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31 Mar 2012

Plagiarism or not? – I was watching the news the other day when I saw that a National Assembly candidate from the Saenuri Party named Moon Dae-sung was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. The name sounded familiar, and the face looked familiar as well. Sure enough, this was the same Moon Dae-Sung who won a gold medal in Taekwondo at the 2004 Olympics. I knew that he had been elected to the International Olympic Committee, but I hadn’t realized that his political aspirations had extended to the National Assembly.

“Plagiarism is a very serious thing in academia, and most academics go to great lengths to avoid even the hint of it.”

When I heard the mention of plagiarism my interest was piqued. I have dealt with plagiarism before, although perhaps not on the same level as many teachers, since I teach translation (it’s kind of hard to plagiarize translations). My first run-in with plagiarism came when I was teaching English in Mongolia. (Now there’s a sentence I bet you don’t read too often.) I had one student in a writing class submit an assignment that was clearly plagiarized. This student was the weakest student in the class and had consistently submitted assignments that read like the work of drunken Vogon poets. Yet this assignment was flawless—so flawless that it would have been right at home in a tourism brochure. I didn’t need to find the original; it was obviously plagiarized. Yet the student swore up and down that he had written the text himself. I told him that I knew he hadn’t written it, and if he was finding the assignments to be too much I would be willing to meet with him outside of class to help him improve. He refused, insisting that the work was original. So I kicked him out of the class.

It turns out that Moon Dae-sung’s plagiarism was of a similar “cut-and-paste” variety: entire sections of his doctoral dissertation were lifted straight from another dissertation (if you can read Korean, take a look at an image comparing the two papers). The criteria for plagiarism in Korea are very strict and very specific: if you use six or more words in a row without attribution, or if you present original ideas or work as your own, it is plagiarism. Moon lifted entire paragraphs and presented them as his own words—there is no doubt that this is plagiarism.

What boggles my mind is Moon’s response to all of this, which is encapsulated in the following quote from a radio appearance on the 27th: “I admit that there are parts where I did not cite my sources for some passages quoted in my discussion of the existing literature. But the core of a dissertation is the results. (A professor who sat on my dissertation committee) said, with regard to this plagiarism controversy, that there was no problem at all” (Korean source).

Where to begin? First of all, in a discussion of the existing literature, you’re not supposed to be quoting wholesale from other scholars anyway, you’re supposed to be doing your own work. Even if he had used quotation marks and provided citations, it would (or should) have been considered poor academic practice. Secondly, while the school and the dissertation committee do bear some responsibility for awarding Moon the degree, ultimate responsibility lies with the researcher. Just as you get credit for the research you do, you also have to answer for any problems with that research. I know a doctoral candidate who, at the oral defense, answered a criticism with “But my advisor said it was OK.” I wasn’t there at the time, but I heard later that said candidate was crucified.

Most baffling of all, though, is Moon’s insistence that what he did was not plagiarism because his conclusions were different from the dissertation he ripped off. Here’s a quote from Moon’s camp that goes into more detail on this aspect: “In order to claim that a dissertation has been plagiarized, the key thing that must be considered is whether or not there is an issue in terms of originality. The Democratic Party’s claims are clearly political scheming” (Korean source). Again with the originality issue. There’s no denying that originality is extremely important in research—but the overall originality of your conclusions has absolutely nothing to do with whether certain parts of the research have been plagiarized.

The second sentence there is also worth examining. If you look up the phrase that I translated here as “political scheming,” you will find that it is rendered as “political maneuvering.” “Political maneuvering,” though, simply refers to a crafty political move, while the Korean term implies some sort of plot or scheme. That Moon’s opponents might be politically motivated to expose him for plagiarism should be obvious. To claim that they are making something out of nothing in order to discredit Moon, though, is preposterous. It’s also a good example of the genetic fallacy: the Democratic Party would love to see a Saenuri candidate discredited, so anything they say regarding a Saenuri candidate must be false. This is, of course, not logically valid—the origin (or genesis) of a statement does not necessarily have any bearing on the truth value of the statement.

The bottom line is that Moon plagiarized parts of his dissertation, and no amount of hand-waving or attempting to change the definition of plagiarism is going to change that. I could care less about what happens to Moon politically, but academically this really gets my blood boiling. Plagiarism is a very serious thing in academia, and most academics go to great lengths to avoid even the hint of it. None of the academics I know would ever knowingly plagiarize someone else, but that’s not the whole of it—you’ve still got “self-plagiarism.” Essentially, you can be guilty of plagiarizing yourself if you use your own previously published research without citation or otherwise try to present previously published research as new research.

What Moon should have done was admit that he had plagiarized parts of his dissertation and shown a willingness to accept the consequences and work toward making things right. Unfortunately, this is now a political issue, so things aren’t that simple. I don’t know how this will play out, but as an academic it really annoys me to see plagiarism treated this way on the national level. Call it what it is, take your lumps, and let’s try to work toward a system that doesn’t produce plagiarized doctoral dissertations.

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