Saturday, October 3, 2015

VroniPlag Wiki case #152: Another German Politician

On Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, case #152 on the Vroni Plag Wiki site was posted, a doctorate in medicine from 1990. Normally, journalists yawn if they even hear of something like this, as German medical doctorates are more or less a joke. Even the Wissenschaftsrat tried to explain this in 2004 to the medical schools:
Schon seit langem wird - auch von Medizinern - die medizinische Promotion hinsichtlich akademischer und wissenschaftlicher Wertigkeit stark angezweifelt. Aufgrund der in der Bevölkerung weit verbreiteten Gleichsetzung der Begriffe Arzt und Doktor hat sich eine Art akademisches Gewohnheitsrecht entwickelt, demzufolge die Verleihung des Doktorgrades weitgehend unabhängig von der Qualität der Promotionsleistungen erfolgt. Die berufliche und gesellschaftliche Anerkennung als Arzt ist in Deutschland mit dem Doktortitel verbunden. Daraus erklärt sich auch die im Vergleich zu anderen Fächern hohe Promotionsrate (etwa 80 %). Nicht selten wird der Lerneffekt bei Doktorarbeiten angezweifelt. Insbesondere dienen sie durch ihre schlechte Betreuung häufig nicht der wissenschaftlichen Grundausbildung.103 Der wissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinn dieser „pro-forma“-Forschung ist daher fragwürdig. 

Dieter Schmid: Die Doktorarbeit im Visier – Titel zwischen Traum und Trauma, in: Via Medici 4, 2003, S. 16-20.
[Wissenschaftsrat, Empfehlungen zu forschungs- und lehrförderlichen Strukturen in der Universitätsmedizin, 2004, S. 75]
(Translation by DWW: The academic and scientific credibility of medical doctorates has been called into question for quite some time, even by medical practitioners themselves. Because the general public widely equates the terms physician and doctor, a sort of academic custom has developed by means of which the the doctoral degree is conferred independent of the quality of the research achievements. The occupational and social appreciation of physicians in Germany is linked to the doctoral degree. This explains the high rate of degrees conferred (80 %) when compared to other fields. It is not seldom that the learning effect of the doctoral theses are doubted.  In particular, because of poor mentoring they often do not even serve to teach scientific basics. The scientific contribution of this "pro-forma" research is thus questionable. )
The medical schools have made the occasional attempt to demonstrate that they are doing something, but by and large it has been business as usual.

VroniPlag Wiki case #152 is, however, a special medical thesis. It was submitted by the current Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen. One of her predecessors in office, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, ended up having to step down four years ago after his doctoral dissertation in law was found to be extensively plagiarized.

The press has thus jumped on the case, and is now remembering the academic grumblings about the low quality of medical doctorates. The bloggers are having a field day (Archivalia I - II, Causa Schavan, Erbloggtes I - II - III, all in German, all long). Even Spiegel has both the plagiarism documentation and a discussion of the quality of medical doctorate quality as the lead article in issue 41/2015*. The Medical University of Hannover has already announced that they have opened an official investigation into the case.

I was at the 7th Prague Forum of the Council of Europe “Towards a Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education” this past week, speaking on plagiarism in medical dissertations in Germany. I added a slide on case #152, as so many people were asking me about it. More on the Prague Forum in a coming post, as they have set up ETINED as a site for helping combat academic corruption.

* although they demonstrate in the article that they don't understand Creative Commons licenses. CC-BY-SA means that you name the source and put the result, if you reuse or modify it, also under such a license. They changed the color of a bar and reformatted it to fit, and then slapped a "Der Spiegel" copyright on the picture.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Where there is smoke, there is fire

The researchers at VroniPlag Wiki have grown tired of documenting plagiarism in medical dissertations, especially as some universities don't see a problem with theses such as ones that have nine pages (out of 61) completely copied from the Wikipedia without reference. They call it a cultural difference, they say that the focus is on the data. I have a different opinion on that. If an author was that careless and naive in one place (and it turned out that over half of the pages in that thesis have text overlap), how can we be sure that the data was carefully measured and recorded?

