Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dissertation revoked at the University of Dortmund, Germany

The German newspaper FAZ reports on October 20/21 2007 in an article by Sebastian Balzter "Aus der Praxis der Plagiatoren" on a case I have been following for a full two years now.

Julia Kleinhaus (a pseudonym) wrote her Diploma-Thesis in 1999 at the business department of the University of Dortmund. She handed in the 300 page treatise on a diskette, as requested by her advisor, who was working on his dissertation. Many years later she happened upon the guy's dissertation, and was shocked to find that the first 200 pages or so were exactly her pages - at times with the typographical errors intact. Only minor changes had been made (renumbering diagrams, occasional paragraphs thrown in). She wrote to me to ask what she should do.

I advised her to follow the rules laid down about 10 years ago by the German research foundation, DFG. She filed a formal complaint with the university ombudsman. She soon began to get anonymous, threatening emails. She informed the police, but they are so busy in Germany looking for terrorists and what not that nothing happened. She changed her e-mail address and was eventually invited to a hearing, almost a year after her complaint.

Another year passed before she finally learned (and this only because the reporter put the thumbscrews on the university, apparently) that the dissertation had been revoked. But the plagiarist - who is currently enjoying his title somewhere out there in the German industrial landscape where such a title brings a lot of status - is taking the university to court.

The bizarre thing is that the court will not have to decide upon whether or not a plagiarism occurred. That should be clear to anyone who even just glances at the two works. No, he is suing the university in the hopes that they made some sort of error during the process of revoking the dissertation, so that he can then keep the title, as it would then have been wrongly revoked. Universities often lose court cases like this in Germany, because someone along the line always makes an error, and highly-paid lawyers can often find out what it was.

I find it distasteful that it takes over two years to investigate this. I find it disgusting that a so blatant plagiarist can take the university to court and be judged not on the content, but only on the process. Why can't someone explain to this man why he is not worthy of the title he uses? And why can't the university grant this woman a doctorate? Not an honorary doctorate, but a real one. She did the work, she should get the honors.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Swedish professor accused of plagiarism

The Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan reports on October 23, 2007: (translation/summary errors all my own:)

Professor in Lund accused of plagiarism

A professor in Lund has been accused of plagiarism. A French researcher discovered that the Lund professor had plagiarized his results at a conference in Poland in September.

People who knew the French researcher's work were astonished to hear the Swedish professor's talk - they found it to be the exact same result. The Frence researcher wrote to the Technical University of Lund's rector and filed a complaint. "I was to be presenting my paper afterwards and was forced to change the entire presentation", the French researcher said.

According to the researcher, he had discussed his research with the Swedish professor the last time in December 2006. The Swedish professor had criticized the paper as missing a mathematical basis. The French researcher asked for more details on the tests. "I talked to him normally as I do with all people," the French researcher said.

The Lund professor rebuts the accusation: these are two different papers. Anyone who reads them can see that. The professor thinks that there are commercial interests behind the accusation, as there is an EU contest in this area and both researchers are in competition with each other. The French researchers company was eliminated from the competition - other researchers are said to have found weaknesses in his system.

The French research said to Sydsvenskan that it has been 2 years since he worked for the company. The competition demonstrates research plagiarism, he says. My results show that the Lund researcher's entry to the competition was worthless. By taking my research results he avoided losing face.

The university had started an investigation of the accusation. They expect to have results in two weeks.

The Swedish professor notes that it will be simple to show that there is no plagiarism involved, as the French researcher has not published anything that can be found in the Swedish group's work.

The French researcher says that his method is unique and was invented in 1992. "It is true that I have not published anything before I attempted to write something in December 2006 and now in September. But everyone knows that this is my method."

Commentary: This is a very interesting case. Many people define plagiarism as only taking word-for-word of other people's written work. But where do we draw the line? Often accusations of stealing research proposals or results in papers submitted to peer review are spoken in hushed voices, no one wants to be the whistle-blower.

This is interesting because it is being conducted in the open - and in the press. If the LTH (Technical University of Lund) manages to do the investigation in two weeks, my hat will be off to them. One German University I know has spent over 2 years deliberating on a copy & paste job. It is best for all parties for this to be settled as quickly as possible.

It also shows how important it is to publish your work, to stake your claim, if you will.

I will keep you posted.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Austrian plagiarist gets another chance

The Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung reports on the case of a scientist at the University of Innsbrück who received a doctorate in building materials science for a thesis which included plagiarized portions.

A German scientist was shocked to find an article in BetonWerk International reporting on the results of his own doctoral thesis, which he defended in 2001. He was not the author of this article, however, it was from the Austrian researcher.

He complained to the university, and the university did start an investigation. The surprising results: Yes, indeed, this is plagiarism. But the researcher - who appears to be working in the laboratory of the dean at the University of Innsbrück - gets to keep his doctorate if he submits a thesis within the next four months in which he corrects the "incorrect citations". Just a bit of carelessness with footnotes, it seems. The plagiarism was not "enough" for the doctorate to be revoked.

