Thursday, May 31, 2012

Plagiat: (K)ein Kavaliersdelikt?

I spoke at a conference at the University of Mainz yesterday on scientific misconduct. I unfortunately had to leave before the end, as I had obtained ticket to an important event long before this conference was set up. But I did hear some of the talks, so here are some ideas links that might be important to readers of this blog:
  • Gerhard Fröhlich (Linz) spoke about what he calls the "Beichtspiegeleffekt" - when you read the list of sins that you have to confess in the Catholic church, you might get some ideas you didn't otherwise have. He warns that we may have to deal with this when teaching students about plagiarism. This means that we have to be very careful that we actually follow through with dealing with plagiarism and not just tell people about it. He also noted that the digitalization of books is not part of the problem of plagiarism, it is part of the solution.
  • Ulrich Herb (Saarbrücken) spoke about junk journals. He had some interesting links:
    • Jeffrey Beall keeps a list of predatory open access publishers
    • Beall also posted The Story of Tahira Mughal, Assistant Professor of Botany at the Lahore College for Women University ("The only problem is that many of the passages that appear in Dr. Mughal's work appeared previously in other scholarly articles.") 
    • Ralf Neumann in laborjournal: Von zweifelhaftem Verhalten der Journals (I love the picture of the rotten apples)
    •   arXiv withdrew 65 papers in August 2007. The link I noted does not work, but it is educational to search for the term "withdraw".
    • Brumfiel, Geoff. Turkish physicists face accusations of plagiarism. Nature 449 8 (6. Sept. 2007) Abstract: "The article discusses about the more than a dozen of physicists at four universities in Turkey who were involved in a massive plagiarism of scandal. The researches have plagiarized the works of the others or contain inappropriate levels of overlap with earlier researches."
    • Research Papers on Economics publishes a list of plagiarism offenders. I'm glad to see Hans W. Gottinger on the list. 
    • Another Nature article: How to stop plagiarism (2012) Nature, 481 (7379), 21-23 Abstract: "Duplication is easily detected by software, yet it remains a problem. Ten experts explain how to stamp it out."
  • There is a new law dissertation published about plagiarism: Plagiat in der Wissenschaft, by Julian Waiblinger. There is a short review to be found on the blog Jurabilis.
There were some other links, but they deserve longer articles.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

French conference on plagiarism

If my translation machines are correct, this article picked up by my bot reports on a conference that was held in October 2011 in France on the topic of plagiarism. The conference proceedings have been published as Le plagiat de la recherche scientifique. Half of the contributions from researchers from France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Brazil are apparently about how to define and characterize plagiarism and the other half are about detecting plagiarism and administering sanctions.

If anyone reads French and wants to review the book, I'll be glad to grant guest blogging privileges.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Six Students Found Guilty of Plagiarism in Sweden

One of the advantages of having a central board at university to deal with plagiarizing students is that they can issue a press release on their current meeting. In the local paper in Sweden (Skånska Dagbladet, 24 May 2012) there is an article about the current decisions at Malmö högskola. Six students have been found guilty of plagiarism, copying large portions from the internet or other sources into their term papers. One insisted that she had not been taught the "intracies" of scientific writing, and she had change some words so that the text was "hers".

I'll repeat it slowly, in the hopes that everyone can follow: if you take something from somewhere - words, arguments, ideas - you mark where it begins, where it ends, and where it is from. Rewriting a word here or there does not make it your. BES - Begin, End, Source. Is it really that difficult?

The punishment for all 6 students is being locked out of the university for six weeks. No instruction, no cheaper beer at the student pubs, and above all: no examinations. This is a very good punishment, as students in Sweden get student loans based on passing a certain amount of credits. Everyone gets one year's worth of student loans. If you pass 75 % of the credits for a year, you can get money for the second year. Missing all of the examinations for one half semester can mean not getting money for next year.

I think it is a good idea to have an article like this in the paper (no names, just age and gender) reminding people what will happen if they get caughe.

Veronica Saß loses court case

The daughter of a Bavarian politician, Veronica Saß, remains with the doctorate that the University of Constance rescinded in May 2011 after it was determined that over a third of her thesis was plagiarized - pages and pages, including the footnotes. Saß went to court to fight the university over the question, and the court ruled today - after delivering a stern lecture during the court date yesterday - that the university was within its rights in rescinding the doctorate.

