How many more skeletons can Science Foundation Ireland’s Director General, Mark Ferguson, possibly have in his closet? Last year this blog revealed the facts about Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by Science Foundations Ireland’s then newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson.
Now it has emerged that in 1982 Ferguson was mentioned in a New York Times article as the most visible case of academic misconduct, whereby authors simultaneously submit identical results to different journals.
In this piece we look at the latest revelations about the Renovo collapse and the controversial promotion of Ferguson to the post to Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland as well as the details of the “duplicate publication” case.
The Renovo Disaster
Ferguson was appointed to head up Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) on the back of his experience of turning research into a commercial success at Renovo Plc. One would have expected that Renovo was a paragon for successful research commercialisation but in fact it is a remarkable case study of outright failure . It received large sums of money, including £63 million of investors’ money, £58 million of investment from the pharmaceutical company Shire, along with £16.5 million of British tax-payers money in the form of grants and research tax credits.
However, all of the drug products ultimately failed their clinical tests and none were developed to market. In 2011, the scientific research was terminated and all of the employees were laid off. The investors were wiped and the company was delisted from the main stock market.
Despite this, the company directors received very substantial rewards over the five years that it operated as a listed company. Mark Ferguson received £3.6 million including a golden handshake of £700,000. His wife Sharon O’Kane, the Chief Scientific Officer up to 2010, received over £1.6 million. In addition, between them they netted £9.4 million by exercising a director’s option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.
Right up to the time of the complete share collapse, Ferguson was bullish about the clinical failures and the markets’ reaction to them. Take a look at the video below – an excerpt from the University of Manchester Vital Topics Lecture Ferguson gave in 2008 (full version available here).
The video is remarkable for a number of reasons. Aside from the CEO of a listed company discussing his company’s share price movements, he rages against the British press and blames them, rather than the failed clinical trials, for the plunging share value.
Following the failure of all of its products, Renovo ceased all clinical activities and it no longer engages in any trading activities. It now operates as an investment vehicle and recently used its remaining reserves to acquire Ultimate Finance which is a finance company that provides debt factoring, hire purchase and other trade finance.
After such a high profile corporate collapse how did Ferguson end up at the helm of SFI?
In a significant development, The Irish Mail on Sunday discovered that the Taoiseach’s office and Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation helped secure a €190,000-a-year salary for the new boss of Science Foundation Ireland, despite fierce resistance by the Department of Public Expenditure.
The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation claimed at the time that Ferguson “has been involved in several successful commercial ventures arising from his academic career“. Notably, that claim – indeed any mention of Renovo – were not included in the Department’s recent announcement of his appointment as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Taoiseach.
The Turmoil at SFI
Concurrent with the emergence of the Renovo story, Ferguson’s initial time at the helm of SFI has been marked by a notable degree of turmoil and controversy.
The blow-back from all of this has been an almost daily stream of information, questions, links and rants on a record-breaking post on the Indymedia site.
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary use of state funds, SFI sought and obtained a high court injunction compelling an Irish Internet Service Provider to supply it with the IP address of those posting “defamatory” material on the internet. SFI refused to divulge just how much money had been spent in seeking the high court injunction.
Spot the Difference
Back in 1982, a New York Times article reported how the editors of leading scientific journals were cracking down on what they considered deceptive or improper practices by researchers who submitted the same paper simultaneously to two or more journals.
The most visible case was a report on alligator egg shells which served as the cover story in Science on December 4, 1981 and which contained “much of the same data” as a report subsequently published in the journal Experientia.
The author of both reports was Mark W.J. Ferguson of Queen’s University of Belfast and in the June 18th 1982 issue of the Science, the following letter appeared:
I write regarding my report “Extrinsic microbial degradation of the alligator eggshell” (4 Dec. 1981, p. 1135), which I submitted to Science on 17 October 1980. I used much of the data from this report in a paper submitted on 30 September 1980 to Experientia. I had intended to withdraw the Experientia paper if the manuscript for Science was accepted. However, due to a gross oversight on my part I failed to withdraw it, and the paper appeared in volume 37, 1982 (p. 252) of Experientia. I apologize to readers for any inconvenience caused by this duplication.
