Saturday, March 21, 2015

News about VroniPlag Wiki cases

A few notes on current and past VroniPlag Wiki cases:
  • Margarita Mathiopoulos (VPW case Mm, extensive documentation to be found at MMDoku) submitted her dissertation in political science in 1986 to the University of Bonn. In 1989 an intensive public discussion (started by Spiegel) arose about plagiarism in the thesis, but the university decided after an investigation not to rescind the doctorate. In 2011, VroniPlag Wiki looked into the dissertation again and found much more plagiarism. The university re-opened the investigation and rescinded the doctorate in 2012. Mathiopoulos took the university to court and lost. No appeals were permitted, but she appealed against there not being a chance of an appeal. According to Spiegel Online, she has won that case, so now an appeal is permitted to determine if the VroniPlag Wiki documentation contains new material. If that is the case, the university can indeed withdraw the doctorate after the second examination. If the documentation is considered to be more of the same that was evaluated the first time, then the university will be bound by its decision at that time. Since the appeals are still running, Mathiopoulos can continue to use her doctoral degree and remains appointed as an honorary professor at the University of Potsdam and the Technical University of Braunschweig.
  • Sophie Koch (VPW case Ssk) submitted a dissertation in pedagogy to the University of Düsseldorf in 2011. This is the same department to which former German education minister Annette Schavan had submitted her dissertation in 1980. Suspicions of plagiarism were raised in the VroniPlag Wiki forum in 2012, and the documentation began. And stagnated. There were plenty of other cases around. Eventually, though, it was decided to make the case known, and the university was informed. Surprisingly, the university library notes that the doctoral degree was already rescinded in February. This means that someone else had already informed the university and they they had been investigating it for some time.
    So who is Sophie Koch? If you read German, the blog Erbloggtes has an amusing account. The so-called "popular press" has been having a field day, as Sophie Koch is a popular and well-known TV personality with her own show on a German commercial television channel giving advice to single mothers and teenagers. The number of mistakes in the reporting, even by the so-called serious press, is highly amusing. 
  • It is sad, however, to see that the press only seems to report on celebrities or particularly problematic cases (100 % of the pages plagiarized). Cases in which a dissertation in law that was rejected from a German university for plagiarism was then submitted with a few modifications to the Austrian University of Innsbruck and accepted there (VPW case Rm) or a 61-page dissertation in medicine at the University of Bonn that includes 11 pages verbatim and without reference from the Wikipedia and even more from various textbooks and papers (VPW case Go) get little press coverage, if at all. There are currently 143 cases documented on the site, 75 alone in medicine and dental medicine. There is plagiarism from papers by the doctoral advisor, there are habilitations that share much text with dissertations prepared under the tutelage of the same post-doc and it is impossible to tell who copied from whom or if they wrote it together and "forgot" to mention it. Some lift bits and pieces from other theses at the same university, some prepare a collage of papers from other universities, some use the Wikipedia without reference rather copiously. We have seen someone recycle his own doctorate in medicine for part of his second doctorate, this time in theology (VPW case Jpm). What we can determine is that the system is failing to detect and sanction plagiarism at all levels. The big question is: how do we do something about it?

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Professorial Ghostwriter

I had an interesting phone call this morning. The caller had experienced something the other day that was quite bothering him. Did I know what he could do?

He was on a train, and recognized the two gentlemen sitting across from him. One was a professor who is rather well-known in his field and sits on the board of an important company. He began to speak with his friend as if the two of them were alone in front of the fireplace in the privacy of his home.

It seems the professor moonlights as a ghostwriter for a Switzerland-based company, writing theses and dissertations not for the money involved, but for the thrill of it. He assured his friend that he faithfully reports his income, the pittance that they pay their writers, to the tax office. He even wrote a doctoral dissertation for a colleague who had done all of his experimental work, but was too busy to sit down and write the thesis.

"And I always make sure to include a reference to one of my own papers in every paper I write," he beamed, apparently rather pleased with himself. His friend was only concerned with the legality of what he was doing, not the moral issue: Is it okay for a professor (who is supposed to be teaching students good scientific practices) to be a ghostwriter as well?

Indeed, it is legal to be a ghostwriter. The person who is cheating is the one who submits ghostwritten work as their own. And there really is no recourse here, as I told my caller. One can't call the dean of the professor's school, there is no evidence at hand. I am not aware of any universities in Germany that expressly forbid their professors to participate in ghostwriting. But it is indeed ethically highly problematic to be on both sides of the fence, as it were. Pretty much the only thing we can do is to discuss openly and widely what scientific misconduct is and how and why we avoid it.