The most recent VroniPlag Wiki case is another example of "where there is smoke, there is fire," showing that just finding one instance of extensive plagiarism may indicate that there is more.

The LMU Munich has an open access thesis repository, so some German-language theses in different fields from that repository were compared with the German-language Wikipedia. The thesis at the top of the list was interesting, as it had a long sequence of characters identical to just one article in the Wikipedia, although it was not a large percent of the entire thesis. Googling phrases from the thesis quickly turned up many more sources (currently 24, three of them other Wikipedia pages) for text that was often used entirely verbatim and without reference. The documentation was published last week on VroniPlag Wiki and the university informed. 

Dissertation #151 (Xg) was submitted to the Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy at the LMU Munich in 2009 and is about the intercultural understanding of art. If you look closely at the bar code generated from the manual documentation you can see three large patches of bright red that indicate that more than 75% of the page has been taken from a source without proper attribution.
The Xg Barcode (Report in German)
  1. The first largish red band, pages 6471, was taken verbatim from the German-language Wikipedia article on art.
  2. The next large red band, pages 7593, was taken verbatim from a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 2006 about a Chinese painter.
  3. The largest rest band, pages 113157, was taken from a Diplom-Thesis (approx. a Master's thesis) that was submitted in 1999 to the University of Tübingen and published in 2004 on a pedagogical concept for intercultural education using art. 
VroniPlag Wiki has documented many such doctorates in the past, so this alone would hardly be newsworthy, were it not for a strange paragraph in the Promotionsordnung, the rules governing doctorates at this faculty at the LMU Munich, that have been in place since 2005:
§ 16 (Nichtvollzug der Promotion und Entzug des Doktorgrades)
"(1) Hat der Kandidat bei einer Promotionsleistung getäuscht und wird dies erst nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 bekannt, so kann nachträglich die Doktorprüfung für nicht bestanden erklärt werden.
(3) [...] Eine Entscheidung nach Abs. 1 und 2 ist nur innerhalb einer Frist von fünf Jahren nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 möglich."
Translation: A doctorate can only be rescinded within five years of it being awarded.

That means that the LMU Munich has a statute of limitations on one type of academic misconduct. If it turns out that someone cheated, but it's been more than 5 years, they get lucky. They can keep their doctorate.

Xg's doctorate was awarded 6 years ago, so she can breathe easy. Of course, she might still be open to civil suits brought by the authors from which she copied on the basis of copyright law.

A law professor at the LMU Munich, Volker Rieble, published a treatise in German last year about acquiring a doctorate by sitting tight (Plagiatverjährung. Zur Ersitzung des Doktorgrades). He asks what is more important: Peace and quiet on the dissertation front with less time-consuming investigations of previously examined work, or the defense of academic standards? He pleads for the latter. The blog Erbloggtes had a long discussion about Rieble's article at the time, otherwise there has not (yet) been much reaction to his article. Things move slowly at German universities. But I think that it is time for some serious action about plagiarism at all levels: students, graduate students, researchers. Defining it away will not make it go away.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Norwegian journalist caught plagiarizing

The Norwegian daily newspaper Dagens Næringsliv has admitted to having published a story that was plagiarized from The New Yorker and included fabricated quotations (documentation of some excerpts here [norw./engl.]). They have removed the article in question from the Internet. Reports on the case have been published by DagbladetNRK, Journalisten, and other media. The story broke when a Norwegian journalist, Øistein Refseth, twittered about the similarities in the two stories.

The journalist who submitted the piece about people's anger when flying, Daniel G. Butenschøn, is a well-known writer in Norway and was the assistant director of SKUP  (Stiftelsen for en Kritisk og Undersøkende Presse, Foundation for Critical and Investigative Journalism). Butenschøn has now resigned from his position at SKUP and has quit his job at Dagens Næringsliv.

This is not the first time that he was found to have plagiarized, people have been combing through his past publications. It seems he was already on his second chance, having plagiarized a piece on Hong Kong as a free-lancer writing for Morgenbladet, for which he was reprimanded. 