MARK W. J. FERGUSON
Even a casual glance at the two papers (available in full here and here) shows that, far from simply sharing the same data, the two papers are virtually identical. 90% of the text is the same, the pictures are the same, only the abstract and first paragraph are different.
The excuse given by Ferguson is clearly nonsense. Simultaneously submitting the same paper to two different journals is invariably considered misconduct and explicitly prohibited. For example, Nature insists that “material submitted to a Nature journal must be original and not published or submitted for publication elsewhere”.
When the matter was recently raised in the Dail by TD Clare Daly, Minister Richard Bruton was quick to defend Ferguson, listing his academic credentials and poo-pooing the notion that someone of his stature could have been involved in such behaviour.
Chief Scientific Advisor
Given the turmoil and controversy, the announcement that Mark Ferguson was to also take on the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Taoiseach came as a shock to many members of the scientific community.
In making this move Minister Richard Bruton and Junior Minister Sean Sherlock are clearly signalling their support for Ferguson in the face of unprecedented criticism of SFI’s Director General and the direction he is attempting to take the agency.
The appointment has caused a storm of criticism from Irish scientists, furious that an independent voice for science has been lost and been replaced by someone with their own agency to look after.
What Now for Irish Science?
So what does all of this mean for the future of Irish science and basic research in particular? Ferguson recently compared academics to cats who you herd by moving their food bowl.
We can expect that, for the foreseeable future, all funding will be funneled through opaque selection processes into commercial schemes, whereby those who make the most extravagant claims about their potential research “impact” will be rewarded.
Meanwhile, those who do not engage in bombastic claims and flim-flam, those with the longer view, will be screened out by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists whose sole motivation is turning a buck on someone else’s ideas.
In their place, we are supposed to attract “iconic” scientists – ones with Nobel prizes and Fields medals, no less. Mind you, given Ferguson’s embarrassing introduction of Craig Venter at the EuroScience Open Forum, below, his name may be off the list.
And when all of this nonsense runs its course, wasting millions in the process, we will have the spectacle of politicians claiming that investment in science has yielded no sizable return for the country.
As summarised in our last post, a remarkable degree of controversy and media attention has focused on a dissertation for which Flan Garvey, then Chairman of the Governing Body at IT Tralee, was awarded an master of arts degree in 2008. Last year, 26 lecturers wrote to the Registrar pointing out that they had discovered that a considerable amount of the text of the thesis had appeared in a variety of previously published sources.
A QQI investigation ensued in which three external academics concluded that the thesis was plagiarised and that the MA award was obtained in a manner that was unjustified. On an appeal by Mr Garvey to a committee that was appointed by IT Tralee, the decision that the MA was unjustified was reversed on the basis that Garvey didn’t understand that plagiarism could be unintentional. QQI then announced a statutory investigation into how postgraduate research awards are made at IT Tralee.
The thesis at the centre of the whole controversy was removed from the shelves of library in IT Tralee after the initial QQI investigation into the plagiarism allegation was launched – although it is still available from Clare County Library. Before that, it was scrutinised in detail by the 26 lecturers who identified the plagiarism.
One of that number, Martin O’Grady, cofounder of the Network for Irish Educational Standards, has completed a thorough review of the thesis. He reveals that the question of plagiarism is only one of the apparent deficiencies inherent in the thesis. In this post we give a summary of that review. The full review can be downloaded by clicking here.
The thesis is entitled “Cabhair is Cairde is Graiste O Dhia Chugainn: A study of the Saiocht of a Parish in Co Clare.” Problems commence with the title which misleadingly suggests through the use of Irish that the thesis has some relevance to the Irish language.
In fact, it has nothing at all to do with Irish but what it is intended to be about proves very difficult to discover. “Saiocht” is never explained or defined in the thesis and, therefore, it is left to the reader to guess what exactly the study is about. Indeed, it would seem that the writer was very far from clear as to what exactly he was writing about.
There are several contradictory attempts in the thesis to explain in general terms what its objective is. They range from suggestions that it is a general history of the parish, that it is an account of the history and folklore of the parish, or an attempt to show how certain traits of the people in the parish enabled them to overcome adversity down the ages.