One wonders, given the current state of citation (un)culture in Austria, just how much needs to be plagiarized in order to warrant revocation. An other case in Germany, which has not yet hit the presses, involves a doctorate that is largely a word-for-word plagiarism of diploma-theses written under the tutelage of the "doctor". After 2 years of investigation, it seems the university is finally "considering" a revocation - and of course, the person so threatened is taking his university to court.

What has to happen in order for this system to change? We need proper mentoring of theses - the adviser must know the work well enough to know if it is a plagiarism or not. It must be clear at all levels that it is not acceptable to publish work done by dependent persons - or by third parties - under one's own name. And there must be effective punishments for people caught doing so, not just lashes with a wet noodle.

Any ideas?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

First post-test: Attributor

[Hmm. Just found this in my drafts. Sorry.]

I have been made aware of the company Attributor, that is to help web publishers find plagiarisms of their web content. Of course I signed up for a free report! These post-tests will be done as I find the time.

The company is run by Jim Brock, a lawyer who was with Yahoo!, and Jim Pitkow, a computer science Ph.D. who developed and sold two start-up companies, Moreover and Outride.

Their goal is to help web publishers find the "re-mixers", for example the bloggers who comment and link to articles enabling interested parties to bypass the home page of the news organization and go straight for the article. This does not sound like a bad thing, until you realize that many blogs now make money with ads, revenue that is then missing in the presenting organization, who may have their most lucrative ads on the first page.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Another Plagiarism Detection Test

The JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) in the UK has just released their study of plagiarism detection systems: (September 2007).

It was interesting to see that they tested some of the same systems we did, often having similar experiences with the systems although they only tested a few cases using computing-related texts. They did, however, have a very fine-grained points system looking at things such as legal issues and the technical basis for the server systems and the presence of licenses for using search machines such as Google or Yahoo.

Not surprisingly, Turnitin comes out on top. Why do I say "not surprisingly"? Well, JISC seems tightly entwined with the NorthumbriaLearning and the latter are the European re-sellers for Turnitin as well as a resource center for teachers. I am not quite clear on how close these two organizations are.

JISC did give this survey to an outside person to conduct, and had an academic advisory board look at the evaluation questions and suggest products to test. But the appendix entry on turnitin is a glowing sales document that avoids all of the issues with Turnitin (such as being overeager to store copies of papers in their database), whereas the others are more apt to have problems noted - problems that we, too, had in many cases.

The survey is still a very valuable collection of data - all the more so because they used questionnaires to elicit more data (or more refusals to give information) from the various companies. I am just curious as to how independent the study really is.

Update October 5, 2007: William Murray from NorthumbriaLearning has sent me this clarification of the relationship JISC/NL. Thanks, William, glad to post it!

"The relationship between JISC (the government funded Joint Information Systems Committee in the UK) and NL needs explaining. The confusion occurs because all JISC services are branded with JISC in front of them. We run JISC-PAS not JISC!

Turnitin won a national tender in 2002 put out by JISC to run a national detection service in the UK and Northumbria University (our original parent company) won a second national tender for the advisory service JISC-PAS (Plagiarism Advisory Service) that supports it.

We (Northumbria Learning) have been managing JISC-PAS and reselling Turnitin ever since with JISC’s endorsement. JISC wanted an independent survey to reaffirm (or otherwise) their support for their original choice of detection solution in 2002. NCC Group Ltd were chosen because they are independent of NL and JISC-PAS.

Within JISC-PAS our primary aim is to encourage holistic change within institutions through better information literacy, better course design, better research practice and better teaching of core skills. We happen to think that solutions like Turnitin provide the ‘ah-ha’ moment (Jude Caroll’s term not mine) that focuses the minds of all concerned. In my view detection is a change agent for better practice (I taught informatics at Northumbria University for ten years so I think this is a good thing. I would have loved to be able to use Turnitin, our class sizes were huge 300+ in some cases which made consistency in marking a nightmare). But specifically to address your points:

* JISC are not entwined with Northumbria Learning, we run the JISC-PAS and Turnitin service on behalf of JISC.

* NCC group ran an independent survey

* NCC group allowed *ALL* providers to vet *ALL* the information in their report and agree it as factually correct before publication.

* All providers were given the opportunity to improve their scores prior to publication

* The extent to which they contributed ‘sales’ information was entirely up to the companies concerned.

* Its aim was to identify which system could be deployed enterprise wide, with high volumes of through put and used on a national scale *in the UK* hence the questions about company stability and support in the UK.

* Having a central database was on of the reasons Turnitin was selected by JISC. This is why (in this context) it was not a flaw."

I think having classes of 300+ people do not constitute higher education, and that certainly contributes to the plagiarism problem!