Sunday, December 29, 2013

A tangled mess in Zürich

The so-called Mörgeli affair at the University of Zürich is a tangled mess of politics and science. Since the publications are all in German, I will try and summarize what they are reporting in English for my international readers, and give some links for those who read German.

Christoph Mörgeli, a politician with the conservative Swiss political party SVP and honorary professor (Titularprofessor) for the history of medicine at the University of Zürich, was curator of the History of Medicine Museum. 

The chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Zürich, Beat Rüttimann, retired and Flurin Condrau from Manchester was named to follow him, joining the university in 2011. Condrau published a report in 2012 on the sorry state of affairs at the museum, according to the German daily newspaper FAZ, in an article by Jürgen Kaube published on Nov. 1, 2013 titled "Alma Natter". According to the FAZ, Condrau characterized the museum as out-dated, erroneous, not state-of-the-art, and not even properly cleaned. The institute and the museum each worked in isolation, Condrau postulated political reasons for this. But the worst problem was the teaching – students did not attend the sessions offered by the museum, only interested senior citizens were in attendance, according to the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger.

An academic fight broke out, with accusations flying back and forth, many published in the Tagesanzeiger. Soon lawyers and courts were involved. The assistant curator of the museum, Titularprofessorin Iris Ritzmann, was accused of leaking a secret report to the newspaper before it was published (they insist they obtained it in a different fashion). She was jailed together with her husband while their apartment was searched and then she was fired, according to the FAZ, for having given a journalist a password to the university student platform for learning materials. Why this would be important for the case is unclear. An international uproar ensued, with petitions circulating, politicians criticizing the university, and other media chiming in (Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

An avalanche of actions broke loose:
  • Ritzmann took the university to court, filing for damages. 
  • Mörgeli was fired in September 2012, and has taken the university to court, stating that he is a victim of mobbing. This is going back and forth and has not yet been resolved.
  • The Swiss TV program Rundschau from the SRF turned out to have been investigating accusations of Mörgli having granted degrees for substandard dissertations. They broadcast on March 27, 2013, including an interview with Michele Bargadaà, a professor at the University of Geneva who researches about scientific standards in doctoral theses and has published extensively about plagiarism (her site on plagiarism and fraud is available in French at http://responsable.unige.ch/). She did not speak about plagiarism at all, according to the transcripts, but with the current discussions of plagiarism in dissertations in Europe somehow the connection seemed clear. Rundschau also stated that 12 out of 60 dissertations had consisted only in the transcription of texts, nothing more. Mörgli filed complaints with the Swiss media ombud about a total of three shows. In the final report, the ombud upheld the rights of the TV station to broadcast as they did, with just a few minor reservations.  Mörgeli filed a complaint then with the UBI, a higher ombud. They rejected all of the complaints unanimously in December 2013, according to the NZZ
  • According to the Tagesanzeiger, Condrau had been refusing to accept the dissertations that Mörgeli was mentoring since he joined the university. Until the end of Januar 2012, Beat Rüttimann, helped out by championing some of the dissertations that were currently being prepared. In July 2013 the association of professors of medical history criticized the University of Zürich because there were no second or external examiners at all for the granting of doctorates in the field of medicine. Instead, the theses are laid out in an office for 2 weeks, and if there was no protest, they were accepted. One of the evaluators went public with the accusations about the quality of the dissertations in SRF the end of November 2013, in parallel with all of the other issues mentioned above. 
  • The rector of the University of Zurich then stepped down in November 2013 when it was discovered that he had been passing on emails and notes about telephone calls, the Tagesanzeiger reports, as well as having had all the university emails checked to see who was corresponding with the press, according to the FAZ.
There are additional side stories on missing bones and what-not, but this explosive mixture is nasty enough as it is. Instead of bickering and accusing each other and insisting on secrecy about things normally publicized, the participants should perhaps all be striving for utter transparency and honesty – and then get back to doing research. They are scientists, after all.

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