Any ideas, readers? What would you have done, if you had overheard this conversation?

If you read German, here's an article about one of these services that boasts writers with doctorates and even professors.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Phantom Degree

The French Minister of Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, turns out only to have an English degree and not one in English and Business, as Mediapart (paywall), Le Monde, and  Le Figaro report.

According to Fioraso, somehow "Who's Who in France" mixed up her degrees, and made a double degree in English and in Business out of an English degree with an "option" on Business (screenshot of the entry). She is taking steps to correct this information, she says. Who's Who in France advertises that they verify the degrees from the grand écoles, which does make sense as the Wikipedia entries are free to read, so it would be quite interesting to see how this information came to be in their databases. One must pay 6 € in order to view the entry, however, so I'll stick with the screenshot above.

The government was quick to assure the general public that the minister was chosen for all the great things she has done and not on the basis of a specific degree. Yes, we've heard that before in Germany, in connection with plagiarism cases.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Austrian term papers clog plagiarism detection system

The Austrian online newspaper reports on a bit of problem with their new high school term paper submission system for the school leaving certificates matura. Pupils in Austria are now expected to submit a 40,000 to 60,000 character long term paper (vorwissenschaftliche Arbeit) by the middle of their last year of school. The paper will be graded by teachers and the students must give a presentation on their work.

Of course, since Austria is well aware that there is a plagiarism problem, at least as far as pupils and students are concerned [not so much for doctoral dissertations, but that is another blog post], the term papers must be checked for plagiarism by a so-called plagiarism detection system.

The due date 2015 is Friday, February 13. Surprise, many students have waited until the last minute, and the system is throwing errors that appear to point to the system being swamped. Apparently, they did not also reckon with such large files as are being uploaded. The server operator noted that they were expecting the files to be around 1 MB, instead they were getting 60 MB large files.

Not to fear - there is a Plan B in action: the pupils can submit a printed version at their schools in order to keep the deadline. Or, as one teacher noted in a comment, submit at 5 a.m. The server runs well at that time of the night.

2013 there were almost 44,000 pupils granted their diplomas in Austria. Teachers will now, in addition to grading these papers, have to wade through the results of the plagiarism-detection software, although they also generate false positives as well as false negatives, thus not determining plagiarism but giving some ideas as to where perhaps there could be some plagiarism. Even assuming that a teacher only spends an average of 10 minutes per paper interpreting the results (and this is generous, as the reports are not easy to read and the numbers reported can be quite misleading), this means a minimum of 7-8000 extra hours of work nationwide, but probably tenfold that.

If the pupils are anything like the ones I see in the first semester, they love to take pictures they found on the Internet to spice up their texts - they are much more visually oriented than the older generations. The software will certainly not be able to identify pictures that are not used according to license, so the teachers will also need to use Google's image search or a system such as TinEye to look for the potential sources, increasing the amount of time needed for grading.

Maybe the idea of a term paper submitted centrally needs to be rethought? Of course, they have to learn how to do research and to write about a topic. But we need to be thinking about how to develop methods of assessment that are plagiarism-proof, instead of adding more broken software to a broken system.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The disappearing links

I've noticed a change in what Google returns when you search on the names of persons who have been documented on the VroniPlag Wiki plagiarism documentation site as having extensive text parallels that could constitute plagiarism in their dissertations and habilitations. It used to be that when one searched for their names, the link to VroniPlag Wiki came at the top of the search.

Now there is a notice that some links have been removed because of personality rights questions, and links show up -- if at all -- past the first page of results. This is perhaps due to a recent court ruling.  The European High Court (EuGH, 13.05.2014 - C-131/12) ruled that people can have links about them personally "forgotten" by search engines. The pages naming them do not have to be removed, but they can insist that the search engines not point to such pages.

So it is not enough to just google a name to see if there are any problems associated with scientific publications about a person. One would now need to know where to look in order to find out if, for example, plagiarism in a doctorate has been documented or a paper withdrawn or issues with a publication documented.

This is unfortunate for scientific purposes, as it is vital that other scientists are made aware of dissertations, papers, and books that have been withdrawn for plagiarism or other academic misconduct. Otherwise they will try and replicate experiments that were forged, or build on top of wrong material. I have heard the excuse that a paper is plagiarized, but the contents are true. That is not always the case, sometimes in plagiarizing, something gets taken out of context and the meaning is changed.

