Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Secret of Success: Plagiarize!

I recently discussed the Darmstadt plagiarism case involving a professor who was found to have his name on a book which included a lot of plagiarized passages. In this context I mentioned the Hans-Peter Schwintowski case at the Humboldt University, and noted that there, at least, a sub-committee was looking into the matter.

They have looked.

The president of the HU Berlin, Christoph Markschies has now issued a statement on the matter. I will give my own translation of the statement in its entirety (any errors in translation are my fault):
"The highest methodological and content standards hold especially for introductory textbooks, which have as their purpose the introduction of the scientific field to the students. I have determined after an internal university investigation that the book „Juristische Methodenlehre“ by Hans-Peter Schwintowski (published in Juristische Methodenlehre (UTB Basics, Frankfurt/Main 2005), violates these standards in such a manner that the university is compelled to provide a public statement.

The rules of quoting are part of the basic requirements of good scientific praxis as set forth in our regulations (§ 6 (2)) and they stipulate that the use of word-for-word quotes without reference is scientific misconduct. Such a misuse of the methods of a discipline and the intellectual property of others is absolutely not acceptable."

I translate in its entirety because there seems to be a third paragraph missing. The paragraph explaining the consequences of Schwintowski's actions. We threaten students who plagiarize with all sorts of consequences such as failing a course or getting thrown out of school.

Here we have a clear determination of plagiarism on the part of a professor. Surely something must happen? I can imagine all sorts of things: research funding moratorium; taking away his research assistant the next time it is free; making him take a course in ethics; making the whole department - which appears to have a culture in which such behavior is acceptable - take an ethics course; assigning hours of public service such as doing something about the cataloging backlog in the library or whatever; requesting that he donate the proceeds from the book to financing a course on avoiding plagiarism for students. Surely there must be something which is the equivalent of failing a student for a course in which they submit a plagiarism.

There seems to be nothing. Spiegel Online has picked up the hunt, now the president has said that they will be looking into legal consequences. Sigh. Only the copyright owner can sue for breach of copyright. This is not about copyright. It is about ethics. It is about what scientific writing, scientific research is all about. If there are no consequences, then Tom Lehrer was right with his song Lobachevsky - "I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!" (An MP3 of the song sung by Lehrer himself is available - this is a must-hear!).

This, then, is the secret to success in science: plagiarize, as there are no consequences if you get caught. Is this what the HU Berlin - which is vying for a title of "Elite University" in Germany - is trying to tell us? I sincerely hope not. I have written an email to the president about this. We'll see if there is any reaction. For the sake of science in Germany, I hope that there is some reaction.

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