What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator

Parents beware: Children who don't take ownership for their mistakes may grow up to be adults who create public scandals.
Ph.D. candidate Zack Jud wasn't sure whether to speak up when he learned that his research had been appropriated by a sixth grader. (Courtesy of Zack Jud)

A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of guidance counselors about the value of letting kids fail and holding them responsible for their actions when the stakes are still relatively low. At the end of my talk, one of the counselors shared the story of her week: A 12th grade student had plagiarized much of a final science paper, and had been given a failing grade on the assignment and a formal reprimand by the school as a consequence. In response, the student’s parents had complained to the school administration, claiming that the student did not understand that copying and pasting text without attribution constituted plagiarism, and therefore should not be penalized for his ignorance.

The guidance counselor was left to deal with the aftermath of the school’s disciplinary action, and wanted advice on how to help this student and his parents understand why he should be held responsible for his plagiarism, given that a failing grade could destroy his chances at college admission.

Rather than recount my answer to that guidance counselor, I offer up two news items from this week as an illustration.

News item number one: Lauren Arrington, a Florida sixth grader, was featured on NPR, CBS, and many other media outlets for her science report on Indo-Pacific lionfish, a predatory reef fish species that has invaded ocean waters along the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean. The NPR story, “Sixth Grader’s Science Fair Finding Shocks Ecologists,” quotes Lauren on the line of thinking that led to her discovery:

"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," Lauren, now 13, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?' "

Unfortunately, the finding indicated in the headline—that lionfish can thrive in low-salinity estuaries—was was not a new discovery, nor was it Lauren’s. Zack Jud had reported these same findings as a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University in 2011, three years before Arrington first presented her science fair project, in a paper titled “Recent invasion of a Florida (USA) estuarine system.” That paper lists Lauren’s father, D. Albrey Arrington, as a courtesy author, and as such, one can assume that he was aware of Jud’s discovery of lionfish in low-salinity environments well before his daughter embarked on a national media tour claiming the discovery as her own.

As Lauren and her father embarked on their media tour, Jud watched the credit for his years of research go to a sixth grader. Even as she continued to repeat the claim that the discovery was hers, Jud kept silent. In a phone call, Jud explained to me that he was torn. He loves to teach kids about science, he said, and the last thing he wanted to do was put a damper on that. However, he was frustrated and worried that Lauren’s appropriation of his work was not just ethically wrong, but detrimental to his career. He is interviewing for faculty positions, and his ability to call these findings his own is critical to his appeal as a job candidate.

Finally, after many emails from friends and family concerned about the impact of the sixth grader’s intellectual theft on his career, he published a post on his Facebook page expressing his frustration.

My lionfish research is going viral ... but my name has been intentionally left out of the stories, replaced by the name of the 12-year-old daughter of my former supervisor's best friend. The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats. Her story has been picked up nationally by CBS, NPR, and CORAL magazine, and has received almost 90,000 likes on Facebook, yet my years of groundbreaking work on estuarine lionfish are being completely and intentionally ignored. At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable ... if only my name was included in the stories. I feel like my hands are tied. Anything I say will come off as an attempt to steal a little girl's thunder, but it's unethical for her and her father to continue to claim the discovery of lionfish in estuaries as her own.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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