Privacy is important, but scientific papers and dissertations are not part of one's private life. They are contributions to the body of science, and are thus public and open to criticism. That's what keeps us honest as scientists: if we goof up, our names are forever associated with our misdeeds.

Update: There has been some discussion about which cases are affected. The following cases (there may be more) show me the VroniPlag Wiki link either on the second page or not at all: Alm - Bm - Cl - Nig - Rh - Tt


Friday, January 30, 2015

A Patchwork Thesis

In 2008, a graduate of a German Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences, abbreviated FH) submitted a dissertation to the Tomáš-Baťa-Universität in Zlín, in the Czech Republic, a good 800 km from his place of residence. At that time he was in his mid-40s and had been working as a public official for the past 18 years.

One may wonder why a mid-career public official would go so far afield to obtain a dissertation, when there are excellent universities near his hometown. In Germany at that time, a Diplom from a Fachhochschule was not sufficient to be admitted for doctoral work. Often extra coursework would be required, or even a Diplom or Master's at a university had to be completed before beginning work on a doctorate.

Today, the Diplom is no longer offered, but instead Master's degrees from both universities and FHs are acceptable for beginning work on a doctorate at a university. Then as now, however, doctorates earned in other EU countries can be used back home, so there is quite some interest in obtaining degrees outside of Germany.

Zlín offers a four-year doctoral program in Management and Economics that charges 1,600 €/year in tuition that requires submission of a written dissertation that is generally published online in the Zlín Digital Library.  One of these dissertations, the one submitted by the German public servant, is a 100-page dissertation that is now documented as case #140 on the VroniPlag Wiki site.

The "barcode" representation for the manual VroniPlag Wiki documentation for the case looks quite like a bit like a patchwork quilt. This barcode is often misunderstood as being the result of a software-based plagiarism investigation. Nothing could be further from the truth: All discovery and documentation is done manually with the help of small software tools for various tasks, and all documentation is reviewed by a second researcher.

The bar code uses five different colors:
  • white is for pages that have not yet been investigated, or for which nothing has yet been found;
  • bright red is for pages that contain text parallels on over 75 % of the lines of text on a page. The line counting is not automatic, but must be done and reviewed by two researchers;
  • dark red is for pages that have text parallels on between 50 and 75 % of the lines;
  • black is used for pages that have text parallels, but that make up 50 % or less of the page;
  • blue is used for pages that are excluded from consideration. These are normally the title pages, the table of contents, the literature list and any appendices.
For this dissertation, there are some additional blue bands: Towards the end of the thesis there is a list of abbreviations and one of figures and tables that are sandwiched in between pages of content.
[Msc 2008]
The two blue bands after the first few pages are quite interesting. The first one, extending from page 13 to page 21, is taken verbatim from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The second one, running from page 26 to page 33, is verbatim from a European commission document. Discounting these pages, as each one has a brief reference given when the copy begins, there is only a total of 65 pages of content in this dissertation.
The patchwork continues when looking at the individual pages, as there are also problems on many of those pages. For example, extensive swatches of text are taken verbatim from seven Wikipedia articles without reference. The pages 2325, which deal with some topics in German history, are lifted entirely from the Wikipedia with only minor adjustments. fragments are taken from a journal article that appeared in the Academy of Management Review. There are occasional references to the article given in the text, but it is not made clear that the pages 5663 are almost entirely from this article, and taken verbatim. Page 58 includes an interesting copy & paste error: the printed version of the article has a footnote from the previous page continued at the bottom of the left-hand column. In the dissertation, this text can be found sandwiched-in  between the text from the left-hand column and the text from the right-hand one. The sentences thus make no sense whatsoever.

On page 72, the Daimler-Benz sustainability report is copied with the "we" pronouns changed to "they" or "their" or "Daimler".

Pages 7779 are taken verbatim from a discussion paper for the European Sustainable Development Network Conference 2008. A copy & paste error on page 79 caused quotations marks from the original to be reproduced as | or —.

