Kansas University has publicly censured two faculty members in its K-INBRE Bioinformatics Core laboratory for scholarly misconduct related to plagiarism.
According to the censure notices, KU found that Mahesh Visvanathan, research assistant professor in the K-INBRE Bioinformatics Core Facility, plagiarized text in four scholarly works, and Gerald Lushington, director of the K-INBRE Bioinformatics Core and director of the Molecular Graphics and Modeling Laboratory, failed to take action to limit or stop the publication of the plagiarized text and failed to report the misconduct to the vice chancellor for research and graduate studies.
The K-INBRE Bioinformatics Core Facility, housed in Malott Hall, provides computational support for molecular sciences and biomedical sciences. Both of the people involved in the incident are non-tenured staff members.
Jill Jess, a university spokeswoman, said the online public censure was the only public part of the disciplinary process, and the university could not comment further.
Lushington said Visvanathan taught one course electronically at another university. Two students from that university collaborated on research done at KU, and included plagiarized material in their work. Visvanathan, he said, included the students’ material in four papers without knowing it was plagiarized. Though Visvanathan cited the students as contributing the information, the work was later found to be plagiarized, Lushington said.
Another student from KU in Lushington’s group noticed some similarities in the work to other material, Lushington said, “but unfortunately after the material was published.”
When it the issue was brought to his attention, Lushington said he was able to find only a small amount of material — “a sentence here and there” — taken from one source, and it didn’t appear to be serious. He saw some similarities, he said, but didn’t see enough to get upset about.
“Mild plagiarism does occur” every now and again, Lushington said. “It is rarely a cause for investigation or significant follow-up.”
Later, he said, it was determined that the students had stolen material from several sources in what Lushington called a “mosaic,” and he began to realize the severity of the situation.
“My specific mistake was not taking it seriously enough,” he said, and added that he hoped the case would serve as a warning to others. “It really was a fair bit worse than it looked.”
Lushington said that in the digital age, plagiarism is more and more difficult to detect.
“However, the fact that it is simultaneously getting easier for people to plagiarize, and harder for their collaborators to spot, does not excuse us from the responsibility for doing our best to detect it and prevent it from getting published,” Lushington said. “Several of us have learned hard lessons about the necessity of being very vigilant and doing our best to prevent bad text from getting distributed.”
He is now using a new software program that checks multiple sources for plagiarism, he said.
The censure notices were published in Tuesday’s edition of “KU Today,” an email newsletter distributed by the university, in its News in Brief section.
Lushington and Visvanathan are the third and fourth people to be censured by KU since December 2010. Dennis Sander, an associate professor of architecture, was publicly censured in July after an altercation involving a parking ticket, and David Guth, associate professor of journalism, was censured last December for engaging “in unprofessional, threatening, and abusive behavior towards another faculty member.”
Before those incidents, the last time the university censured a faculty member was in 1993.
Censure is the third-most-severe punishment a faculty member can receive, behind suspension and dismissal, and requires approval by the university chancellor as outlined in the university’s faculty rights code.
Though Jess said she could not comment on any further disciplinary action taken beyond the public censure, Lushington said he believed the matter was closed.