Ultimately, the most accurate statement made by the author is that the dissertation is an attempt “to leave to posterity all I have discovered about our place and people.” The subject of the work, it would seem, is inclusive and delimited only by the subjective interests and knowledge of the author, in so far as they apply to his parish.
The full review includes a detailed account of the contents of each chapter, seven in all. Scanning the chapter titles, it is difficult to discern any coherent theme. With respect to the parish of Inagh and Kilnamona, they address history, religion, customs, heroic parochial figures, communal spirit and “decline.” No purpose or intent seems to bind the material together, a conclusion that is fortified by a scrutiny of the themes addressed in each chapter.
Chapter contents are remarkably selective and eclectic. The thesis ignores entirely the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but includes a detailed account of a biological fisheries survey of a local river and information on the current owners of a ‘big house’ which exists in the parish.
A chapter on social history in the twentieth century omits all reference to the fight for independence, the civil war and the foundation of the Irish political parties. Included instead are details of the accommodation afforded the Gardai in the parish and extensive accounts of the parish schools, their management and staffing.
As much attention is focused on the sanitary services available to the Gardai as to the issue of crime in the parish which is addressed in a single 11 line paragraph giving an unreferenced and unsubstantiated description.
The chapter on religion is similarly selective with an extensive listing of priests who served in the parish, together with sections devoted to blessed wells, Marian shrines, a 1954 pilgrimage to Lourdes and the funeral of a priest who originated in the parish but served and died in Australia. Absent is any consideration of how the dominance and subsequent decline in the power of the Catholic Church between the end of the nineteenth and the end of the twentieth centuries played out in the parish and in the lives of its people.
There is a very peculiar chapter devoted to local heroes which states: “This chapter deals entirely with the history of some members of the Barry family…” Why all local heroic figures should be bearers of the same name is unclear though, ironically, it seems that having given accounts of a strangely varied and, in some cases, questionably heroic Barry members, the author decides to supplement the list with members of the O’Connell clan as well, seemingly forgetting his intention of limiting heroism exclusively to the name Barry.
The sense of amnesia regarding intent is even more evident in a chapter which purports to deal with the decline of the parish. The theme of decline, specifically of population, is carried only 3 pages into a twenty one page chapter. The remainder is devoted to progress. The chapter would more appropriately have been entitled, “A Personal Commentary on the Wealth and Progress of a Rural Parish.”
Failure of Attribution
While it is clear that the dissertation, in so far as contents are concerned, does not conform to any overarching design or purpose, a sine qua non of an academic work, there is an overall failure to adhere to normal standards of scholastic methodology. Extensive tracts, amounting to many dozens of pages are verbatim copies from previously published sources with nothing in the text to indicate that this is the case. Much of the remainder of the material is entirely unreferenced, rendering it impossible to appraise its veracity.
Where there are attempts at referencing, they are in the form of footnotes, many of which appear in the transcribed sections, notes which may or may not have appeared in the original sources. No standard or recognised style of referencing is adhered to, with the same source described in numerous ways in different footnotes.
Apart from the transcribed sections, the style of writing is that of story telling – personal and opinionated, bearing little relationship to the objective and impersonal style required in academic works. In places the writing demonstrates a remarkable lack of scholarship. The following two sentences from the chapter on decline illustrate this point:
When one looks back at our history and studies the various periods when it looked as if we would succumb to Tuatha de Danaan, Fomorians, Milesians, local tribes or Kings, Danes, Normans or English, it is an amazingly rich history of resilience and pride. Invaders failed to suppress us, the Great Famine, the Black Plague, wave after wave of disease, Including T.B., cancer, polio all proved one thing and that is that a struggling people always have an ambition in life (p. 261)
Higher Edcuation (sic)
Overall, the dissertation is redolent of haste and opportunism. Material is included because it is available to the author with a disregard for its relevance or purpose. Sources are transcribed instead of being analysed, selectively drawn on and referenced. Consequently, it does not come as a shock that the dissertation was submitted without any meaningful proofreading or editing. It is littered with spelling, typographical and grammatical errors. Even on the title page, the word “education” is misspelt as “edcuation“.