Whenever the writing shifts from proper English sentences to word-for-word literal translations from German, the thesis becomes quite unreadable. I quote from page 50:
Germany applies in 2001 above a surface of 357,020 sq. kms, the population around catches 82,330,000 million people (2000: 82,260,000). Of it 40,326,000 persons (49.1%) were gainfully employed in 2000. In 2001 there were 2.4% of the employed persons in the agriculture, forestry and fishery, 22.0 % in the producing trade without the building trade, 6.7 % in the building trade, 25.4 % in trade, guest's trade and traffic, 15.2% in the area of financing, renting and services for companies and 28.3% in the sector of public and private service providers (cf. "Germany in figures" in 2002). While trying to explain how many of these persons have been employed in small and middle companies or to define the boundary between them and large companies in Germany one pushes fast to his borders, because there are not enough actual statistical facts offered from the Statistical Federal Office16. Merely on data delivered by the Institute Of Middle Class Research17
[Note: The institution referred to in the last sentence is the Institut für Mittelstandsforschung in the original. It actually researches small and medium-sized enterprises, not the middle class.]

The University of Zlín publishes the reviews by the thesis examiners online, a commendable gesture. Two excerpts are documented in the Findings section on the VroniPlag Wiki:
  • Review 1 (17.11.2008): "Author considers that CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] is suitable way how to change current managerial thinking which describe from different point of views, e. g. historical progress in religious aspect."
  • Review 2 (17.11.2008): "The dissertation is written very cultivate, digest at the high academic level."
I beg to differ. I don't find this patchwork of other people's words to be either at a high academic level or acceptable scholarship. Above all, it is a mystery to me that people are not aware that when they publish their works in a digital library that they are available world-wide for discussion. Does no one read the theses critically before publication?

The University of Zlín has been informed of the situation and has been sent this report containing all the documentation produced manually by VroniPlag Wiki about the dissertation. The university promptly acknowledged the receipt of the documentation by email. Many other universities, sadly, don't manage to do even that.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Links

I seem to be getting more and more links I can't adequately deal with, but which I don't want to withhold from readers. So here is some Christmas reading:
  • The "Neurosceptic" blog of Discover Magazine has a piece about The Strange Case of “Publication Integrity and Ethics” which details a number of integrity and ethics questions around the supposed new journal.
  • The Times Higher Education has a piece on post-publication peer-review that describes more of the chilling consequences that occur when lawyers meddle with scientific inquiry. Physics professor Philip Moriarty is quoted with: “If you are publicly funded and you put your research into the public domain but no one can criticise you for it without facing legal proceedings, that seems to me to be a very badly damaged system.” Exactly.
  • Retraction Watch obtained a $400.000 grant to set up a retractions database! This is great news, I hope that the database can be used to calculate a Retraction Index, that is, how many retractions per article published a journal has, and perhaps how long did it take for the retractions to take place after the initial information of the journal.
  • Bernd Kramer recently published a book in German about obtaining a doctorate in Germany without doing the work ("Der schnellste Weg zum Doktortitel. Warum selbst recherchieren, warum selbst schreiben, wenn's auch anders geht?"). The cover is a horrible stock photo, but the book makes quite interesting reading. Kramer gave an interview in Deutschlandradio in November 2014 about it.
  • Reports of fake peer reviews are increasing. Vox has an article about 110 papers retracted in the past two years on account of faking peer reviews. Retraction Watch reported on SAGE publishers retracting 60 papers from just one journal for this reason. The Minister of Education in Taiwan, Wei-ling Chiang, had been added to some of these papers as a co-author (he says without his knowledge). He stepped down because of the scandal in July 2014, according to IEEE Spectrum
  • Taipeh Times reported in August of 2013 that Andrew Yang, the former Taiwanese Minister of National Defense was forced to resign in a plagiarism scandal a few days after taking office. He had published a book in 2007 that friends had ghostwritten for him. They had, however, plagiarized large parts of the book.
  • The University of Nevada in Las Vegas fired an English professor for "serial plagiarism." The student newspaper, The Rebel Yell, also reports on the case.
  • End of November 2014 the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University in India was jailed and released on account of plagiarism.
  • There is a nasty case of plagiarism reported from early 2014 at the Chicago State University. The dissertation of the Senior Vice President and Provost of the university was being investigated, and the university confirmed to press that they were doing so. She sued the university for violating privacy laws, stating that she did not plagiarize [1]. There exist documentations of plagiarism in her dissertation in a blog ([2] - [3] - [4] - [5] - [6]). Despite the documentation, the University of Illinois, Chicago has ruled that her dissertation is not a plagiarism ([7]). The Chicago Tribune had three plagiarism experts (Tricia Bertram Gallant, Teddi Fishman, and Daniel Wueste look at the thesis ([8]). All three find the thesis problematic. The question is, are the students to be held to a different standard than the person who is enforcing that academic standard? A thorny question.