The journalism site Journalisten has a number of articles that link the various press reports and a long list of previous plagiarism scandals in journalism in Norway.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

End of Semester Roundup

Here are some links about plagiarism and academic misconduct from around the world that have been languishing in my inbox:
  • A professor for African-American History at the Arizona State University in the US has been demoted from full professor to associate professor, according to the Phoenix New Times, after a second plagiarism scandal about his writing erupted. A  blog contains many more details about the plagiarism allegations. Retractionwatch also has an article about this case. The professor used, among others, sources many students find useful: Wikipedia.
  • Writing in a blog at the Daily Pakistan Asif A. Malik points out a wonderful piece by physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy from the Express Tribune from January 4, 2013. Hoodbhoy starts off with a thought experiment: "Imagine the following experiment aimed at improving Karachi’s police force: suppose that policemen are offered cash prizes for every criminal they kill in a police muqabala, given public recognition and told that promotions to higher posts hinge on their kill count." He spins the story out that, of course, the police would start shooting at anyone, just to increase their pay. That is, in essence, what is happening in academia, except that instead of a "kill count" there are the magic indicators "number of publications" and "citation index". Since 2002-2003 both the pay and promotion for professors in Pakistan depend on the number of papers published and the number of PhD and MSc students graduated. Surprise! These all increased!
    In 2012 Hoodbhoy wrote about the problem of telling the good from the bad, in the Express Tribune column in 2013 he noted that the apparent increase in quality proudly proclaimed by the Higher Education Council (HEC) "was only possible because many university teachers engaged in wholesale plagiarism, faked data and produced research that no one seems to have any use for. As academic ethics went into free fall, university administrators and the HEC turned a blind eye. The new policy — which required learning how to play the numbers game — had the effect of turning many professors into crooks and thieves."
  • The Times of India writes that a professor from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in Chandigarh has been found to have plagiarized from two US American sources. Rakesh Sehgal retracted a paper from the journal Tropical Parasitology, published by Wolters Kluwer Medknow. The retraction notice states only that the paper has been retracted, not why. In a previous article, the Times of India noted that according to Indian law, a jail sentence between 6 months and 3 years can be levied, and public servants can lose their jobs if found to have plagiarized. 
  • Richard de Boer published an atricle in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on July 4, 2015 called "Welkom in de wereld van nepwetenschap" (welcome to the world of junk science), but the article is unfortunately behind a paywall and in Dutch. I was able to obtain it and use Google translate. The article deals with mock conferences like WASET and junk journals like those published with the OMICS group, which was removed from the PubMed list in 2013. There are a number of interviews with people attending the conferences, positive and negative, and also with a former colleague of the WASET organizer. The article discusses both Jeffery Beall's publisher black list and the Directory of Open Access Journals white list, noting problems with each. What a shame such an in-depth article is unavailable to a wider audience.
  • Hatoon Kadi writes in her blog at Arab News the Memoirs of a Saudi Ph.D. student: The menace of plagiarism. She mis-believes, as many do, that "[t]here are certain programs that take a few seconds in determining the originality of any research material." No, software can only detect potential text overlap, it cannot determine plagiarism or originality, because all systems suffer from false positives (quotation not seen) and false negatives (source not stored in the database). She discusses the question of hiring a ghostwriter with friends and found to her dismay that many had no qualms about using work from others. She calls for strict laws to punish plagiarists. I don't think punishment works -- we need to educate people as to why referencing and quotation is important.
Now, back to grading exams.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Mexican Scientists Found Guilty of Plagiarism

An opinion piece in La Journade (in Spanish) called the "Attack of the Plagiarists" notes that there have been two scientists found guilty of plagiarism in Mexico, and one of them has had his doctorate rescinded. The author, Soledad Loaeza, discusses the excuses given for plagiarism and the problem that people do see the scientific misconduct, but that they prefer to whisper to and murmur with each other, as they don't want to have trouble with a colleague. And thus the problem grows until it no longer can be contained and something big happens, such as a US institution informing a Mexican one that plagiarism has been found.