In their report, the committee of three external academics entrusted by QQI with the task of adjudicating on the plagiarism allegations noted that “ It is unclear to the Panel why the Thesis was submitted to the External Examiners when it was clearly not in compliance with Institute requirements.” They also made the important point that, as it was not part of their terms of reference, they made no “assessment in relation to the subject matter of the Thesis.” The investigation, adjudication and appeal process undertaken by QQI and IT Tralee dealt only with the question of alleged plagiarism and at no time considered the overall academic standard of the dissertation.
The question remains, then, as to how such a dissertation could be presented for award and, more crucially, does it merit the award?
Was it appropriate for the serving Chairman of a Governing Body to be allowed to become a student in the Institute over which he was entrusted by the Minister with a specific statutory duty to exert oversight?
What was the selection process for the thesis supervisor and the external examiners? What responsibility rests with a supervisor to ensure that a dissertation, which is presented for award, meets, at least, some minimal standards of scholarship?
Is an MA award appropriate if a dissertation is apparently deficient in scholarship? Is there an issue about the standard of dissertations throughout higher education in Ireland for which postgraduate awards have been made?
QQI, in pursuing its investigation at IT Tralee, must satisfactorily those questions. It must get to the bottom of what went wrong in this case and it must make its findings public. It must restore confidence by making public the steps that have been taken to ensure that nothing of this nature can ever happen again.
As Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) prepares to launch into its first ever statutory investigation of postgraduate awards at a third level institution, the stakes are high on all sides. Not only does the Institute of Technology Tralee now lie under threat of the removal of its right to confer postgraduate awards after the Flan Garvey plagiarism scandal, but the Institute of Technology sector as a whole has a lot to lose in its pursuit of the much-hyped ‘technological university’ status.
The credibility of QQI, newly responsible for standards in Irish Universities, is also on the line. Having messed it up at the first outing (by allowing an internal appeal of an external panel judgement), the University sector will be watching closely to see if they can make a better fist of it this time.
In this post, we ask the question: how on earth did this come about and what is the likely outcome? In this follow-up post we will look in detail at the cause of all of the chaos: Flan Garvey’s Masters dissertation.
The Flan Garvey Plagiarism Case
In December 2012 the national press reported that the chairman of the governing body of IT Tralee had been accused by 26 academic staff of plagiarism in his dissertation, for which he was awarded a masters degree in 2008. The irrefutable substance of the allegation was dozens and dozens of near-verbatim pages of uncited or improperly cited works from a variety of sources.
To make matters worse, Garvey as chairman of the governing body would in theory sit on his own plagiarism investigation committee. The request of the academic staff was that QQI, as accrediting body for the award, be given the evidence and be left to deal with the issue. While the media made hay about the hefty expenses Garvey ran up as chairman and the fact that he had claimed his own student fees as expenses from Clare County Council (he was a Fianna Fail councillor at the time), IT Tralee and QQI grappled with how to deal with the exploding crisis.
The Goldsmith Committee
The result was a bizarre set-up whereby QQI chose the members of an external investigative panel, yet left the option open for a subsequent internal appeal of the findings of the external panel. The external panel of experts, in a considered 24 page report, found that numerous tracts of Garveys’s thesis were near-verbatim copies of insufficiently acknowledged or misleadingly cited primary or secondary sources. They concluded that his degree was obtained in a manner that was “unjustified” – code word for QQI to revoke the award.
This decision was then overturned by the internally appointed committee, which argued that the plagiarism was “unintentional” and that the student handbook didn’t specifically prohibit this “type” of plagiarism. The internally appointed committee, chaired by former DIT President Dr Brendan Goldsmith, came up with the equally bizarre solution that Garvey be allowed to amend his dissertation to fix the plagiarised sections – now termed “deficiencies“.
The implication of this, was that Flan Garvey, who for a decade had sat at the head of the Governing Body of a third level Institute, had overseen its policies with regard to academic standards and had sat on disciplinary committees dealing with such issues, was now to be exonerated because he actually didn’t know what plagiarism was.
