Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Student in Sweden sanctioned for plagiarism

According to the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan from May 24, 2016, a student has been sanctioned by the University of Lund for plaigarism in a Master's thesis. Apparently, the thesis consisted almost entirely of text copied from other theses. Not only was the theory portion plagiarized, but interviews were also apparently falsified. The sanction meted out by the Disciplinary Board (disciplinnämnd) was suspension from the university for three months.

A suspension sanction is quite severe in Sweden, as this means that credit points are not earned during suspension. Students cannot continue to receive student loans if they do not earn enough credit points each semester and thus often must interrupt their studies.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

UK Report on Ghostwriting

​​The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK (QAA) has just released a public report about ghostwriting: "Plagiarism in Higher Education - Custom essay writing services: an exploration and next steps for the UK higher education sector." It gives an excellent overview of the problem of bespoke essays or contract cheating and also discusses the bleak legal outlook on the problem. They also discuss the legal situation in a few other countries. New Zealand appears to have had regulations about this in their Education Act from 1989, making it illegal to provide or advertise ghostwriting services.

The report summarizes what needs to be done (p. 16) as
Education. Deterrence. Detection.
That is, students and educators need to be informed about good scientific practice, assessments have to be desiged so as to deter academic misconduct, and universities must act to detect (and sanction) such misconduct when it occurs.

I highly recommend reading this report, including the case studies that document the advertising text used by five essay mills, with price information. It is a sobering read.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Netherlands to fight academic misconduct on a national level

The Times Higher Education online is reporting that the Netherlands are starting an ambitious project to deal with academic misconduct and the reproducability crisis. One major thrust of the project is a 5 million € grant called "Fostering Responsible Research Practices" that will include a nationwide survey. An additional 3 million € will be invested for encouraging replication studies.

The survey is intended to ask every scientist if they have ever committed research misconduct or "sloppy science", according to the THE. Prof. Lex Bouter, professor of Methodology and Integrity from the VU Amsterdam and one of the driving forces behind the initiative, according to the THE, is also co-chair of the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI 2017) which will take place May 28-31 in Amsterdam next year. [Disclosure: I am a member of the European advisory committee for this conference.]

Daniele Fanelli published a paper in PLOSone in 2009, "How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data" that 
[...] found that, on average, about 2% of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once – a serious form of misconduct my [sic] any standard [...] – and up to one third admitted a variety of other questionable research practices including “dropping data points based on a gut feeling”, and “changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source”.
Two percent may not seem to be much, but these are self-reporting surveys and people tend to underreport dishonest behavior. And since science builds on the work of other researchers, depending on their honesty, one dishonest researcher can easily poison the work of two dozen others who spend time reading and understanding their papers or attempting to replicate their research.

I assume that one result of a nationwide survey will also be raised awareness about the problem of academic misconduct. Germany could certainly use a survey like this as well....

Monday, April 25, 2016

Seven more retractions for Danish computer scientist

Back in 2012, the German plagiarism documentation platform VroniPlag Wiki published a documentation about extensive plagiarism in a computer science dissertation submitted in 2007 to the Danish University of Aalborg at Esbjerg. This sparked some media attention (and was reported in this blog in May 2012) and eventually an investigation of the Danish national academic integrity body UVVU (Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty) was initiated. That body ruled on December 2, 2014: (English translation)
The Committee finds that the Defendant has acted in a scientifically dishonest
manner in the form of plagiarism [...]
I managed to obtain many of the documents produced by means of a freedom of information act inquiry. The UVVU mounted an exhaustive inquiry, and also informed the university currently employing the author as a professor of their decision. Interestingly, he is still listed at the university as of today, and has current publications listed.

The thesis borrowed heavily from journal articles and conference papers published either alone or in collaboration with others that turned out to include much text overlap with publications of other researchers. And after the thesis was defended, many more papers were published, again with others, that again contained extensive text overlap both with papers by other authors and with text from the dissertation. The true sources were about identifying criminal networks, the copied papers were on the topic of identifying terrorist networks.
The source is on the right, the edited copy on the left
VroniPlag Wiki lists more than 20 papers to date that are affected by substantial text similarities. The publisher at Springer and IEEE were informed, and this blog discussed some of the papers in June 2012.  In January 2013 eight papers were retracted by the IEEE.

Springer published 10 of these papers, but was quite indecisive as to how to deal with the situation. In a journal, a retraction can be published in the next available issue. However for conference proceedings, there is often no "next" volume in which to note the retraction. Of course, since the papers are all online, they can at least be retracted there. In January 2014 I found that Springer had published a retraction of one of the papers, but then retracted the retraction just a few days later, publishing an erratum instead.

During an idle search in April 2016, one of the VroniPlag Wiki researchers was surprised to see that Springer had quietly retracted seven of the ten papers. Of course, Springer wants the general public to invest $ 30 to read the retractions:

I was able to obtain four of the seven retractions because they were published in proceedings that my library has access to. The notices read as follows:
The publisher regrets to announce that the following chapter entitled [...] has been retracted. This chapter contains a large amount of reused and uncited material that was not published within quotation marks.
Looks to me as if Springer has come up with a new euphemism for that nasty P-word.

