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The Chairman’s Thesis

October 15, 2013

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.

Flan Garvey

Flan Garvey

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

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.

Searching

No Information on the Great Famine or on any historical theme of the 18th and 19th centuries

Famine? 

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)

proofreading

Was the thesis properly proofread?

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?

The Questions

downloadAt every stage of this process there are questions of great importance begging for answers.

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.

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