Plagiarism records released: English prof. investigated for misconduct

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

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In September 2016, the UW Oshkosh department of English received information from an anonymous whistleblower that would cascade into a university investigation and a legal battle to keep records of the investigation sealed.

The Advance-Titan obtained records pertaining to the investigation as well as court documents from the battle to keep those records sealed.

The whistleblower complaint alleged that seven of Associate Professor of English Christine Roth’s published works from 2003 to 2016 and two websites intended for student use exhibited a “pattern of plagiarism.”

Roberta Maguire, who was chair of the English department at the time, sent the complaint to former Dean of the College of Letters and Science John Koker on Sept. 26, 2016.

Koker asked former Associate Vice Chancellor of Faculty and Academic Staff Affairs Jennifer Watson to review the complaint. Watson’s preliminary review found enough overlap between Roth’s wording and other published works to warrant a formal investigation.

“I am compelled to submit this formal complaint against Professor Roth on the basis that academic misconduct adversely affects the faculty member’s performance of her obligation to the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh,” Koker wrote in his Oct. 18, 2016 complaint.

Chancellor Andrew Leavitt received the complaint and sent a memo to former-Provost Lane Earns on Oct. 20, 2016, asking him to help coordinate a detailed review of the complaint. The same day, Roth was informed of the review.

Roth emailed Leavitt the next day and said the problem in one of the texts was due to a “copy editing” issue and that another writing was for an encyclopedia entry and not a peer-reviewed essay and therefore did not count toward tenure.

Her email added that the websites were intended only for in-class use and that her students were “well aware” of the sources.

“The complaint culls from my substantial record of original scholarship every bibliographical glitch possible,” Roth said in a written statement to faculty investigators.
The same day, Earns requested professors Stephen Kercher and Elizabeth Wade-Sirabian serve as faculty investigators.

Investigative review begins
The investigators reviewed the seven published works and the two websites, along with the unattributed source texts with the overlapping text marked by red boxes.

They received written statements from Roth, her colleagues in the department of English and publishers. The investigators also conducted oral interviews with Roth and multiple English professors. Each of the works were examined and submitted to the investigative report on Nov. 25, 2016.

The first document examined was Roth’s introduction to “The Two Paths” by John Ruskin, which was published in 2004. Investigators wrote that 11 of the introduction’s 12 pages contained “glaring and occasionally stunning instances of plagiarism.”

The investigators note that in their interview with Roth on Nov. 17, 2016 she was “mortified” by the instances of plagiarism and attributed them to her graduate assistant.

Roth told investigators that during her first years at UWO she was working on multiple projects at once and that much of the introduction came from her notes that had been transcribed by her assistant.
“My assistant had transferred — with neither quotation marks nor, in some cases, any attribution whatsoever — many of the notes I had taken directly from the source texts as if they had been my personal notes about the texts,” Roth’s written statement to investigators said.

Roth’s colleagues Jeanie Grant Moore and Noelle Baker supported Roth’s assertion that the graduate assistant had “sloppy work habits,” the investigative report said.

Moore’s Nov. 10, 2016 written statement to investigators said she was responsible for assigning graduate research assistants, and that the student in question produced work that was “slipshod at best.”

Baker’s Nov. 13, 2016 written statement said the student’s work was unsatisfactory. In subsequent emails, she told investigators the student “did not plagiarize while working for me.”

The investigators questioned why, if Roth so distrusted the graduate student, she wasn’t more careful in her use of the notes.

“The idea that Dr. Roth was unable to distinguish between words taken from a source text … from ‘personal notes about’ a text … and therefore unwittingly incorporated source text into the introduction stretches credulity,” the investigative report read.

The “transcription problems” attributed to a graduate assistant made investigators wonder if Roth was sloppy before starting at UWO. They downloaded Roth’s 2001 dissertation and entered a phrase into Google Books and found a strikingly similar sentence.

“This lack of attribution, going back as it does to her doctoral candidacy cannot be ascribed to a transcription error by a graduate assistant working for Dr. Roth at UW Oshkosh in 2002-2003,” the investigative report said.

However, investigators found that Roth’s post-2003 published work did not raise the same plagiarism concerns as her introduction to “The Two Paths” did.

In terms of plagiarism on two of her websites, investigators noted that pre-D2L websites were meant solely for classroom use and were not meant for the general public.

“Should Dr. Roth have made it clear to her students that the websites were substantially derived from the work of other scholars? Absolutely,” the investigative report said. “Although Dr. Roth may have explained the provenance of the websites’ text to students in class, best practice should still have motivated her to deploy quotation marks, footnotes and a brief bibliography.”

Investigators interviewed English professors Paul Klemp and Marguerite Helmers, who both concluded that Roth had “committed plagiarism, exercised bad judgment, engaged in sloppy work” early in her career, and that her more recent work is not subject to the same problems.

