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Student scolded by Argosy after accusing school official of plagiarizing project

12-13-05 Argosy University, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago Marla Decker, a student, has allegations against a faculty member at Argosy University. [Keith Hale/Sun-Times]

An official at Argosy University-Chicago has been accused of plagiarizing her doctoral research project. The topic? Lying.

But instead of punishing the official, the school moved to dismiss the student who accused her, in part because the student pushed the allegations.

A Chicago Sun-Times review of the research project — by Bindu Ganga, a member of the school’s core faculty and its director of training — shows it contains scores of statements virtually identical to those in a book published four years before Ganga’s paper was released in 2000. The majority of those statements are not clearly attributed to the original author, Charles Ford, whose book Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! was published in 1996. Although Ford does get some credit in Ganga’s paper, “It does appear that there is substantial plagiarism,” he said.

Ford’s assessment was backed by John Barrie, creator of the plagiarism detection software, Turnitin, used at 5,000 schools around the world. His software found that roughly 45 percent of Ganga’s paper was identical or nearly identical to previously published works.

“It’s egregious,” Barrie said of Ganga’s paper. “This is about as bad as it gets.”

Accuser: ‘Situation is deplorable’

The accuser, student Marla Decker, was eventually allowed to graduate — but she was scolded for pushing the accusations and her discipline is now part of her permanent academic record. She believes she is the victim of retaliation.

“How the school handled the situation is deplorable,” she said.

Reached by phone, Ganga said it was “unbelievable” that “this student won’t let this go.”

Asked about the language in the paper that appeared to be identical to wording in Ford’s book, she replied, “It has been fully investigated.” She referred other questions to school officials.

Chicago campus president Marcia Bankirer denied the school had retaliated against Decker.

Initially, Bankirer also said the school “found no merit” in the charge of plagiarism targeting the paper the university published. “Our investigation shows no problem with the way it was documented,” she said. “. . . The publication itself passed academic muster.”

She repeated that stand over the last few weeks, but Friday she wrote in an e-mail that “the matter is currently under review by the university.”

Schools need to take such charges of academic dishonesty seriously, said Charles Lipson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Doing your own work — and thoroughly crediting other people’s writings — are the “bedrock” on which academic honesty is based, he said.

“When it’s swept under the rug, it sets a terrible example for students,” said Lipson, author of Doing Honest Work in College: How to Prepare Citations, Avoid Plagiarism and Achieve Real Academic Success.

Argosy booming

Like many for-profit schools nationwide, Argosy has seen a huge increase in enrollment in recent years. Its two Chicago area campuses, with nearly 1,500 students, have grown faster in the last year than all but a handful of Illinois schools. The school has 13 campuses in 10 states and is a division of the $1 billion Education Management Corporation, which is traded on the Nasdaq stock market.

The school trains more clinical psychologists than any other institution in the nation, Bankirer said.

Ganga, who has applied for state certification as a licensed clinical psychologist, oversees training for students attending the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, which is part of Argosy. On its Web site, Argosy touts Ganga as a graduate of the school who is a success story, saying she “makes big things happen”

Ganga submitted her clinical research project more than five years ago as part of the requirements to obtain her Psy.D., the clinical equivalent of a Ph.D. Her 55-page paper is called, “Deception vs. perception: A critical look at the intricacies of lying within the therapeutic relationship.”

Although current guidelines for such projects state a paper will be closely edited for publication by Argosy, Ganga’s work contains numerous grammatical and citation errors. On the cover page, Ganga says the campus she attended was in “Rolling Meadow.” (Argosy’s campus has since moved from Rolling Meadows to Schaumburg.)

From the very first pages of the paper, Ganga uses language that is virtually identical to wording used by Ford. “Lying will be explored as the bridge between one’s internal ‘self’ (beliefs, perceptions, expectations and fantasies) and one’s external ‘self’ (reality),” she writes.

Ford’s book jacket says his philosophy “is that lying is part of the bridge between one’s internal world (beliefs, perceptions, expectations, fantasies) and one’s external world (reality).”

In her introduction, Ganga further states, “Lying and self-deception permeate all aspects of human life and social interactions.” That is identical to what Ford wrote. Three of the first 18 sentences in the introduction are nearly verbatim to what Ford wrote, although she does not credit him there.

Incorrect citations ‘meaningless’

Ford’s prose can be found extensively throughout the rest of the paper. It makes up more than 35 percent of the paper, according to the Turnitin analysis. Ganga cites him more than 40 times. But even when the words are identical, Ganga put quotation marks around just one passage. Rules of scholarly research require quotes around any verbatim references.

