For the past few weeks I've been trying to piece together an explanation for Verity Stob's extraordinary adventure in academia, published here on Monday. Why did the Open University set as a marked assessment for postgraduate students a plagiarized piece of garbage, then admit they hadn't really read it? Why had a prestigious peer-reviewed journal at the IEEE published it in the first place - when to anyone with a knowledge of the subject, it made no sense at all?
These were just two of the questions raised by Verity's story. However, many more arose, as I found myself being sent from pillar to post. Repeated emails and phone calls produced the response that everything was fine. The institutional operating manual was recited back to me, as if this answered all possible questions. Both institutions had clammed up - no one wanted to admit there was anything amiss. I'll shortly tell the full saga - but a minor breakthrough came on Wednesday last night.
To recap: A postgraduate course at the Open University, M885, required students to answer questions on a paper published in the IEEE's Software journal in 2004. The paper, Open Source Reuse in Commercial Firms by T R Madanmohan and Rahul De', was part of a teacher-marked assessment (TMA). Verity queried the paper - but was told to carry on as if nothing was amiss. Then, after discovering compelling evidence it was plagiarized, Verity informed the IEEE.
The current editor of the journal, Hakan Erdogmus (who took up the post in 2007, long after the original atrocity was committed), instigated a plagiarism investigation. The conclusion was that the paper drew on earlier work and failed to credit it. Yet it was deemed only a "borderline Type 4" transgression, not serious enough to withdraw the paper or flag it as a suspect work. Erdogmus remained concerned, and set off another investigation into the observation that the authors also drew on earlier work and passed it off as their own. This concluded that there was nevertheless enough material in the paper - and again, it was left intact, with no indication that concerns had been raised.
(Note: The IEEE's investigations did not examine whether the paper made any sense at all - or whether bizarre statements such as the one that "artificial intelligence" could be used to locate software components were defensible. Because these can't be made "objectively", according to the IEEE procedures, they're not made at all. The computer says no.)
Software's current editor, Hakan Erdogmus - the only person to emerge with any credit in this saga - referred our questions to the board. The chair of the plagiarism investigation failed to respond. Finally, a breakthrough.