The Crisis Broadens
Following these disgraceful shenanigans two national enquiries were quickly announced – the HEA to investigate the exorbitant expenses to members of governing bodies in the IoT sector and QQI to investigate the provision of postgraduate awards at IT Tralee. While the latter is in train, Tralee has been prohibited from adding new postgraduate students to its books – a severe limitation to its functioning.
Despite the adverse publicity and the two inquiries, Flan Garvey publicly announced himself vindicated and broadcast his intention to return to the helm of the Institute. Moreover, he announced that he planned to pursue a PhD in his own Institute.
In an extraordinary radio interview Garvey questioned the right of scholars to study dissertations four years after their award, as well as making public for the first time the names of the thesis supervisor and the external examiners. At the same time, academic staff were subjected to threats of disciplinary proceedings over information that was appearing in the media.
However, official support for Garvey waned within IT Tralee. The branch of the Teachers’ Union at the Institute called on him to resign and the Minister for Education grumbled about people looking to their positions. Finally, on May 29th, Garvey succumbed to the public pressure and announced his retirement.
Quality Systems Failure
The questions remain: how did a dissertation of such obviously poor quality make its way through the IT Tralee system? Were the procedures adequate? Were the procedures followed?
Tralee has typical IoT procedures for such awards – procedures that are signed off by QQI as adequate after its periodic Institutional Review. The last such review in 2009 gave the Institute a clean bill of health.
Did a postgraduate committee discuss the dissertation before it was sent to the external examiners? Was the plagiarism and poor quality flagged? If not, why not? Who chose the external examiners? Were they appropriate? These are the questions that the QQI panel needs to focus on.
The Governance Question
One aspect of this affair which the panel will have to consider is the extraordinary web of potential conflict of interest that Garvey introduced by being both student and Governing Body Chair. While no statute prohibits it, common-sense and prudence should have prevailed.
Once admitted, the potential for conflicts abounded. The student could be chairing interview committees for potential promotion of the supervisor, of the Heads of Department, of the Heads of School – indeed for the President himself. What possible procedures could safeguard academic standards in such a scenario?
How the QQI panel is likely to view all of this is as yet unknown. The terms of reference clearly state that the the “events and outcomes” of the Garvey case have triggered the review and it would be remiss of the panel if they ignore the circumstances of the debacle. Moreover, this review of the “operation and management” of the quality assurance procedures cannot be carried out rigorously without careful consideration of what went wrong. Anything less will simply be a whitewash.
The current situation where Garvey’s thesis is an acceptable level of scholarship sets a new low for QQI and the IoT sector. In a follow-up post we discuss this.
Plagiarism is a uniquely academic crime. The act of passing off the work of others as one’s own, no matter how deliberate, is not a criminal offence per se, but rather a moral crime. And yet, since the evidence of the crime, consisting simply of written documents to be compared, is itself the crime, plagiarism is an offence that is also uniquely prosecutable.
The subject has found its way into the news lately for a variety of reasons. German politicians, including most recently the Education Minister, have lost their positions because of plagiarism. A high profile American journalist has quit because of self-plagiarism (amongst other things). Even TV commentators are blaming their researchers for similar activities.
Meanwhile, the massive free online course provider Coursera has been forced to respond to dozens of cases. And, of course, there is the peculiarly Irish scandal of Flan Garvey the Chairman of the Governing Body of IT Tralee plagiarising at his own institution.
This last case has roiled the Institute of Technology sector, triggering the first ever statutory review under section 46 of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Educational and Training) Act 2012 and bringing the issue of educational standards into focus. With IoT’s falling over themselves trying to gain Technological University status and Quality & Qualifications Ireland set to take over quality assurance functions at Irish universities, the outcome of this review has consequences far beyond Tralee.
Given the serious implications for Irish education, this is the first of a series of posts on plagiarism in which a full account of what has recently transpired will be given. In this post we look at the issue of plagiarism more generally and how technology is making it easier both to plagiarise and to get caught. In a follow-up post we will look in detail at the Tralee scandal and the crucial juncture at which it now stands.
