Towson professor investigated over allegations of plagiarism

Benjamin A. Neil says missteps are result of sourcing discrepancies, resigns as chair of city schools ethics panel

  • Towson University professor Benjamin A. Neil is being investigated over allegations of plagiarism. He resigned his post on the city school ethics board.
Towson University professor Benjamin A. Neil is being investigated… (Baltimore Sun Staff 2003 )
March 28, 2013|By Erica L. Green and Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

A longtime Towson University professor has resigned his post as the head of the city school system's ethics panel amid allegations that his published academic articles contain content from dozens of sources without proper — or in some cases any — attribution.

University officials and journal publishers say they are reviewing several articles submitted by Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs professor, after a librarian at another university alerted them to the issue.

A Baltimore Sun review of five papers published by Neil shows passages with identical language and others with close similarities to scholarly journals, news publications, congressional testimony, blogs and websites. In many cases, there was no attribution.

Neil, who has taught at Towson for more than 20 years, says he properly attributed work from other authors.

"I don't think I've done anything wrong," said Neil, 62. "The issue seems to be that I didn't put things in quotes. But I've given attribution to people."

Experts say the line between plagiarism and citation errors can be blurry. Neil's lawyer, Michael P. May, noted that in some instances, the professor credited sources in notations, footnotes and a bibliography.

May said Thursday that Neil resigned as chair of the ethics panel, a post he has held since July, "not because he feels that he is vulnerable to the accusations, but because it would be a distraction." Neil Duke, president of the city school board, which appointed Neil, confirmed the resignation.

The city school ethics panel investigates complaints and renders opinions about employee activities, such as those that could pose conflicts of interest.

May said the passages in question appear to be "inadvertence at worst," and that Neil will cooperate with an investigation launched by Towson's provost.

Meanwhile, some of his colleagues across the country and authors of the original material who were contacted by The Sun criticized what they called "lazy plagiarism" and a breach of academic integrity. Experts say the incident highlights the pressures that professors feel to publish.

"It's completely unacceptable conduct, particularly for a professor," said Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly initiatives librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver who contacted Towson officials and journals about the alleged plagiarism.

Beall, who runs a publishing watchdog blog called "Scholarly Open Access," began researching Neil last month after finding uncited sources in Neil's paper "Eminent Domain: In Theory — It Makes Good Cents." Beall's blog addresses issues such as proper attribution in scholarly papers.

The Florida-based Academic and Business Research Institute, which published that paper in its Journal of Academic and Business Ethics last year, has "removed [the manuscript] from [online] publication pending additional review," according to a notation on the website. Russell Baker, executive director of the institute, declined to discuss why the paper was withdrawn.

Beall, who specializes in scrutinizing journals that charge author fees, said online searches turned up dozens of uncited or improperly attributed passages in Neil's work. Beall said the decision to publicly air the allegations was not taken lightly and that the evidence spoke for itself.

For example, in "Is a Reverse Mortgage a Viable Option for Baby Boomers?" Neil wrote, "Since the sub-prime loan sector is shut down, the mortgage industry is looking for new products to sell, products with less risk and with a broad appeal. With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement, the industry will find the perfect product in the reverse mortgage."

Don "Toby" Tobin, a Florida-based real estate agent and blogger, wrote the same paragraph, word for word, more than a year earlier on his blog, Tobin received no attribution in Neil's paper.

Tobin said Neil used his intellectual property without permission. Receiving credit for his work in subsequent publications enhances his reputation, Tobin said, which in turn brings more people to his site and helps him earn money.

Plagiarism isn't victimless, he said.

More than two years after Robert C. Bird wrote "Reviving Necessity in Eminent Domain" for the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, a nearly identical paragraph appeared in Neil's paper on the same subject, "Eminent Domain: In Theory — It Makes Good Cents."

Neil did not credit Bird or the Harvard publication for the passage.

Neil says that the issue is a matter of "style and formatting" in his articles, which date as far back as 2008 and span topics such as school safety, military operations and reverse mortgages.

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