Sunday, January 8, 2017

An Exercise in Plagiarism Prevention

As Diane Pecorari [1] never seems to tire of saying, the best way to deal with plagiarism is to prevent it happening by educating students about why we reference other works and how to do it.  I quite agree! Not only has Pecorari put together many good classroom activities in order to achieve this goal, but others such as Margaret Price [2] have also offered good ideas. Price speaks of a classroom lecture of Mike Mattison at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that she observed in 1999 and describes an exercise that he did with his students:
Another area for possible focus in the classroom is the differences among, and possible intersections of, what we mean by paraphrasing, quoting, and our own words. In an inventive approach to this subject, Mike Mattison distributes colored pencils to his students and asks each of them to create a legend at the top of a peer's paper: one color for what they determine to be paraphrases, one for quotes, and one for the author's own words. Students go through each other's papers, underlining sections, lines, and words in appropriately alternating colors. They then retrieve their own papers and examine the alternation of colors for balance and flow. Although in the class I observed Mike did not ask his students to discuss the problem of distinguishing between "outside" words and the author's own words, his exercise would be an ideal lead-in to this conversation. Students could also try this with their own papers.
That sounds like a brilliant idea, so I adapted it for my Master's seminar in a computing program the other day. The students are currently writing their final theses, due in about 8 weeks. It is, of course, late for such instruction, but better late than never.

I instructed the students to bring two copies of 4-5 pages from their thesis in which they reference the work of others, and one copy of their literature list. They were also to bring highlighters and a red pen. I gave them the instruction two weeks in advance and repeated it 48 hours before class. As more than one student admitted, the 48-hour-reminder induced enough panic to get them to finally quit programming and get some writing done.

We have a block of 4x45-minute-long hours every other week for the course, the first hour of the session we had other topices to attend to.

For the exercise I brought five pages from my book [3] and a sack full of highlighters and colored pens, as I know that my students often forget to bring writing implements.

In the second hour I sat down at our overhead camera projector with three markers and my text. I defined a legend for the colors and then did the highlighting on my own text: What is from me, what is quoted, what is an indirect quotation or a paraphrase. They peppered me with questions! I thought I was only going to need 15 minutes for this, we had to break off after 4 pages and 45 minutes!

Then it was their turn. I paired off the 12 participants so that no one was together with someone with whom they are working closely, and had them get to work marking up one copy of their own writing and one copy of the partners. The readers were given the literature lists and were asked to spot-check a few of the references to see if they were correctly recorded. A red pen was to be used to mark up any spelling or grammar errors encountered. They were made to sit apart so that they didn't get nervous sneaking peeks at their partner. Then they were to discuss the results with their partner.

It took about 25-30 minutes of very intensive work before they had worked through the exercise, then they began very spirited discussions of the differences between their own markup and the perception of their readers. I was called on by all the groups to "judge" differences of opinion. Two groups discussed the issues for the next 60 minutes!

I asked each group for some feedback on the exercise. They all appreciated the exercise, because it taught them how to see what they write from a reader's perspective. They know what they have written themselves and what is from other people, but were not making this clear. It was also hard having peers mark up spelling errors in red - two students sat correcting their spelling errors on the spot. The feedback that was most surprising for me was one student who noted that he felt quite relieved now. There has been an intensive discussion of plagiarism in Germany since 2011 and many students are scared that they are somehow not quoting properly and will get accused of plagiarism. Now he felt secure that he was doing it mostly right, and that he had learned about the points where he needed to make things a bit more clear in the exercise.

I highly recommend trying out this exercise, although I don't know how I would survive a larger group, as I had waiting lists for going around and explaining details to each group.


[1] Pecorari, D. (2013). Teaching To Avoid Plagiarism: How To Promote Good Source Use. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
[2] Price, M. (2002). “Beyond “Gotcha!”: Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy”, In College Composition and Communication, Vol. 54 No. 1, S. 109.
[3] Weber-Wulff, D. (2014). False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism. Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The new predatory publisher list is out

Jeffrey Beall has published the 2017 version of his predatory publisher list. When he started the list in 2011, he had 18 publishers on the list. Now there are 1155! The number of standalone journals has gone from 126 to 1294 in the same time period. Since 2015 he has also been tracking misleading metrics and hijacked journals.