Saß tried a novel form of defense - she admitted that she plagiarized, but said that the university was negligent in advising her as an external student on the fine points of scientific writing. As a friend has noted - maybe we need public service announcement daily on the radio on how to quote someone elses work. Where does it start, where does it end, where does it come from. That's all.

There are a number of reports in German (taz - dapd - Spiegel Online - Südkurier - press statement of the university) and the radio station WDR had a special day with lots of reports in German about plagiarism.

It is a relief that at least the courts in Germany are upholding good scientific practice, even if the universities seem to be having trouble inculcating that in their students and professors.

There is one title Ms. Saß still holds, as the taz wryly remarks - it is her nickname, Vroni, that gave the plagiarism documentation group, VroniPlag Wiki, its name.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Romanian Education and Research Minister steps down because of plagiarism

One can hardly keep up anymore...

The Sunday Times reported that Ioan Meng, the new Romanian minister for Education and Research was accused of plagiarism in several of his papers. On May 16 the Neue Züricher Zeitung reported that he stepped down as minister after only one week in office.

Scientists in Japan, Taiwan and Israel noted numerous plagiarized passagen in his publications. Mang feels that this is just an attack from the opposition party. A German professor has also found text passages from his works in publications of Meng.

Update: Nature has a good article and notes that Romania has passed an anti-plagiarism law, introduced a National Ethics in Research council and determined that academics caught plagiarizing would lose their jobs. Interestingly enough, one of the plagiarisms was of a paper that the original author had withdrawn because he had discovered a flaw in the argument.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Could you please check my dissertation?

I had an interesting call on Monday. A doctoral student from the University of X (names anonymized to protect the guilty, it could have been any university) was calling, desperate. She was finished with her thesis and wanted to hand it in. But her advisor insisted that she "run the thesis through a software", to make sure that she had not plagiarized anything.

She was sure that she hadn't plagiarized, and was angry that this was being asked of her. I suggested that if the University of X wanted to have their dissertations checked, they should invest in a software, even though I keep trying to explain to people that software cannot prove the absence of plagiarism, it can only give hints as to what parts might be plagiarized from where, among a lot of false positives.

Yes, she thought it was crazy, she had read my tests on the software but could not convince her advisor - who was retired and thus without funding to purchase a test system - to abandon his need for a certificate of some sort. I suggested that she open up a word processor and design herself a beautiful certificate - that would be just as meaningful as running her paper through software. She also didn't want to send it to a company, as she didn't want her thesis stored online. She wanted software that would run locally in her machine.

I explained that there are very few such systems, they don't find much, and most break down for largish files, not to mention dissertations. I suggested that she try and educate the University of X that they were demanding nonsense of her. She didn't want to do that, she's finished, just wants to hand in. Can't I please help her?

I'm sorry, but I am not the Plagiarism Clinic, although some days I really feel like it when I get lots of calls and emails and even theses sent to me. I have been trying to scrape up funding for such an entity since 2003, my first application. The federal government says: this is the job of the states. The states say: this is the job of the universities. The universities say: we don't have any money, this is a federal problem. And around and around and around it goes. Just got a new rejection in today. No one wants to fund plagiarism education or plagiarism advice or plagiarism detection, it seems.

One would think the the pressure would be on by now in Germany for action to be taken. Instead, this seems to be the official German policy on plagiarism:
I Can't See You! Flickr CC-BY-SA, tropical.pete, 2008

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A curious article about law doctorates

The online journal of law at the Humboldt University of Berlin published an article in their fourth issue this year: Der juristische Doktortitel (The law doctoral title). The authors are listed as Prof. Dr. Rainer Schröder / Dr. Angela Klopsch.

VroniPlag Wiki/ GuttenPlag Wiki researchers noted the article, that also mentions the group, and commented on May 10, 2012, that a portion of the article is taken verbatim with a few changes from an article that appeared in the daily Die Welt on June 20, 2011, written by someone that is not listed as an author.

The blog jurabilis discussed this on May 11, 2012 and included links to visualizations of the plagiarism (1 - 2). Without a comment, the article suddenly obtained a * in the author list, with the star listing names of people who worked on the article. Quotation marks were also placed around the verbatim parts - but the changes that were made were not made clear, so they are now marked as being part of the quotation, which is not the case.

Today, Rainer Schröder published a comment on his home page about the situation. It seems the editor (perhaps Word?) is at fault. They were using change mode while writing, had lots of diagrams and tables (the statistical material is really interesting), and that crashed a lot. It seems, that when the editor crashes, it takes the quotation marks with it. This is a rather feeble excuse, and not one I would accept from students. If we are using modern technology, we have to learn how to make notes and how to reference texts properly.