The term “plagiarism” was coined by the first century Greek poet Martialius, who in anger over another poet, Fidentinus, publishing his poems under his own name, accused him of plagiarium, the kidnapping of children. The poems were the children of his mind and they had been kidnapped by Fidentinus.
In retaliation, Martialis exposed the deceit in a series of “quips” including the following, what must be one of the earliest copyright assertions:
Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.
Nowadays, plagiarism in academia can be defined as the failure of authors to distinguish between their voices and that of others. The threat that plagiarism poses to scholarship is multi-faceted. Aside from injustice, it generates a reluctance of scholars to publish and ultimately undermines a crucial collective aspect of academia.
For these reasons, plagiarism is treated rather severely. A dissertation can be poorly written, the main premise can be entirely mistaken, the conclusions nonsensical, but it had better not contain the uncited work of others.
The intent of the author is irrelevent – inadequate citation is enough to render a work plagiarised – in some cases with a threshold of only 5% similarity. As a safeguard, systems of citation have evolved and, while they may vary somewhat from field to field, there is a common notion of scholarship to which all are expected to adhere.
Copy, shake and paste
There are different types and degrees of plagiarism. The simplest type is cut and paste, available at the stroke of two computer keys. The laziest of all deceits, this is probably the most common form of plagiarism, and also the easiest to detect.
Next in sophistication is the copy, shake and paste, where the text is subjected to some rearrangement before replication. This can introduce jumps in the narrative, inversion of temporal relations and logical non-sequeters that may identify the plagiarism even in the absense of known sources.
Further along is structural plagiarism in which ideas, arguments or constructs are paraphrased without citation. This is harder to detect and is often at the centre of disputes over precedence. Self-plagiarism, where one recycles previous work of ones own, is a particular no-no for journalists, and has recently cost an-up-and-coming journalist his position in the New Yorker magazine.
Given the spectrum of behaviour, how does one decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable? Moreover, how can individuals and institutions check for plagiarism in the mass of undergraduate and graduate documents submitted every semester?
Plagiarism and Technology
Technology enters on both sides of the issue as both an enabler and a preventative against plagiarism. On the one hand, everyone knows the two fingered salute to copyright (ctrl-c ctrl-v) and on the other there are numerous commercially available packages that claim to identify plagiarism in submitted work.
These packages are becoming embedded in many institutions’ quality assurance systems and are therefore deserving of careful scrutiny. No doubt they have a role, but the danger is that they may be taken as a cure-all for a complex problem. This may well suit both lazy gatekeepers and companies poised to make considerable money on a new market, but a sceptical view of this technology must be adopted by academics.
For example, questions have to be asked as to whether the software has been independently tested for reliability. A recent test carried out on the most popular plagiarism detection software packages showed that none were particularly good.
Simple tricks such as including text as JPEGs entirely throws most software and what happens if the software gets hacked? Given the times we live in, as soon as a weakness is found, there will be a step-by-step youtube tutorial available explaining it to even the dimmest.
The fact is that such software has little value as a deterent and has even led to students suing testing companies over copyright. For these and a host of other reasons, institutions must tread with caution. Software can be, at most, a part of the solution to plagiarism.
Enter the Plagiarism Hunters
A new dimension to plagiarism detection exploded onto the academic world in 2011 with the establishment of a collaborative website dedicated to exposing plagiarism in doctoral theses of German politicians. The site, now incarnated as the VroniPlag Wiki, allows anonymous investigators to post the results of their analysis of theses, colour-coding each page of the dissertation by the degree of plagiarism detected – black for some plagiarism, dark red for at least 50% plagiarised and bright red for more than 75% plagiarised.
Within a matter of months, a number of high profile politicans had resigned as Universities across Germany were forced to investigate and ultimately revoke their awards. The German Defence Minister was the first forced out, as was the Education Minister a few years later.
Claims by the Education Minister that different styles of citation held in her field at the time of her dissertation (30 years previously) were met with howls of derision from the German press, with one joking that Universities should therefore set up new Departments of the History of Citation Culture. Currently the Bundestag President is under investiagtion after anonymous online claims that his 1975 dissertation was plagiarised.
