scientific freedom, responsibility, and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The idea that it's in a book instead of a peer-reviewed article is a poor excuse and one that's unacceptable," he says. "Generally speaking, having one-third of your published work come from someone else without permission is a good case for a plagiarism charge."

As for Mr. Arntzen's contention that what he did is common in science, that may be true, but that still doesn't make it OK, says Marcel C. LaFollette, author of Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and
Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. "If they are other people's words, you are under an obligation, whether you are a scientist or a historian, to use quotation marks."

Getting at the Truth

There are two versions of what happened in this case -- Mr. Kirk's and Mr. Arntzen's -- and those versions are substantially different.

According to Mr. Kirk, beginning in August 2003, he and the professor discussed the matter many times over several months but were "unable to agree on a resolution."

That's not Mr. Arntzen's story. He says he immediately agreed to list Mr. Kirk as a co-author. "We agreed that when the galley proofs came, I would change the authorship," he says. Unfortunately, says Mr. Arntzen, the publisher did not provide prepublication galleys of the article.

There was no such agreement, according to Mr. Kirk. In addition, the editor of the book about vaccines, Ciro A. de Quadros, insists that Mr. Arntzen was provided with a copy of the article before it was published. "He saw the paper," says Mr. de Quadros. "He can't be blaming me for that."

After the book was published, Mr. Arntzen says he called Mr. de Quadros and asked him to insert a correction that would add the names of Mr. Kirk and two other colleagues to the list of authors. "I called him up," says Mr. Arntzen. "I said, 'Ciro, there's a concern.'"

That's not what happened, according to Mr. Kirk. He says he sent the editor an e-mail message informing him that the chapter contained plagiarized material. Only after he told Mr. de Quadros what had happened did Mr. Arntzen agree to make a change, Mr. Kirk says.

The editor backs up Mr. Kirk's version. He says he first heard about the matter from Mr. Kirk. "I called Charlie and said, 'What's going on? You put us in a bad position,'" Mr. de Quadros says.

After challenging Mr. Arntzen, Mr. Kirk says, he began to be cut out of important research projects at Arizona State. This fall he filed a formal complaint against Mr. Arntzen with the university. An investigation is being conducted, but a spokesman for Arizona State declines to comment on its progress.

Few Fight Back

Disagreements between senior and junior scholars occur all the time. Often, though, junior scholars keep their complaints to themselves because they see little to gain from challenging their bosses. When they do complain, it usually means appealing to administrators who have worked with those same senior scholars for years.

Among the few to fight back and win is Carolyn R. Phinney, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She charged that a professor there had fraudulently used her ideas to get a federal grant. After years of legal battles, she won a $1.67-million settlement from the university.

More common is what happened to Sheng-Ming Ma, a graduate student in mathematics at Columbia University. He was kicked out of graduate school and took a job making sandwiches at Subway after unsuccessfully trying to stop a professor from publishing a proof that Mr. Ma said he had devised. He sued, but the case was dismissed.

Antonia Demas argued for years that a professor of nutrition at Cornell University was unfairly taking credit for her ideas about an elementary-school nutrition curriculum. The professor even claimed as his
own awards that Ms. Demas had won. After the case received national attention, she heard from dozens of graduate students around the country with similar complaints (The Chronicle, April 12, 2002).

Some critics of the heavy use of research assistants have suggested that changing the culture surrounding published acknowledgements might help. Instead of just thanking assistants, scholars should explain clearly what work they did.

Yet, particularly in science labs, graduate students are just extensions of the senior scholars rather than researchers in their own right. Richard C. Lewontin, an emeritus professor of biology at Harvard, recently chastised scientists in general for a "pervasive dishonesty" that allows researchers to take credit for work they did not do.

"Regardless of the actual involvement of the laboratory director in the intellectual and physical work of a research project," Mr. Lewontin wrote in the New York Review of Books, "he or she has unchallenged
intellectual-property rights in the project, much as a lord had unchallenged property rights in the product of serfs or peasants occupying dependent lands."

Mr. Arntzen continues to argue that he had the right to use Mr. Kirk's words without his permission. The charge of plagiarism hit him "like a brick," he says, adding that he considers the controversy to be nothing more than a personal misunderstanding.

He is willing to concede, however, that in many cases "the mentor doesn't fully appreciate the independence the person they're mentoring has come to feel for themselves." Even after Mr. Kirk accused him of plagiarism, the professor still has nothing but praise for his protege.

"He's excellent," says Mr. Arntzen. "He writes very well."
Section: Special Report
Volume 51, Issue 17, Page A14



For problems or comments about page contact Richard Cherwitz