And maybe disable CTRL+C CTRL+V while writing?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Warsaw Conference on Plagiarism

I was invited to speak at a seminar about effective anti-plagiarism policy in Warsaw, organized by the Polish plagiarism detection system / The seminar was held in a lovely high-ceilinged room at the library of the agricultural college in downtown Warsaw. They went to the trouble of organizing simultaneous translation, so I was able to follow the Polish talks as well.

The first session was for the politicians. The minister of science and higher education, prof. dr. Barbara Kudrycka, had sent her regrets two days ago, but sent dr. Andrej Kurkiewicz from the ministry to speak. He started off with a misconception common amongst politicians: Somehow, plagiarism and intellectual property rights get themselves mixed up in their heads. The topic at hand is plagiarism and scientific misconduct - that may occasionally have something to do with intellectual property rights, but is not the main focus.

At least, the Polish ministry is doing something. Last year they set up a committee and purchased a number of different software solutions for plagiarism detection (not that they work as expected, but at least they make the tools available to the universities). The ministry has insisted that all universities set up bylaws for dealing with plagiarism. The ministry is also setting up an open access database, POL-on, for collecting scientific resources and making them available to the general public.

There are new nationwide laws on dissertations and professorships, the reviews must be made public and the theses themselves published, which apparently was not the case previously. They are currently in the middle of a two-year transition.

Then dr. Sebastian Kawczynski spoke about his company, the system that they sell, and the processes that they are trying to get instituted in universities across the country. They want to see all papers of all students nationwide tested for plagiarism. He did note, however, that ghostwriting is on the rise, and papers are being offered for as low as 200 Zloty (50 €) up to 2400 Zloty (600 €), so it appears that students have the loose change for purchasing papers. I did not get if he noted that plagiarism detection software is useless on custom-made papers.

There appears to be a problem with students at different universities colluding to submit the same paper or thesis. He felt that this would be stamped out by using plagiarism detection software, however, this would only identify the second paper, not the first.

He then detailed a new Polish law about plagiarism - I didn't understand much of that. He announced that his company is working together with the Kluver publishing group to include a check of the Kluver journal articles on law. They are also discussing including further areas published by Kluver.

Some statistics: There are currently 149 public universities in Poland (32%) that use a plagiarism detection system regularly. 64 of them are using the shared database that his company is offering. 73 of the 76 private universities, however, are also using PDS - he emphasized that it is the quality universities that do so. He then detailed the procedures that they have developed for using their software at universities.

I also learned what copy / paste is in Polish: "kopiuj / wklej". Not that I can pronounce it.

The third speaker of the morning was prof. dr hab. Hubert Izdebski, the secretary of the Central Commission for Degrees and Titles. He spoke about plagiarism and the quality of doctorates and professorships. He noted that they have had many cases, recently a plagiarized thesis in theology and yesterday a medical one. They also had to deal with plagiarism in a thesis that was submitted 20 years ago. They decided that there is no statute of limitations on this, since when they decide that the thesis is invalid, it is not rescinded - it is considered never to have been granted. So they do not have a "sit-it-out" policy such as was just recently suggested by Wolfgang Löwer in Germany, who thinks that if you've had your doctorate for 10 years, you get to keep it, even if it was plagiarized.

There is a definition of plagiarism in the legal code, but he had issues with this, saying that no one understands what the law intends. I did not understand this, as the slides were not translated. He also has problems with universities who don't want to deal with plagiarism cases and send them back and forth. He began talking about self-plagiarism problems, but the translator needed vocabulary here, so I am not sure what was said.

There was a lively discussion afterwards. The dean of the Department of Management at the Academy of Sciences spoke at length about the condition of students graduating from high school. They have learned to tick boxes, but cannot think critically and are unable to write. If primary and secondary education is not changes, universities can't get to the root of the issue.

Someone noted that students see university education as a game to win - by cheating, if necessary.

Marek Wronski, the Research Integrity Officer of the Warsaw School of Medicine noted that there is a complete lack of statistics, especially about the cases that have been handled. He asked when they will be available, and got no answer.

Kawczynski made it clear that his system only provides information, it is up to the universities to decide what they do with that information.

There was a very brief (15 minute!) coffee and sandwich break, and then I spoke about the German situation. I have a link to my slides. I was grateful to the Ombudsmann für die Wissenschaft organization, who had published an excellent short report on their activities in 2010 including many statistics.

