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The Daily Wildcat


Ex-Student: UA botched plagiarism inquiry


Photo Illustration by Nicole Thill

Former graduate student Nick Johnson accused Susannah Dickinson, assistant professor in the College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, of plagiarizing his work. Dickinson was reprimanded for plagiarizing parts of Johnson’s thesis and currently teaches courses at the UA.

A former UA student alleges mishandling in an investigation into the plagiarism of his work by a UA professor.

Nick Johnson (See Editor’s Note below) accused Susannah Dickinson, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture, of plagiarizing his work. Johnson was looking online for Dickinson’s graduate thesis to make sure his final thesis met the requirements when he discovered Dickinson’s theft of his work.

Dickinson failed to respond to the Daily Wildcat after multiple requests for comment.

Johnson filed his first formal complaint about Dickinson on April 25, 2013. After this type of complaint is made, its merit has to be determined.

First, the misconduct must be reported to the University Research Integrity Officer, according to the University Handbook for Appointed Personnel.

Johnson received an email from Lucinda Rankin, a physiology lecturer and the current Research Integrity Officer, the day after his complaint was filed saying that it had been received. After receiving a complaint, Rankin begins a pre-inquiry to determine the claim’s merit.

Rankin and Johnson met to discuss the findings of the pre-inquiry in May 2013. Johnson said that Rankin told him the Research Integrity Office confronted Dickinson, who admitted to taking Johnson’s words for her statement.

Johnson said that Rankin told him that Dickinson had various excuses, but admitted to the plagiarism and requested that her publisher take down her statement, which was the first misstep in the investigation.

When the RIO reasonably believes that misconduct may have occurred, which it did, the RIO immediately contacts the necessary parties, according to university policy.

Dickinson, Leslie Tolbert, the vice president of research at the time, Janice Cervelli, dean of the College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, Robert Miller, director of the School of Architecture, and Srini Raghavan, chair of the University Committee on Ethics and Commitment at the time, would have been notified.

According to Johnson, the notification did not occur at this time. Instead, Rankin attempted to get Johnson to agree to an informal agreement and end the investigation.

Johnson emailed Rankin a few days later about his belief that UHAP procedures had not been followed and that he would not agree to the arrangement.

According to Johnson, Rankin said that the general council was telling Rankin “not to notify the dean and director,” which he claims is in direct violation of the policies laid out about how investigations should be handled.

Rankin requested and received a three-week extension to the pre-inquiry phase at this time, marking another deadline missed in the investigation, Johnson said.

Rankin sent Johnson a copy of the documentation Dickinson had provided regarding anything that could be construed as unattributed work from Johnson, and he found additional instances where he believed that Dickinson had plagiarized his work.

Johnson then emailed Tolbert regarding the new potentially plagiarized pieces. Tolbert told Johnson that she didn’t think the new information was worthy of new action. She indicated to Johnson that the general council has final say in the interpretation of UHAP.

Tolbert told the Daily Wildcat that she no longer has records from that period and did not recall the specifics because so much time has passed.

“What I might have said is that things go to the general counsel when there’s a legal issue,” Tolbert said. “General counsel provides guidance to administrators. … They help administrators to interpret laws and rules and regulations.”

Johnson went to CAPLA on June 7 to deliver his complaint about Dickinson in person. According to Johnson, Cervelli was not cooperative because she refused to accept the complaint or even look at it. Cervelli was out of town and not available to contact during the writing of this article.

During the inquiry period, the RIO gathers all documents related to the case to determine whether an allegation is legitimate to show specific instances where misconduct has occurred, according to university policy.

If Rankin determined that this was the case, she would have contacted the chair of the UCEC, Raghavan, so that he could set up an inquiry panel and launch an investigation within the UCEC, according to university policy.

Rankin contacted Raghavan 17 days after the original deadline, and Johnson received an email from Rankin telling him to expect to be contacted by the UCEC panel conducting the inquiry.

According to university policy, the inquiry must be completed within 60 days. Johnson did not receive any information by the deadline.

Johnson sent an email on Aug. 12, 2013, to Jennifer Barton, the new vice president of research, about the missed deadline. He received correspondence the next day saying that the deadline for the inquiry had been moved to Oct. 31, 2013. According to Johnson, the allotted time for the inquiry jumped to 142 days.