Klemp and Helmers also revealed friction within the English department to the investigators. Klemp read a complaint issued against Roth by another faculty member within the department questioning whether Roth was fit to be the director of the department’s graduate program.

Helmers gave investigators additional insight into other instances of conflict within the department.

“After learning more about patterns of hostility and factionalism within the department of English, the idea that Anonymous ‘stumbled upon’ a ‘pattern of plagiarism’ before Roth went up for promotion to professor now strikes us as somewhat fanciful,” the report said.

Klemp also raised concerns about how the complaint was submitted, questioning whether colleagues holding grudges might submit anonymous complaints to intimidate those they disagree with.

“If colleagues working throughout the institution expect each other to adhere to standards of academic honesty, should we not encourage a culture of honesty and transparency in all manners of professional conduct?” the report asked.

Roberta Maguire said in an interview that it doesn’t matter who identified the plagiarism and submitted the information to the English department.

“The focus on the identity of the anonymous source of the material that led to Dean Koker’s complaint has been a smokescreen, an effort to distract from the wrongdoing at issue and not unlike what we see on much larger scale currently with regard to the Ukraine whistleblower, who President Trump says he wants revealed,” she said.

Despite concerns about how the complaint was lodged, investigators concluded that they were troubled by the amount of plagiarism in Roth’s introduction to “The Two Paths.”

“While it is possible, given the limited evidence at our disposal and testimony provided by Dr. Roth, that the long strings of unattributed quotes that mar her introduction to ‘The Two Paths’ ought to be blamed on the sloppy work of a graduate assistant, we find it implausible,” the report concluded.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Roth agreed to a settlement with UWO, accepting a reduction in rank and salary from associate professor to assistant professor.

Battle to keep records sealed
A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal submitted a request for public records pertaining to the university’s investigation into the allegations of plagiarism against Roth on Oct. 9, 2018.

UWO Records Custodian Kathleen McQuillan informed Roth that the university was going to release records to the reporter, and Roth’s lawyer, Peter Culp, filed a complaint in Winnebago Circuit Court on Nov. 26, 2018 to block the release of the records. Culp argued the release of the records could cause substantial damage to Roth’s reputation and lead to a loss of morale among public employees.

In an affidavit, filed in Winnebago Circuit Court on March 22, 2016, Roth said Roberta Maguire made friends and enemies with her management style during her tenure as English department chair. Roth alleged another faculty member had similar research interests and that Roberta Maguire attempted to discredit Roth.

“It is believed that [Roberta Maguire and the other faculty member] were the authors of, or contributed to, an anonymous complaint and the other records that are being sought and restrained in this action,” Roth said.

Roberta Maguire said she did not have a hand in the whistleblower complaint and that her only involvement was in an official capacity as department chair.

“To receive such material that suggested the possibility of substantial plagiarism was something that [was] above my pay grade to deal with,” she said. “So what I did was bring it to my supervisor John Koker.”
It was Koker’s decision to file a formal complaint so that there would be an investigation, Roberta Maguire said.

“Once I was no longer chair it was not my responsibility,” she said. “It was not my problem. It was nothing that I had anything to do with.”

Roth’s affidavit also implied that journalism professor Miles Maguire assisted the State Journal reporter in requesting the records.
Miles Maguire denies assisting the reporter in any way.

Miles and Roberta Maguire, who are married, filed a motion to intervene on April 29, 2019, which said Roth had made untrue statements about their involvement in the investigation and that Roberta Maguire’s only role was to send information to her supervisor.

“Her March filings appear to be only the most recent manifestation of her campaign of revenge and retaliation against the Maguires and against her department, which has led to an environment of dysfunction and to the departure of several members of the department,” the motion said. “In Roth’s filings in this case, the actions of the Maguires have been falsely described and misconstrued.”
Even after everything that has happened, Roberta Maguire has no ill will toward Roth.

“I do not have a personal vendetta against Dr. Roth, despite what she has said in court filings and in other venues,” she said. “I simply wish her well.”

In an April 2, 2019 hearing, Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Key issued a ruling to release the records in a redacted form, deciding that “public interest in releasing records outweighs public interest in nondisclosure.”

An order to release the records was filed in Winnebago County Circuit Court on May 22, 2019, and on July 30, Assistant Attorney General Anne Bensky notified McQuillan that the records could be released. Roth’s tenured status was reinstated earlier this year.

Throughout the investigation process and following litigation, Roth said her students have been her main focus and that she’s been forthcoming with them about the investigation.

“I want them to understand that, even if we don’t mean to make a mistake, there may be grave consequences,” Roth said. “As there were with me.”

Roth added that her writing process has changed dramatically since early in her career, and discovering the plagiarism in her work was the worst thing that has ever happened to her.

“Both the discovery itself and the aftermath of it have been traumatic,” she said. “But I actually think the experience has made me a better teacher — a more empathetic and careful one.”