Then Julius Kravjar from the Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information spoke about the unique initiative that the Slovakian government has put into practice. They have started a database of all theses submitted to almost all Slovakian universities, and they run them through the Slovakian software system of the SVOP company.

The initiative for this measure came from the Ministry of Education, beginning in 2009/10 they require all publicly and privately funded universities operating under the Slovak legal order to make use of this system. The universities run a local repository, but they must send a copy to the central repository which then makes them available as open access publications.

They have currently taken in 189.000 theses up until the end of April. Kravjar notes that there is not a steady stream of papers submitted, but this is a seasonal business - the spring is the busiest time, and they have survived a peak day with 4595 theses submitted. The theses are checked with the software and a report generated and returned to the university within 48 hours. There are 4-5 people taking care of the central repository and the plagiarism detection system as a part of their full-time duties.

They are looking into branching out to include scientific papers, project and grant proposals, and materials from secondary schools. There is also a strong interest from the linguistic research community in having access to the system.

After another very short lunch break there was a ceremony held in which universities that had been certified by the company as activists in the area of plagiarism detection - submitting all papers to their system and following the defined procedures - were given a certificate.

I had some interesting conversations during the breaks, and was especially happy to meet Marek Wronski, whom I have reported on before.

The interesting question is: when will the German ministries start to get active in the question of dealing with plagiarism and scientific misconduct? The current procedures are not working, as VroniPlag and others demonstrate. I feel it is time for some serious action.

(Updated 14.5.2012 with minor corrections on the Slovak Centre, 16.5.2012 Link for POL-on)

Friday, May 4, 2012


And now the post you have all been waiting for. Sorry about taking so long, but I had a lot of other things planned for the past few days (teaching, research meeting, re:publica). I was offline most of the past three days (although a friend noted that what I call offline would be considered online for most "normal" people).

A fax was sent to press around Germany giving the link to a blog that had been set up during April 2012: schavanplag. The anonymous blog documents fragments in the dissertation of the German Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, submitted to the University of Düsseldorf 32 years ago.

There are fragments on about 17 % of the pages, but some of the fragments are very thin. Page 91, for example, consists of just two words that complete a sentence from the previous page. I counted the number of lines involved, and assuming 30 lines per page on average this is just 6 % of the lines in the book.

But it should not be considered that I am making light of the situation and shrugging it off. When one looks closely at the fragments one sees that there is a good bit of systematic scientific sloppiness in the whole thing.

I've looked quite closely at this, actually, as many of the fragments were hosted in a discreet discussion area of the VroniPlag platform for the past 4-5 months. They were hotly debated, and it was discussed how to proceed with this. When it came to a final vote, there was no majority for putting the documentation out with the author's name on it on the home page. But it was clear to all that the champions for the case were free to take the material and put it on another platform. And that is exactly what was done.

On the "Shitstorm Scale" (developed by the Swiss social media researchers Barbara Schwede und Daniel Graf) we currently have a hurricane level 6 sweeping the country. The press is in a frenzy, radio and TV are reporting, and the blogosphere, which was mostly having a fun conference in Berlin at the re:publica is screaming up a storm.

I have been asked many times what went on, as I am a named and visible member of the group. I have tried over and over to explain the difference between to open discussion of the text and the open naming of the author. I have tried to explain that this was a borderline case that did not have urgency, in my opinion, when compared with the major plagiarisms that are raging on VroniPlag at the moment. But people want a number: 10%, and that's too much, off with her head.

The university will determine if they will open an investigation. The hot-headed bloggers and twitters who have spent a nanosecond or so looking at the material are, of course, demanding that she step down, and are berating VroniPlag for having decided not to press forward on this case.

Sometimes people have to be reminded that VroniPlag is a group of hobbyists, not the Central Plagiarism Agency that has to search and destroy all plagiarism as soon as possible. I do wish the press would not twist my words quite so much. Something I say will be twisted to imply what the journalist in question wants me to say: she's guilty, she's not guilty, the group is fighting, the group is small, the group is larger, the new blog "stole" the material (it did not).  I corrected a radio journalist three times during a live show today, and he still didn't get it right. Oh well - more discussion on plagiarism is good at any rate. And I do hope that some movement in getting something like the Office of Research Integrity set up in Germany will soon be visible.

