11/13/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST

Shahid Azam, University Of Regina Professor, Investigated Over Plagiarism Allegations

A former University of Regina student has accused his professor of plagiarizing from his master's thesis in an article the professor published in an academic journal. 

The publisher of Environmental Geotechnics investigated the allegation against Prof. Shahid Azam earlier this year and, in a letter it wrote to the U of R, stated it had "decided to withdraw the paper" after concluding Azam "had not fully credited Arjun Paul's thesis."

The web page where the article was featured now simply says, "This paper is no longer available due to copyright issues." 

The journal also said "Azam is not banned from future submissions." 

In an email to CBC News, the journal said, "This case fell into a grey area of not being a break of copyright or direct plagiarism but being one of poor judgement." 

Azam acknowledges there are similarities between his paper and Paul's work, but said that's not an indication of plagiarism. The veteran professor argued that where there are similarities, that's because he, in effect, wrote those sections of Paul's master's thesis himself.

The U of R and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS) have also received plagiarism complaints. In an April email to APEGS, Paul claimed Azam's conduct is "an unethical act and professional misconduct against me."

Both APEGS and the university are investigating Paul's allegations. 

CBC's iTeam compares documents

Using an online program, CBC's iTeam found that 24 per cent of Azam's article is identical to parts of Paul's master's thesis. 

At least three charts that appear in both publications are nearly identical, yet Paul and his thesis are not credited or mentioned in Azam's paper. 

CBC presented the findings and the journal's concerns to Azam during an interview at which his lawyer was present. 

Azam admits a mistake

Azam denied plagiarizing Paul's master's thesis, but does admit his article failed to reference a published paper he and Paul wrote, for which Paul was cited as the lead author.

Azam said that oversight was an unfortunate mistake. 

"I missed the reference to the joint paper. And when it was pointed out, I immediately wanted to correct it."

Azam's lawyer argued this should not be considered plagiarism. 

"Plagiarism, because of the seriousness of the allegation and the implications it can have on the person, the bar has to be quite high and quite clear," Tavengwa Runyowa said. 

The university's website defines plagiarism as using "even a single sentence (verbatim or with a little paraphrasing) from someone else's writing without formally acknowledging the source."

Runyowa acknowledged technically that may have happened in this case, but he said it wasn't done "in bad faith." He said the plagiarism label doesn't fit, "especially given how much [Azam] has contributed to the allegedly plagiarized work."

Prof says he wrote some of the thesis

​Azam said the reason there are so many similarities between Paul's master's thesis and his own paper is that Azam, in effect, wrote some of the master's thesis himself. 

Azam said he and Paul published two papers together before Paul published his master's thesis. 

"I did almost the entire writing in the papers myself," Azam explained.

He said a significant section of Paul's master's thesis was a compilation of those two articles, meaning Azam is responsible for that part of the thesis. 

Azam went further, saying Paul would have been unable to write parts of that thesis because he didn't have the technical writing skills necessary and "did not have the experience to select, analyze and interpret data from the literature and draw meaningful conclusions."

"None of the alleged material in the disputed paper reflected Paul's original writing, ideas or thoughts because he was heavily dependent on me in all of these areas," Azam said.

Azam said because he wrote some of the material contained in Paul's master's thesis it's acceptable for him to quote it without referencing it. 

He said in the field of engineering, it's common and acceptable for researchers to "reuse" their own text from previous articles in subsequent papers. 

In addition, Azam pointed to sentences in Paul's master's thesis which were identical to sentences in papers written by Azam years before the thesis was published, in which Paul is not listed as an author. 

"Clearly, Mr. Paul used material from my papers in his thesis because the flow of texts and tables in the reverse direction is not possible," Azam said.

Azam's lawyer also pointed out that "much of the similar text between Dr. Azam's and Arjun's paper is generic in nature… There are only so many ways to express such technical material."

And finally, Azam's lawyer noted that Azam's paper did include citation of the work of others — "the 'giants' upon whose shoulders his work was based. Arjun is not one of those giants."

Arjun Paul declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement he said he wrote the papers and thesis himself while Azam "just guided me and put some comments when I submitted any draft paper." 

"I totally disagree that he wrote thesis and papers for me." 

Researcher says there's a problem in engineering

Edward Eckel, a researcher from the University of Western Michigan, has published papers examining  plagiarism involving engineering master's theses. 

Based on his review of the matter for CBC, he said Azam's behaviour "falls under the category of plagiarism." 

"Professor Azam should have cited [Paul's] thesis and should have probably listed Paul as the co-author of that article," Eckel said. "The fact that he didn't? It's just a weird kind of blindness."

He said Azam's claim that he wrote parts of Paul's thesis doesn't help his case.

"I'm sorry. The student's the one who got the thesis. The thesis is under the student's name."

In fact, he said Azam's defence indicates something even worse than plagiarism — namely, the granting of a degree to an unqualified student. 

"That's just mind-boggling. It's amazing that he could think that's acceptable," Eckel said. 

Eckel said if Azam's claim that Paul was incapable of writing large sections of his master's thesis is correct, then the student shouldn't have been granted a degree.

"That just calls into question Azam's ability to be an adequate graduate adviser at all."

Azam defends his supervision of Paul 

Azam defended his training of Paul. "I did more than he deserved. I did more in this particular case compared to other students. Way more." 

He said despite Paul's lack of knowledge and ability, giving him a master's degree was the right thing to do. 

"What is the other alternative? Fail him? And send him back? So now you lose a trainee," Azam said. 

And he said Paul did produce some work of value. "There was a portion within his thesis which would suffice to grant him his degree, which is the statistical part."

In a written follow-up statement, Azam noted, "The master's thesis is only one component of a broader process that the university undertakes to prepare students for their profession."

Engineering struggles with plagiarism 

Eckel said the allegations against Azam highlight a common and troubling problem in engineering.

"I think the engineering field in general is just avoiding this whole discussion of what is appropriate in the field of engineering as far as citing sources, using quotation marks and not using quotation marks, and giving credit to students for the work that they do," Eckel said. 

He said there's a culture that seems to deem it acceptable to duplicate sections of previous articles in subsequent work without reference. 

Eckel said the fact it's relatively common doesn't make it right. 

Runyowa, Azam's lawyer, said it appears there are problems with the way citation is done within engineering, but he said Azam shouldn't be forced to pay the price. 

"Could there be across the board improvements as to how things are done? I think the answer is absolutely," Runyowa said. 

"Could all of those shortfalls be put into a blender, into a funnel and directed onto the head of one academic — in this case Dr. Azam? I would say no."

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