I find it troubling that Springer needed so many years to act on the information given to them about the problematic publications. And even though Springer is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE),  they did not follow the advice given in the COPE flowcharts for dealing with such situations. This includes as a final step "inform the person who originally raised the concern."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Confusing Pakistani Plagiarism Case

The Pakistani Express Tribune reported on March 28, 2016 that the former chair of the Pakistani HEC (Higher Education Council) in Pakistan has tendered his apology for having plagiarized a paper he co-authored with a colleague. According to the Express Tribune, an investigation committee found in 2014 that a third of the paper was taken from a European Union (EU) report.

The paper, given as ‘Study of Pakistan’s Election System – Intelligent E-Election’ in the Journal of Independent Studies and Research (Vol. 1, No 2, July 2003, pp 2 – 7), will be "withdrawn" from the author's CV, according to the Express Tribune.

There are two journals that are "JISR" journals, one on management and one on computer science. According to the online table of contents of the management issue, although seven papers were accepted, only four are linked to online. One is indeed by the former HEC chair, but on a different topic. The computing issue (Vol. 1, No 2, July 2003) includes a paper by his co-author on a different topic.  I checked the management journal on the Internet Archive and found the July 2003 issue archived in 2012 with no mention of the paper, but it can be found linked from the table of contents of the computing issue, also archived in 2012. So the paper was removed from the journal instead of being retracted.

If I google the title, however, I land at an arXiv paper by that same name and by those authors, submitted on 27 May 2004, with no mention that the paper has been published elsewhere or that it has been withdrawn. The acknowledgment of the paper is interesting:
By the grace of Allah, this independent study stands complete. However, calling it independent is not quite correct. I owe the success of this effort to my institute and my Independent study supervisor, Dr. J[...] R. L[...], without whose guidance this accomplishment would have been impossible.
So is this a colleague or a student who is the first author of the paper?

Digging a bit deeper turns up this 2013 report in Dawn stating that using Turnitin on the paper reported 78 % plagiarism. I have grave reservations about using numbers that a plagiarism detection system reports, as they are often skewed. The article notes:
According to the HEC rules, anyone found involved in plagiarism before 2007 cannot be punished but all the benefits availed because of the plagiarised thesis or research paper would be withdrawn, [an anonymous HEC official] added. The officer pointed out that the research paper was written in 2003 when there was no policy about plagiarism. “Dr [L.] just supervised that research paper so action can only be taken against [M.N.],” he said.
 L. is quoted in a 2014 article in the Express Tribune:  
[L.] added that he did not contribute to the piece and only provided the data the [N.] needed. [L.] also said that the case did not fall under the HEC plagiarism policy as it was published in a magazine, adding "I never benefited from it and the co-author included my name without my knowledge."
According to the Tribune, the article was on his CV in 2014, but there is no trace of the paper in his online CV today. In an article he published in 2014 ("I am not a plagiarist") L. writes
In 2003, I helped a faculty member, [M.N.], in collecting data for a report that he was writing on electronic voting. He subsequently published the report, in 2004, without my knowledge, in a non-recognised journal, of which he was the editor and used my name as co-author. Since it was typical that authors write names of advisers in their papers, and since I was his adviser in his other work, he put my name on the paper as an acknowledgment. No one, including me, could have verified the originality of anyone’s work then, since no anti-plagiarism softwares were available at that time. The paper eventually got listed in my CV — an innocent oversight as there was no vested interest involved because the journal was not of a notable stature even by Pakistani standards.
He goes on to state that what the Express Tribune has written is misleading and quotes another academic as calling this a conspiracy, because L. has been vociferous in denouncing Pakistani fake degrees and fake universities (which he, by the way, has). And says that it isn't a problem anyway, as there was no Pakistani policy on plagiarism before 2007.

I'm confused.

L. has apologized for plagiarism in a paper he didn't write that is no longer available at the journal named but where his co-author was editor and it still ended up listed on his CV by mistake? And now it has been removed from the journal page (and is not mentioned in the CV) but it is still on arXiv? Because it was put there before the Pakistani policy on plagiarism came into effect?

This has nothing to do with there being no software around to find plagiarism (not "verify the originality") -- you only put things in your CV that you wrote, and if you wrote an article, you know that you didn't copy it from somewhere else, so there is no need for any sort of software.

It doesn't matter if the journal is "non-recognized": Software filtering systems will find them and they will be available to others. If a PDF can be obtained online for a paper that has been retracted and there is no retraction watermark on the page, other scientists will be misled into thinking that the paper has not been withdrawn. People don't compare papers they are quoting with the CVs of the authors, as far as I know. And just deleting articles that have been found to be the results of academic misconduct may remove the offending article from the reach of software, but if anyone has quoted this article, there should be a proxy page that informs the reader what's up. 

Thanks to @gwarynski_ for the Express Tribune link, although it ended up being far too much research necessary to try and understand what happened! 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

New Approaches to Academic Misconduct in Denmark and Sweden?

