Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Charles Darwin” of intelligent design condones plagiarism at Baylor?

Last year, “intelligent design” creationist William A. Dembski, Research Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said of one of his coauthors at Baylor University, “[Student] — With pro-ID graduate students like this, Darwinian profs don't stand a chance.” Well, [the student] evidently went on to defend a master’s thesis, Studies of Active Information in Search, in the Fall semester of 2010. I downloaded it from Baylor’s document archive, and had only to read to the bottom of the first page to discover plagiarism.*

Almost half of the first chapter is copied, without citation or sign of quotation, from

[Edit 3/24: Actually, at least half is copied, as you easily can see in my markup of the text.] According to the signature page, Marks, who holds the rank of Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Baylor, served on the thesis committee. Yes, I am referring to one of the twenty most influential Christian scholars — the “Charles Darwin” of intelligent design.

Most of the thesis is copied from two published conference papers, and from an article that had been accepted for publication:

  1. [Student], William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II, Evolutionary Synthesis of Nand Logic: Dissecting a Digital Organism, 2009
  2. [Student], George Montañez, William A. Dembski, Robert J. Marks II, Efficient Per Query Information Extraction from a Hamming Oracle, 2010
  3. George Montañez, [Student], William A. Dembski, Robert J. Marks II, A Vivisection of the ev Computer Organism: Identifying Sources of Active Information, accepted August 27, 2010; published December 15, 2010
Not only are these papers not cited, but they also are not listed in the bibliography.

Chapter 2 is essentially (2), beginning with the fourth paragraph, and skipping Section II. (The first three paragraphs are in Chapter 1.) It corrects errors that I identified here at Bounded Science. More than half of the paper is mathematical analysis that is beyond most master’s students in computer science. I would guess that [the student’s] contributions were programming, data gathering and visualization, and paper preparation. If I am right, then it is inappropriate for the thesis to give the impression that [the student] did the math.

Chapter 4 is (1) with Section I eliminated, and with several small changes. It haplessly ends with “we have not explored in this paper.” (For those of you who are not scholars, I should explain that theses are not referred to as papers.)

Chapter 3 is not so simply related to its source, presumably because its author is not the lead author of (2). Almost all of its text is present in the article. But the chapter reorders passages of the article. Most notably, it moves empirical results ahead of theoretical analysis, and introduces awkward forward references to the analysis. Also, there are occasional replacements of words with synonyms, as well as deletions and insertions of short phrases. All in all, the chapter looks like the work of someone who was trying, pathetically, to make copy-and-paste pass for original writing. (Seventeen years of teaching experience are talking here.)

Chapter 5 is a double-spaced, one-page conclusion.

Some universities limit how much of a thesis may come from published work, but I can find no indication that Baylor is one of them. Yet the thesis does not state that the chapters are excerpted from published and forthcoming papers. Instead there is an appendix entitled ”Copyrights” that gives, without explanation, copyright release forms bearing the titles, but not the complete lists of authors (required by the publisher), of (1) and (2). Guess which author is missing? Yes, that would be William A. Dembski. I suspect that the forms on file with the publisher bear his name.

To get a hint that Dembski deserves credit for contributions to the thesis, you have to click the Show full item record button of the entry for the thesis in the BEARdocs system, and then figure out the meaning of the identifier.citation fields providing full citations of (1) and (2). In my opinion, burying this information in the metadata of the document retrieval system is unethical.

The copyright release forms indicate that the authors retain the right to use the published material in derivative works, “provided that the source and any IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers] copyright notice are indicated.” So the thesis perhaps does not violate the copyrights of the publisher. But there is much more to academic integrity than not breaking the law. When you draw on a source, you cite it, even if you are one of the authors. When you copy from a source, you indicate clearly what you are copying. It would have been so easy to end the introduction of the thesis with an indication that Chapter 2 is excerpted, with emendations, from (2), and that Chapter 4 is excerpted from (1). As for Chapter 3, the author should have written it from scratch, and should have cited (3) in all places where the work was not his own.

Now, should you believe that self-citation and self-quotation are optional in scholarly writing, go back to the beginning of this post. It is unethical for a thesis committee member to condone plagiarism, even if it is plagiarism of his own work. The unacknowledged use of (3) in the thesis is egregious. It is clearly wrong to draw on the work of others, and not indicate that you are doing so. (For those of you who are not scholars, I should mention that references to forthcoming publications are common.) There is no wiggle room here. If the document is authentic, then both [the student] and Marks are out-of-bounds ethically. And one really must wonder what was going on with the chairman of the thesis committee, associate professor of computer science Greg Hamerly. Was Marks the de facto chairman? Had Hamerly even bothered to read the handful of papers on active information? If he had, then he is complicit. If he had not, then his performance was shabby, to say the least.

The contact information below should come in handy for any journalist who wants to work on the story. And I encourage readers to let Baylor administrators know what a blight on the reputation of the school the thesis is. Click here now to open your default email application and address the dean of the graduate school, J. Larry Lyon. You will CC the executive vice president and provost, the dean of engineering and computer science, and the chairman of the computer science department.

