Thursday, March 8, 2007

Plagiarism is "usual"?

A troubling letter from the district attorney in Darmstadt about the case of Axel Wirth. There is a bit of controversy here in Germany about this law school professor in Darmstadt. A newish law book was taken from the shelves when it was discovered that the 100 page chapter published under the name of this professor was extremely similar to another book - similar to the point of word-for-word copy without attribution.

The chapter was deemed a plagiarism - but the flak hit one of the professor's assistants, who apparently "wrote" the chapter for his boss. Seems the boss did not check it out too thoroughly before adding his name - this process is called "honorary authorship" and is found ethically troubling in many circles. But both the ombud for good scientific practice at the university as well as the aforementioned district attorney say that this is standard operating procedure at universities.

It does seem to be that way, as the same sort of hubbub is on over at the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Hans-Peter Schwintowski published a book with a lot of non-footnoted material and "quotes". The book has also been removed from the shelves. At least this colleague will be looking into the matter and fixing things, but he does mention that the publisher was unhappy with "all those footnotes".

The point of footnotes is so that the reader who so desires can follow the arguments back to the source. And one writes in one's own words, not the words of others.

At least at the HU there is still the committee looking into the situation. But what troubles me is the nonchalance with which colleagues who do not need to be assembling plagiarisms seem to be using them. We need a discussion about a culture of quoting in Germany, and we need it right now.

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