VroniPlag Case 23 hits the Danish papers

VroniPlag Case 23, a computer science professor in Denmark, has broken in the press in Denmark. Weekendavisen has a long article on the case behind their paywall - or in print. Other articles:

  • (May 3, 2012) Mistanke: Har SDU-forsker fusket med afhandling?"Forsker på Syddansk Universitet er mistænkt for fusk. Han påstår selv, at han er udsat for et komplot." (Researcher at the Southern Denmark University is suspected of cheating. He insists that he has been the victim of a conspiracy)
  • SDU opfordrer til hurtigt afgørelse i plagiatsag  (Af) "Syddansk Universitet opfordrer Aalborg Universitet til en hurtigt afgørelse i sagen om terrorforskeren Nasrullah Memon, der er mistænkt for plagiering og videnskabelig uredelighed."  (University of Southern Denmark requests that the the Aalborg University quickly bring to an end the investigation of terror researcher Nasrulla Memon, who is suspected of plagiarisim and scientific misconduct)
  • Ekstra Bladet: Forsker mistænkt for fusk med afhandling   (Ritzau /Nyhede) "Forsker på Syddansk Universitet er mistænkt for fusk. Han påstår selv, at han er udsat for et komplot. [...] Når det ikke ser sådan ud, skyldes det ifølge ham, at den version af afhandlingen, som både den tyske plagieringsgruppe og tilsyneladende også institutlederen på hans gamle institut i Esbjerg har set, er et falsum, og at han er udsat for et komplot." (Researcher at the University of Southern Denmark is suspected of cheating. He insists that he has been the victim of a conspiracy [...] The reason it does not look like that is that the version of his dissertation that is being used by both the German plagiarism group and apparently also the administration at his old institute in Esbjerg is not the correct one, he is the victim of a conspiracy. 
  • Radio24syv: Datolinjen 03-05-2012 "I have learned a lot from contributing to Vroniplag"  [Interview with one of the VroniPlag researchers, Fiesh, about this case starting at 31:13]
It boils down to Memon insisting that the thesis that is being investigated is not his thesis. Strangely, the libraries do not have an official copy of the thesis. And the wording in the supposedly wrong thesis is very similar to many other publications from Memon. It also turned out that the University of Aalborg has been investigating for over 2 years. Since most of the sources can be found on the Internet, I find it strange that it should take so long. It will be interesting to see what comes of this.

Bits be gone

You may have noticed, this blog got a bit shorter. A few articles disappeared. Even though my legal advisors felt that I was entirely within my rights in stating what I did, I would have needed > 5000 $ to begin to fight it, so I decided to take the pages down for now. This does not mean that I was wrong, it just means that I don't have the money to fight for free speech.

But who knows, maybe I'll win the lottery this weekend?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cease and Desist, y'all

Hmm. Last night an email appeared in my box with a lengthy "cease and desist" letter from a law company in Florida informing me (and my university employers, which is rather strange, as this blog does not mention their name and this blog is not connected to the university in any way) that I was to remove every single mention of a particular conference and a particular person from this blog within 24 hours and to never, ever again think, speak, write, or publish either of this names. Well, "think" was maybe not on the list. I am also not to accept comments from anyone who uses these names on any blog that I might run in the future. This includes reference to the conferences "representatives". And in "any manner". Oh, and I'm not even allowed to draft a post, so I guess that is thinking. And they have filed suit in Georgia. And and and.

Since I honestly do not know who is behind the conference - that was one of the many questions raised here - I have no idea how I can comply with that, even should I want to.

So this is what scientific discussion in the USA has come to? Since education and science has turned into a business proposition, people who "interfere" with the smooth sailing of earning money, we just turn lawyers loose on them.

Let's review what happened: I posted a short notice (48 words and a link) to a documentation page about the conference. There were about 30 comments that sprang up, many came by email. I posted a few of these to get a discussion going.

I ended up with people calling me (and others) names, and received threatening telephone calls. I've had death theats in comments. I turned off the commenting function for these entries. There was also an email to my employer trying to make it out as if I was stealing university time and computers to write this blog. I'm a German professor - my time is my own. I must teach a certain number of hours, serve on committees, but no one tells me when to be where and what to think. I like that.

So is there no free speech in the USofA? No more free thinking permitted? Or is this just something that certain people wish would happen there, too, because there are parts of the world in which this is standard operating procedure. I'll spend today checking the legality of a cease & desist sent in this manner. Be warned that I may have to comply by 20.00 German time.

Comments would be much appreciated, although I do still have moderation turned on for anonymous comments.