Peer review fails to block copycat

Open University assignment based on plagiarised paper, says MSc student. Melanie Newman reports

October 9, 2008

A student assignment set by The Open University has led to the exposure of plagiarism in a paper published by a peer-reviewed journal.

Students on the OU's MSc in software development were asked to read a 2004 paper from the journal IEEE Software, titled "Open Source Reuse in Commercial Firms" and authored by two associate professors at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, T. R. Madanmohan and Rahul De.

Students were told to discuss the "five critical issues for the reuse of open source components" presented in the paper and to "suggest some open source software drawbacks when compared to commercial software development".

One student, who is male but blogs under the pseudonym "Verity Stob" for online technology magazine The Register, struggled to make sense of a passage in the paper. He carried out an internet search for confusing phrases from the paper to see if they had a technical meaning that was not immediately apparent, and discovered that the same phrases appeared in another article, but this time with a clear meaning.

The 2004 IEEE paper repeated passages from a 2003 paper, "Open source CMS: Prohibitively Fractured?" by Tony Byrne, but did not cite it as a source.

The student complained to IEEE's editor, Hakan Erdogmus, who took up his post in 2007. An investigation found the paper's two authors guilty of "type four" plagiarism (with type one being the most serious), which the journal said was not serious enough to warrant withdrawal of the paper.

The online version of the IEEE paper now carries a "notice of violation of IEEE publication principles", noting that the paper "contains portions of original text" that were "reused without attribution".

In his blog, "Verity Stob" criticised the OU for using the paper in an assessment and for its reactions to his concerns. He said that when he complained about the nonsensical English and the plagiarism, he was told to "take the paper at face value ... and answer the question".

The student said the chair of the course team also advised that he should "answer the question as set" and said: "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."

Derek Prior, OU director of communications, said the point of the exercise was to identify weaknesses in published texts. "If the student had pointed out the deficiencies in the text he has identified in his blog article, he would have received a very good mark," he said.

"Verity" complained in his blog that if the OU felt free to include the plagiarised and nonsensical paper in its selection for student assignments, "more unfortunate students everywhere must continue, unknowing, to struggle through the bastardised, meaningless version of Tony Byrne's words".

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