According to Johnson, Barton said she told him that the extension was due to scheduling conflicts in the summertime.

The members for Dickinson’s case were Raghavan, Ping Situ, an associate librarian in the research and learning department, and
Paul Bennett, a clinical professor of law, according to Bennett. They interviewed Johnson on Sept. 24, 2013, according to Johnson.

Johnson said that he felt their questions were meant to lead him in a certain direction. According to Johnson, they had asked him about any correspondence he had with Dickinson.

According to Johnson, Dickinson had sent Johnson an email asking him to be a co-author on her statement.

Johnson told the committee that he had not seen that email until after he had already found that Dickinson had used his uncredited work. At that point, Johnson said he did not want to talk with Dickinson because Dickinson hadn’t attempted to contact him.

Johnson said he asked the committee, “Is it ever appropriate for a professor to plagiarize a student’s work and pass it off as their own work?” According to Johnson, the panel had no reply.

Bennett would not answer specific questions about Dickinson in order to preserve her privacy.

The UCEC publishes an annual report of its findings from the previous year. In its 2013-2014 report, it referenced Dickinson’s case and its findings.

The panel of three believed that misconduct had occurred after finding legitimate evidence to support Johnson’s allegations of Dickison’s plagiarism, according to the report.

Bennett said the panel recommends another investigation that is sent to a different committee and that the recommendation for a formal investigation is made based on whether there is enough information that a person with “common sense” would want it further investigated. The UCEC gives its decision to the RIO who notifies the university that a formal investigation will occur and an “ad hoc Investigative Committee” consisting of nine members is appointed to conduct the formal investigation, according to university policy.

The UCEC was supposed to submit this to Rankin and Andrew Comrie, the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, by Oct. 31, 2013, but Rankin told Johnson that she had received the report on the inquiry on Nov. 2, 2013.

Johnson said that the deadline for notification if an ad hoc committee formal investigation was to occur was Nov. 10, 2013, but was also missed. According to Johnson, he received a notification letter that was postmarked on Nov. 14, 2013. The committee should have begun their investigation on Dec. 10, 2013, in accordance with the policies laid out in UHAP, according to Johnson. However, the first committee meeting did not take place until Jan. 14, 2014.

Johnson said that Dennis Ray, a professor in the School of Plant Sciences, was the head of the committee and contacted him in March 2014 about the ad hoc committee’s preliminary findings, which had more inaccuracies and less information than any previous report.

The ad hoc committee’s investigation was then sent to the Comrie for the final say. His conclusion was sent to President Ann Weaver Hart and other involved parties, according to university policy.

Comrie sent a letter on May 20, 2014, addressing what the ad hoc committee found regarding Dickinson. Johnson said he did not receive the decision on Dickinson through this correspondence until he sent a letter to Comrie asking for it on Aug. 20, 2014. He received the decision on Aug. 28, 2014.

The committee agreed with UCEC that misconduct had occurred in the case because Dickinson used Johnson’s work without giving him credit, according to the letter.

A UA student found guilty of misconduct, according to the Code of Academic Integrity, may receive sanctions ranging from a warning to loss of the student’s degree, or even expulsion from the university.

According to university policy, the provost can terminate faculty found guilty of misconduct. However, according to the letter obtained by the Arizona Daily Star, the only punishment that the ad hoc committee recommended for Dickinson was developing a series of plagiarism workshops and notifying her publisher of what Johnson had contributed.

UA spokeswoman Andrea Smiley did not want to “speculate” on the decision of the committee and of Comrie.

“Clearly, they felt that would be an appropriate recourse for [Dickinson] to follow,” Smiley said.

Comrie wrote in a statement that Dickinson should have a formal admonishment acknowledging the misconduct, though he indicated that the offense was not grave.

Smiley described that formal admonishment as a letter that “would reside in [Dickinson’s] personnel file.”

“We take this very seriously,” Smiley said. “We followed a very comprehensive process. And, you know, we continue to consider this a very serious situation, and we’ll continue to follow a very comprehensive process.”

Dickinson is still teaching at least three courses in CAPLA this semester, according to UAccess.

Editor’s Note: The Nick Johnson referenced in this story is not the former UA basketball player.

Follow Max Rodriguez on Twitter @njmaxrod

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