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Towson professor investigated over allegations of plagiarism

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, GoToby.com. 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.

Noel D. Campbell, a co-author of a 2008 paper on eminent domain that was apparently not properly cited by Neil, said the attribution — using verbatim passages without quotation marks, and including a footnote — doesn't cause him any economic harm, but it is a matter to be taken seriously. The paper, "Pass a Law, Any Law, Fast! State Legislative Responses to the Kelo Backlash," was written with Edward J. Lopez and R. Todd Jewell.

"This looks like 'lazy plagiarism,' " Campbell, an economics professor at the University of Central Arkansas, said in an email. "Another 30 minutes of effort would have reworded the material such that only a citation was required. ... This is a bit sad, because I generally agree with the article's arguments."

Still Lopez, Jewell and Campbell said they will reserve judgment on whether Neil made a "regrettable oversight" or committed a "deliberate deception" until Towson's investigation is complete.

Towson University officials declined to comment other than to say that the investigation would follow its policies on scholarly misconduct. The policy says that "improper authorship" includes "plagiarism; improper assignment of credit; claiming the work of another author as one's own; and submission of multi-authored works without the concurrence of all authors."

Neil had co-authors on some of the papers in question; none of them returned calls seeking comment. However, Neil said that at least two of the co-authors only reviewed his work.

Pressure to publish

The economic downturn put more pressure on academics to regularly publish scholarly journal articles, said Jonathan Bailey, a New Orleans-based copyright and plagiarism consultant.

"There is a publish-or-perish mentality among professors," Bailey said. "It is a kind of a 'publish at all costs' mentality, too. The professors know their jobs are on the line if they don't publish."

Neil's professor profile on Towson's website lists 13 published articles, more than half of which were written in 2009, and five found to include unattributed content. He said it was true that he took pride in publishing articles and that they sometimes take him months to write.

The Clute Institute, a Colorado-based company that publishes 15 academic journals and sponsors annual conferences, has published at least six of Neil's papers. Three of them contained unattributed material.

Ronald C. Clute, founding director of the company, said he is reviewing Neil's work.

"We don't tolerate plagiarism here, but we do have to verify it," Clute said. If his review shows the paper was plagiarized, he said, "we'll retract the article. We'll have no choice."

Another journal publisher, Sage Publications, also confirmed that it is investigating a paper submitted by Neil in 2009.

Bailey said plagiarism can often occur by mistake.

"It can happen innocently, [especially] when you're talking about someone who is really inexperienced in the field or you're dealing with a one-off mistake or one footnote that you deleted," Bailey said. "When you're talking about hundreds of words and multiple sources involved, it goes from being a likely mistake to either this person is being careless or they are doing it intentionally or knowingly."

Ted Goertzel, a widely published Rutgers University sociology professor, said the uncited passages from his 2002 paper "Myths of Murder and Multiple Regression" were not "major" infractions, but still a "violation of generally accepted academic standards."

Neil's 2009 paper, "Should Armed Guards Be Allowed in Schools in Light of the Recent Right-To-Carry Laws?" used several verbatim paragraphs in Goertzel's paper, and in three instances Neil did not place quotes around borrowed passages or cite his work.

"If students at Rutgers did this, their professors would have to report them to the deans, and they would receive a sanction," Goertzel said in an email to The Sun. "If you want to give the benefit of the doubt, you could say that he got careless due to over-busyness. This excuse would not be accepted from a student, however."

May, Neil's attorney, described the professor as an "honest, ethical guy." He said there was no "universally acceptable definition of plagiarism" and that "attempting to pin this down is like catching smoke in a butterfly net."

He pointed to the fact that Neil included citations and a bibliography in some of his work as proof that he did not intend to deceive. He said that at least one of Neil's papers that had been withdrawn by its publisher has been republished after formatting changes.

"I'm sure there can be a legitimate academic disagreement," May said, "but not about his integrity."

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Benjamin A. Neil

Education: Undergraduate degree in history and a doctorate in law from the University of Baltimore.

Work: Neil has been a professor at Towson University for more than 20 years. He has practiced law in East Baltimore since 1979. According to his biography on the city schools website, Neil practices law in Maryland, the U.S. District Courts in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Posts: Neil was appointed as the chair of the city school system's ethics board in July 2012; he resigned this week. He also chaired the Municipal Zoning and Appeals Board in Baltimore under former mayors Martin O'Malley and Kurt L. Schmoke.

Campaigns: Records show that Neil opposed City Councilman Jim Kraft in the 2003 Democratic primary, losing by 256 votes. He also unsuccessfully ran for a House of Delegates seat in 1990.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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