To date the band of academic-plagiarism sleuths has considered 39 dissertations, most of which have led to the withdrawel of the award, causing huge angst at the political/academic intersection. A recent effort by German university heads to stem the damage being done by the public exposure of plagiarism has led to further controversy.
The proposed measures demand that allegations of plagiarism must be made and investigated in secrecy, with those making a case public being guilty of “violating good academic practice.” These efforts to shut down plagiarism hunting websites have been opposed across a broad cross-section of Gertman academics, with over 600 signing a petition against the moves.
Not Just a German Problem
A recent New York Times article on the prevalence of plagiarism in German dissertations has linked it to their national obsession with titles and the unhealthy appetite of politicians for doctoral degrees. However, with both the Hungarian President Pál Schmitt’s and the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta embroiled in similar scandals, plagiarising politicians is clearly not just a German problem.
Certainly, in Ireland we have had Leaving Certificate students denied a grade for plagiarism and claims that plagiarism is rampant at undergraduate level. The case in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology of the student using model answers in an examination has rumbled on for years, racking up an incredible investigation bill of €250,000.
And then we have the Flan Garvey case. While the controversy is still ongoing, with QQI announcing a review of IT Tralee’s power to award research degrees, in the next post we will explore the case and its broader implications. A subsequent post looks in detail at the dissertation at the centre of the controversy and the bar it now sets for Masters degrees in the Institutes of Technology.
In Irish universities, males get more firsts, females get more seconds and everyone gets more of both
New Report on University Grades
A new report by Martin O’Grady of the Network for Irish Educational Standards shows that while grade inflation is showing clear signs of slowing down, it has, nevertheless, continued in the university sector up to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. In searching for possible explanations for differences in the percentages of firsts and upper seconds across the seven universities, interesting findings have been unearthed in relation to gender differences, the relevance or non-relevance of mature students and differences between universities in size and emphasis on postgraduate study.
Firsts Hit a Plateau but Upper Seconds Continue to Climb
The report updates the previous analysis, by O’Grady and Guilfoyle (2007), of the 1994-2004 figures, adding in those for 2005-2009. A glance at Figure 1 taken from the report shows that something interesting did seem to happen after 2005. Having peaked at 17.5% in that year, following many years of growth, the percentage of firsts in the combined universities showed a dip the following year and stayed level thereafter, at least up to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.
Interestingly, this pattern was replicated to some extent in each one of the seven universities. In NUIM and DCU there was a marked and continuing decline in firsts after 2005. In UCD there was a sharp decline in 2006 but followed by an equally sharp recovery in 2007 and then a levelling off up to 2009. TCD’s rate levelled off after 2005 but showed signs of a pick up again in 2008 and 2009. At UCC, NUIG and UL, the rates of firsts largely levelled off after 2005 up to 2009.
Are there signs that the universities may finally be getting grade inflation under control? An examination of the upper second figures, however, suggests that this would be a premature conclusion.
As evident in Figure 1, the pattern in upper seconds is different to that of firsts. While there was a clear levelling off in 2006 and 2007, the two highest rates ever for upper seconds occurred in 2008 and 2009. The percentage of upper seconds across the seven universities, which stood at 28.8% in 1994, reached 47.6% in 2009, a figure exceeded only in 2008 at 48.4%. In 1994, 7.2% of university graduates obtained a first class award. The comparable figure in 2009 was 16.4%, down from a peak of 17.5% in 2005.
An analysis of Institute of Technology grades in 2011 compared the average of grades awarded in the final two years of the previous 1994-2004 analysis with the average of the most recent two years for which figures were available, 2008 and 2009 and a similar comparsion using the aggregate university grades. Averaging figures from successive years in this way mitigates the impact of random year to year fluctuations in the figures. Because the HEA had never published the university figures for 2003, the figures for 2002 were used instead, including those for 2005 to balance off the downward pull on the average induced by the 2002 figures. Remember that the percentages of firsts and upper seconds had been increasing year on year.