Thesis author:

Thesis committee member:
Robert J. Marks II, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Engineering
(254) 710-7302

William A. Dembski, Ph.D.
Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
817-923-1921 ext.4435

J. Larry Lyon, Ph.D.
Dean of the Graduate School
Baylor University
(254) 710-3588

Elizabeth Davis, Ph.D.
Executive Vice President and Provost
Baylor University
(254) 710-7803

Benjamin S. Kelley, Ph.D., P.E.
Dean of Engineering and Computer Science
Baylor University
(254) 710-3871

Signed to approve thesis as department chairman:
Donald L. Gaitros, Ph.D.
Professor and Chairman of Computer Science
Baylor University
(254) 710-3876

Thesis committee chairperson:
Greg Hamerly, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Computer Science
Baylor University
(254) 710-6846

Thesis committee member:
[completed Ph.D. and joined Baylor in 2009]
Young-Rae Cho, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Baylor University
(254) 710-3385

* I emphasize that my remarks are contingent on the authenticity of the document residing in Baylor’s BEARdocs archive on March 19, 2011. When possible, I assess the thesis I retrieved, and not persons. I have verified that Baylor requires entry of theses into BEARdocs. A metadatum indicates that the thesis was added on January 5, 2011, which is consistent with December 2010 graduation. I contacted [the student] by email to ask if the document were the final draft of his thesis, and he responded, “I have not verified the document, but it should be the final draft.”


  1. Hi Tom,

    Have you sent this message to the EthicsPoint system at BU?

  2. "Students who have submitted plagiarized work will face the following consequences: 1. The student will be penalized in accordance with the Baylor University Honor Code. Possible sanctions include, but are not limited to, failure/grade penalty on the assignment, rewriting the assignment, failure/grade penalty on the test, and failure/grade penalty in the course. The professor is required to report all forms of academic misconduct to the Office of Academic Integrity. All matters of academic dishonesty, including student appeal, will be handled according to the University's Honor Code." - Baylor University Ethical Conduct Policies.

    I wonder if this paper was passed by turnitin.com, as required by the policy?

  3. Dear Dr. English,

    You are to be noted for your utter baseness in singling out a master's student for exercising your personal prejudice and indignation. Your target was randomly chosen, I'm sure. I don't know any details, but your purpose here is crystal clear. Thanks for making America a hard place to dissent from orthodoxy.


  4. The shorter Chase W.: "It's OK to lie if it glorifies God".

  5. @Chase:

    Plagiarism is OK if you are "dissent[ing] from orthodoxy"?

  6. I wonder if this paper was submitted to turnitin.com as required by Baylor's Ethical Conduct Policies?

    "Students who have submitted plagiarized work will face the following consequences: 1. The student will be penalized in accordance with the Baylor University Honor Code. Possible sanctions include, but are not limited to, failure/grade penalty on the assignment, rewriting the assignment, failure/grade penalty on the test, and failure/grade penalty in the course. The professor is required to report all forms of academic misconduct to the Office of Academic Integrity. All matters of academic dishonesty, including student appeal, will be handled according to the University's Honor Code." - Baylor University: Consequences of Plagiarism

  7. One clarification. For the past twenty years or so, at least in biological sciences, it has been common for theses and dissertations to be compilations of a sort, with the student's publications as chapters. So there is nothing notable about finding identical text in publications and in theses/dissertations, depending on the way the text is presented.

    But in this case, Tom seems to have documented two significant ethical lapses. First, the inclusion of the verbatim quotes is uncited and otherwise undocumented. In the example I gave, the entire chapter is clearly indicated as the text of a separate publication. Second, some of the copied text was not written by the author himself. I would call the first lapse problematic. I would call the second one very serious, and if I worked at Baylor I would initiate some kind of inquiry.

  8. Steve's point about dissertations is a good one.

    That having been said, I believe a better way to "handle" this (if this is called for) is to go through channels (hence my question about EthicsPoint). I am not very comfortable with the idea of inviting journalists to complicate the life of a newly-minted M.S. degree recipient. Worse, it is not hard to imagine that a blog post such as this may actually compromise or taint any future actions (on behalf of BU or the "defendants").

  9. What is wrong with these people? Deleting author names from forms that explicitly state ´complete list of authors´? That is obviously being untruthful. And full-blown plagiarism of a whole paper? Sheesh. Not only extremely dishonest, but incredibly stupid in this day and age. And that when they could have expected a lot of scrutiny and flak given the topic. This coming from a student adds a whole new dimension of dishonesty to the ID movement... incredible.

  10. I agree with Steve.

    It is common practice in many programs to staple together manuscripts from the peer-reviewed literature, from all stages from in preparation to published, for a thesis.

    The stapling can be done physically or electronically.

  11. Sure, my own thesis was an edited collection of papers at different stages of publication (with a golden staple). No problem at all. But adding a publication in which you are not even a co-author? That sounds pretty bizarre to me, and would require at least an explanatory note specifying your contribution. And fudging the publication data on the other chapters? Weird.

    Normally this would be just another case of - if one is charitable - making things unnecessarily difficult for yourself, and something for a uni to sort out internally. Given this originates from a movement which is all about PR, and that many ID proponents regularly dismiss a whole scientific field as being dishonest, I say: nail them as loudly as you can Tom!

  12. Thank you, Mark.

    Please recall, everyone, my indication that the real story is that Marks, the "Charles Darwin" of intelligent design, apparently permitted plagiarism of his own work. Evidently the detail I supplied about the body of the thesis was distracting.

    Again, I emphasize that my remarks are contingent on the authenticity of the document I retrieved.

  13. I have eliminated references to the student by name. Here are expurgated comments.

    Steve Matheson March 22, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    I strongly agree with Art that Tom's call for a journalistic free-for-all is inappropriate. If Tom's analysis of the [student's] thesis is accurate, then Baylor should look into it. But IMO it's not the scandal that Tom seems to think it is. Embarrassing to Baylor and especially to [the student], for sure, but not worthy of news coverage.

    Tom English March 22, 2011 at 10:04 PM


    Thanks for telling me about EthicsPoint. I filed a detailed explanation of what came from where in Chapter 1. The copying there is almost all from publications coauthored (only) by Dembski and Marks. I found more of it when I looked harder.

    I would be happy to learn that some evilutionist out there hacked the document retrieval system at Baylor, and changed the thesis on deposit for [the student].