In some instances, she paraphrases sources Ford used as if she herself had consulted the sources, but the words are identical to Ford’s.

She even chose to highlight the same quotes from Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some sections that use language extremely similar to Ford’s are attributed to other authors. Sometimes credit given to Ford actually belongs with someone else. A 1995 book by Donelson Forsyth states, “Skilled liars also mask their nervousness by displaying a covering emotion.” That statement, minus one word, appears in Ganga’s paper, but she credits Ford, not Forsyth.

Barrie said Ganga’s citations are so misleading they are essentially “meaningless.”

“This would get any freshman English student flunked from a class,” he said.

In addition to Forsyth and Ford, prose nearly identical to at least four other authors appears in the paper — including well-known “love expert” Leo Buscaglia, who isn’t included in the bibliography.

She puts virtually none of those statements between quotation marks, even though the authors are sometimes mentioned in the text. Ganga’s project was overseen by Argosy professors LaDon Jackson and Eliezer Schwartz, whose names are on the title page. Neither returned calls seeking comment.

Bankirer, the Argosy president, said the school takes plagiarism seriously and acknowledged that statements taken from Ford’s work “should be documented in the paper.”

Bankirer also said the paper wasn’t “the cleanest it possibly could be.” But she said the fact that Ganga did list Ford in her bibliography and credits him numerous times in the paper shows Ganga’s actions were not “malicious.”

“There may be some issue of missing quotation marks,” she said, “but there is nothing fraudulent. There is nothing intentional.” She called Ganga’s actions “a minor infraction.”

Also in her initial comments, Bankirer said, “There is no reason to go back and rescind her degree or consider her having done something trying to defraud the university, the general public or us as her employer.”

Argosy’s policies require that students only submit “original work.”

Policy on plagiarism

“Any source used by a student must be documented through normal scholarly references and citations, and the extent to which any sources have been used must be apparent to the reader,” the school’s policy on plagiarism and academic fraud reads. Students are reminded of these policies constantly; the procedure can be found attached to the end of an online syllabus for one of Ganga’s courses. Violations can lead to a student’s dismissal.

Argosy’s current policies for submitting clinical research projects also require students to follow rules set out in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is considered the bible for how papers should be written, even by researchers outside psychology. The book states, “Psychologists do not present substantial portions or elements of another’s work or data as their own, even if the other work or data source is cited occasionally.” It also states, “Quotation marks should be used to indicate the exact words of another. Each time you paraphrase another author . . . you will need to credit the source in the text.”

Going on your permanent record

Decker, 38, who was reared in New York, enrolled in Argosy’s master’s level professional counseling program in 2001. After Ganga criticized Decker’s work during a training practicum, Decker decided to review Ganga’s work.

Last February, she said, she confided to a professor that she believed Ganga’s thesis might have been plagiarized.

The following month, Decker learned she had been brought up on ethics charges. The school wrote her a letter saying that Ganga and the training department “have expressed a serious concern about a pattern of unprofessional comportment on your part, including disrespect toward those in authority and types of relating that others have found upsetting.”

In late June, after two review hearings, a committee decided to dismiss Decker from the school. It criticized her professional comportment during a practicum assignment more than a year previously and “with members of the Training Committee” and scolded her for refusing to take feedback from supervisors.

It also criticized her for pushing the plagiarism charges against Ganga. “You engaged in unethical behavior by refusing to utilize proper protocol when you questioned the integrity of an administrator. You were clearly informed that it is unethical to proceed with a complaint if you have knowledge it may not be true or valid. The committee told you that there was such evidence and informed that it would be an ethical breach, you continued to make accusations,” the committee said in a letter.

Ten days later, Bankirer said she would grant Decker a degree after all because Decker had already completed all degree requirements. But Bankirer noted that the committee’s decision would remain a part of Decker’s permanent academic record.

Bankirer said the ethics complaint against Decker was started independent of the school’s plagiarism investigation. She said she didn’t know at first who made the plagiarism charge.

Decker also contacted the APA about her charges against Ganga, but the association declined to open a case.

Decker sent Ganga’s paper to Ford, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ford wrote to Decker that from his initial reading of the paper, “it does appear that there is substantial plagiarism.” He said in a recent e-mail, “I have been advised not to make further statements at this time in reference to the incident in question in that I am considering legal action.”