The list is getting to be so much more vital as the predatory publishing industry grows. Just the other day a colleague asked me my opinion of a publisher she had never heard of, but which had made her an offer to publish a paper. I showed her the site, and we found the publisher quickly on the list. The email to her was summarily filed in the trash. One less researcher to be fooled, but I fear that there are many more. Spread the word to your colleagues that you can check the list before you submit! It's not a guarantee, but it's a tool to help you assess the journal in question.

Update 20170117:  The lists disappeared on January 15, it is assumed that some publisher on the list is trying a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) and has forced a take-down. There is a detailed discussion to be found at the blog Debunking Denialism.
The lists are still on the Internet archives for now. The links are giving at the above-mentioned blog. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Things leftover in tabs from 2016

Happy New Year!

I seem to have collected quite a number of interesting stories that are hanging around in my browser tabs. Let me just document some of them here.
  • Serays Maouche reports in December 2016 in Mediapart in France about a plagiarism case that involves a person who is professor at the École Centrale Paris and a director at the Atomic Energy Commission. It involves plagiarism in a number of texts, among them a biography of Einstein. The institutions involved have nothing to say on the matters. Ms. Maouche closes with the question "Comment sanctionner des étudiants pour plagiat, si on accepte cette fraude académique pour des directeurs et des académiciens ?" (How can we sanction students for plagiarim when this academic misconduct is accepted by the administrations and academics?)
  • It was reported be the Guardian in November that the results of one portion of the ACT exam, one used by US-American universities to determine admission for foreign students, has been invalidated for Asia-Pacific students. No details were available. 
  • In Spain, el diario reported on November 21 and  November 23 about a plagiarism case involving the rector of a Spanish university. The Google translate version is not very clear, so I don't want to try and summarize it here, just give the links. 
  • In October the Chinese Global Times wrote about a report in the "Southern Weekly" about Chinese scientists and medical practioners paying journals to publish ghostwritten articles so that they can obtain promotions. Springer has since retracted 64 publications and BioMed Central 43 for faking peer reviews. 
  • Radio Free Asia reported on September 21, 2016 that students in Laos had to retake college entrance exams after more than 100 students obtained a perfect score on the social sciences part of the exam. Students are angry, as they will again have to incur traveling expenses in order to retake the exam.
  • Donald McCabe, a prolific researcher from Rutgers Business School who focused on determining how prevalent academic misconduct is amongst pupils and students worldwide and on the use of academic honor codes to prevent misconduct, passed away at age 72 on Sept. 17, 2016. I was lucky to get to meet Don in 2012 when he gave a talk at our university and we drove together down to Bielefeld for a conference. He will be sorely missed.
  • The Moscow Times reported on September 8, 2016 that Russian education officials  "have reportedly developed draft legislation that would make it possible to revoke a person's academic doctorate only after a copyright ruling by a court has come into effect. " Although copyright and plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct have little to do with each other, this is apparently in response to the documentation work of Dissernet, who have documented plagiarism in hundreds of dissertations, among them many submitted by politicians to Russian universities. 
  • There was a flurry of publications about paper mills and the problem of contract cheating, that is, students paying someone else to do their work for them. In the UK the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education published a report on contract cheating in August. The chief operations officer at an essay mill then wrote a defense of his industry for the Times Higher Education which sparked quite a debate. Tricia Bertram Gallant, also writing in the THE, called on universities to fight contract cheating by openly discussing the topic with students. October 19 was declared the "International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating" and a number of institutions worldwide participated. 
  • The Age reported in October about an inside job at the University of Melbourne in Australia where grades on a manually graded exam was changed after grading with a red pen by someone who had access to the exam papers. The university was unable to determine who was responsible for the change.
  • Joanna Williams reported in June in the Times Higer Education about a survey on research misconduct in the UK.
  • In July 2016 the USA issued a patent (US9389852) to Indian researchers on a method for determining "plagiarism" in program code from Design Patterns. That Design Patterns were explicitly meant to be copied appears to have escaped the Patent Office. 
  • The blog iPensatori analyzed how Google Scholar gets filled up with junk.
  • The Office of Research Integrity has put up some infographics on their site about research integrity. They also have a guide on avoiding self-plagiarism.
  • And while I am on the subject, the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity will be held from May 28-31, 2017, in Amsterdam (I am on the program committee). The conference proceedings from the previous conference is available here. There will also be the 3rd International Conference Plagiarism In Europe and Beyond from May 24-25 in Brno, Czech Republic.  And no, there are no direct flights Brno-Amsterdam.
  • On March 18, 2016 the German DFG announced sanctions against an unnamed researcher who will be barred from applying for financing for three years.

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."