El Universal also has a story on this and includes some pictures of the plagiarism and the source for one of the cases.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dutch University Rescinds Doctorate

According to NRC.NL [apparently the online edition of a Dutch daily evening paper], the Erasmus University of Rotterdam has recently rescinded a doctorate. The case involves a doctorate granted by the university to a women in 2013 in psychology.

There was a discussion about the case in 2014 in a Erasmus University of Rotterdam publication. That publication states that after the plagiarism was discovered, she was reprimanded and given until October 1, 2014 to "repair" the plagiarism in her thesis. The academic integrity council of the university had recommended immediate retraction of the thesis, but the Executive Board of the university decided that the supervisor was partially at fault and it was "only" a question of sloppy citations. The doctoral student, according the the article in the EUR publication, felt that she had not intentionally plagiarized, and she had had her thesis checked by Turnitin and it had not uncovered any plagiarism. Additionally, the thesis committee passed her, so she felt that she should not be penalized if they didn't have any problems with the thesis.

The NRC.NL article notes that the external committee investigating the case determined that she did not rewrite the plagiarized passages, but only deleted them in the re-submitted version. The quality of the rest was debatable, appearing to be based only on secondary sources. Thus, she has been asked to return her doctoral certificate. NRC.NL says that this is a first for the Netherlands, I am not sure that this is true. She refuses, however, to hand back her certificate and is now initiating legal action against the university, NRC.NL reports.

The argument that she brings of having used software to check the thesis and it not finding anything points to a very big problem in the use of so-called plagiarism detection software. Just because the software does not find any sources, that does not mean that the thesis is original. It just means that no sources were found. There could be a source that is not available on the open Internet, or one from a book, or one that is for some reason not in the database used by the system. It is also possible that the text was rewritten to disguise the text taken, which will foil many such software systems. Software can only be used as a tool, not as a litmus test for determining plagiarism.  

Thanks to Google Translate for filling in the bits of Dutch I couldn't decode!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Court decisions rolling in

There are quite a number of court decisions being handed down recently in Germany on academic misconduct cases. I have three new addition to my list today:
  1. The Bundesverwaltungsgericht, the Federal Administrative Court in Germany handed down an important decision in connection with the plagiarism case of former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The German parliamentary academic service had written documents for him that turned up in his dissertation, verbatim. A journalist filed a freedom of information order to obtain the documents, but the Bundestag refused. Of course, a copy of the documents had already turned up in a brown paper envelope addressed to one of the GuttenPlag Wiki researchers, bearing no return address, and they were already documented. But it was impossible to verify if the documents were correct. The journalist wanted to see if the copies were, indeed true. He worked his way through the lower courts, who rejected his suit to see the documents. Today the federal court ruled that any document prepared by the academic service is obtainable by FOI request. Within hours the first FOI application for a list of all such documents was filed. The newspaper that filed suit, Die Welt, reports on its success.
  2. The Leipziger Volkszeitung reports that VroniPlag Wiki case #8 Sh (documented in 2011) has now been decided by the court (VG Halle) in favor of the University of Halle-Wittenberg, who rescinded the thesis in April 2012. The court held with the university, which stated that the "technical deficiencies" (handwerkliche Mängel) were so numerous that they became the methodology and thus intent to deceive.
  3. A colleague dug out a decision by the VG Würzburg from 25 March 2015 (AZ: W 2 K 14.228) about a doctorate in dental medicine that was awarded at the University of Würzburg in 2001 in the area of the history of medicine. In 2011 an anonymous letter informed the university that this dissertation was a plagiarism of a dissertation submitted in 1999, and that that one had been written by the doctoral adviser himself, as had many others. The university rescinded the doctorate in 2012. The dentist sued the university on numerous grounds, such as the statute of limitations having run out and all sorts of detailed university administrative details not having been attended to properly. The court ruled that the plagiarism was enough for proving intent to deceive, and also listing 199 sources in her literature list where she only quoted 67 served only to inflate the appearance of scholarship and was also to be considered intent to deceive. The text of the decision is not publicly available but can be found using the case number in legal databases.
So as in the plagiarism case against Schavan, the courts appear to be doing a great job of upholding good scientific practice. They stand by the decisions of the university, no matter what the paladins spout in the media.