There have been a number of high-profile cases of academic misconduct in the past few years, both in Denmark and in Sweden. The Swedish government has just issued a directive requesting that an independent examiner look at the necessity of changing the rules for investigating cases of academic misconduct in research. They request that a proposition be made for a timely and legally secure process for dealing with accusations of academic misconduct. ("En särskild utredare ska undersöka behovet av en ny hantering av ärenden som rör utredning av oredlighet i forskning och lämna förslag som säkerställer en tydlig och rättssäker hantering av misstänkt oredlighet.").

This comes on the heels of news (Retraction Watch reports) about a Swedish researcher who has been dismissed from the Karolinska Institut on multiple charges of academic misconduct

Denmark is a bit further along in the same process. They have had quite a number of scandals, so the UVVU (the Danish organization that looks at accusations of academic misconduct) has already prepared their own suggestions. They have a page with a number of links, and a relative thorough collection of the current practices in seventeen countries:Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland,  Sweden,  USA. Unfortunately, the report appears to only be in Danish. 

ScienceNordic has a nice overview of the the major scandals in Denmark and Sweden, including many links, in English.

The problems arise when lawyers are called into scientific disputes and judges decide what is and what is not good science. I think we need a sort of "Godwin's law" in science. If you involve a lawyer, you lose the argument. We need to focus more on peers discussing the science, although there do need to be sanctions for those found to have committed academic misconduct.

The Danish report lists the wide spectrum of possible sanctions found in the various countries (p. 20-21):
  • Issuing a correction
  • Reprimand
  • Supervision of future research
  • Suspension from scientific work
  • Retractions
  • Disciplinary sanctions such as being put on probation for future academic work
  • Rescinding of academic titles
  • Rescinding of the right to advise PhD students 
  • Withdrawal of internal resources
  • Repayment of research funding
  • No permission to apply for research funding, usually for a set number of years. 
The report makes it clear that there does need to be a system for appealing such a judgement and in particular the whistleblowers need to be protected.  It will be interesting to see what the Danish government decides to do and whether the Swedish report will be much different from the Danish one.

Update: fixed Goodwin -> Godwin

Thursday, March 10, 2016

German Defense Minister to keep doctoral degree

The Medical University in Hanover held a press conference on March 9, 2016 that was broadcast live on German television. They announced that the dissertation submitted in 1990 by the current German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen does indeed contain plagiarism (as documented by VroniPlag Wiki), but that they do not see an intention to deceive and thus they are not rescinding the doctorate. They see most of the plagiarism in the introduction, not in the results portion of the thesis. The president of the university stated that there are "errors, but not academic misconduct." The VroniPlag Wiki documents plagiarism on 27 out of 62 pages (43.5 % of the pages in the thesis affected), not only in the introduction, but also in section 3 (Thematic Background and Pathophysiological Fundamentals) as well as in the discussion.

RP online quotes law professor Gerhard Dannemann, one of the VroniPlag Wiki activists, as stating that this decision is irritating because plagiarism is academic misconduct, as has been decided time and again in the German courts when persons who had their doctorates revoked for plagiarism took their universities to court.

The Berlin daily newspaper Tagespiegel notes the close connections between von der Leyen and the MHH. Her husband is an adjunct professor at the MHH and director of the Hannover Clinical Trial Center GmbH that is affiliated with the medical school. She herself is a founder of the school's alumni association.

Since this case was published, VroniPlag Wiki has documented extensive text overlap in five additional dissertations (Acb, Bca, Lcg, Wfe in medicine, Cak in dentistry) and a habilitation (Mjm) from the MH Hanover. It will be interesting to see how these cases that affect people who are not politicians play out. In particular one would hope that these cases would also be dealt with in a timely manner and the results announced to the academic world.

In my opinion the MH Hanover has chosen what they think is a pragmatic solution. They split an academic publication into two parts, an important and a non-important part. Many biomedical researchers fall into the same trap: If the data is falsified or fabricated, they are quick to find fault, but do not find plagiarism to be a problem. This is, however, in direct contradiction to German court decisions that only see a dissertation as submitted as a whole. There is no "scientific core" that is okay, although the rest is tainted. The NSF in the USA is very clear on this topic:
„(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, carrying out, or
(2) Reporting results from activities funded by NSF; or retaliation of any kind against a person who reported or provided information about suspected or alleged misconduct and who has not acted in bad faith.“
This is how I see it: When entire pages are taken word-for-word without appropriate citation (for example the VroniPlag Wiki case Go with more than half of the pages containing plagiarism, among them 11 pages taken from the Wikipedia without reference) and passed off as one's own work, it is plagiarism and thus academic misconduct. It is also plagiarism (and thus academic misconduct) when throughout a text words or ideas are presented as the author's own when they are actually taken from another person. There is not a question of intent to deceive inherent in a definition of plagiarism, that can only have an effect on potential sanctions.

The MH Hanover deliberated and tried to find a way to have it both ways: The thesis contains plagiarism, but it is not serious enough to warrant rescinding a doctorate. I suspect this will provoke much discussion with current and future students who do not understand why they are given a failing grade for much less plagiarism.