Across the universities, the average rate of firsts for 2008 and 2009 was 11.4% higher than the average for 2002, 2004 and 2005. A similar comparison for upper seconds found a 13.9% increase. Not quite as much growth as in the Institutes of Technology, where firsts and upper seconds increased in a similar period by 15.7% and 17.5% respectively, but substantial, nonetheless. Definitely too soon to herald the end of grade inflation in the universities.
Of course, better grades might be expected if better students were getting into the universities. The opposite however is the case. On the basis that the most common duration of an undergraduate degree is four years, O’Grady compared CAO points four years in advance for the two graduate groups described above. Comparing all CAO applicants in 1998, 2000 and 2001 with those in 1994 and 1995, 28.8% of the latter had points of 400 or more as compared with 26.4% of the former. The proportion with 500 or more points had also increased from 6.7% to 8%.
This follows a pattern of inflation in Leaving Certificate grades dating back at least to the early nineties. It may be taken therefore that better grades became easier to get over the period under examination. Despite that, there was a general decline over the same period in the minimum points necessary to gain entry to undergraduate courses in the universities.The biggest change between the 1998/2000/2001 and the 2004/2005 figures was the increase from 39% to 49% of university courses which could be entered with points below 400. An additional 3% of courses requiring over 500 points did not come near to counter-balancing the decline in points’ requirements overall.
On average, university courses became easier to access. Nevertheless, entrants with weaker points’ profiles graduated with superior grades. When the rate of firsts and upper seconds should have been in decline, they were instead in the ascendant. This is the typical grade inflationary pattern.Overall then, it would seem fair to say that while the universities have shown some definite signs of grappling with the grade inflation issue, their report cards should state: ‘Signs of going in the right direction but a great deal of ground to be made up; must work harder to reassert standards.’
Any examination process infected with the grade inflation virus is counting down its days if the requisite prophylaxis is not administered in time. Grades cannot rise indefinitely without eventually undermining the credibility and utility of the whole endeavour.
However, it takes time and, as with other self-sustaining dynamics such as witnessed here in the property boom, everyone can blithely continue on as if tomorrow will never come.
Come it will, and come it has for the GCSE examination in England and Wales. It is the first fatality of the grade inflation epidemic which has for years been raging through these isles and beyond.
In the previous post, Stifling Discovery: Science Foundation Ireland’s New Mission and the Jobs Myth, we examined the recent policy shift at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that has led to the prioritisation of research commercialisation. From now on, research will only be funded where it can be claimed from the outset that it will make a profit and create jobs. Basic scientific research and discovery will be marginalised and the previous post discussed the perils of this policy. The international evidence also suggests that even the purported economic gains from commercialisation are dubious and that wild claims about job creation are a fantasy of hapless government ministers.
This post examines Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by SFI’s newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson. He was appointed on the back of his commercialisation experience at Renovo. One would expect that Renovo is a model for successful commercialisation but in fact it is a remarkable case study about a resounding failure to commercialise academic research.
Renovo attempted to commercialise the scientific research that Ferguson had carried out at the University of Manchester. It grew rapidly from a small private company in 2000 to a publicly traded company with over 200 staff, claiming possession of “the most advanced regenerative medicine in the world”. It received large sums of money, including £63 million of investors’ money, £58 million of investment from the pharmaceutical company Shire, along with £16.5 million of British tax-payers money in the form of grants and research tax credits.
However, all of the drug products ultimately failed their clinical tests and none were commercialised. In 2011, the scientific research was terminated and all of the employees were laid off. The investors were wiped and the company was delisted from the main stock market.
Despite this, the company directors received very substantial rewards over the five years that it operated as a listed company. Mark Ferguson received £3.6 million including a golden handshake of £700,000 from the derelict company. His wife Sharon O’Kane, the Chief Scientific Officer up to 2010, received over £1.6 million. In addition, between them they netted £9.4 million by exercising a director’s option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.
The Renovo case provides a unique insight into the nexus between financial markets and research science, the concomitant pressure for short term results and the disastrous consequences. It raises serious questions for Science Foundation Ireland, both in terms of its massive drive to pour money into commercialising research and its selection of a Director General to implement this policy.