Friday, November 23, 2007


I tend to have my movie critiques on my private blog, but this German TV thriller shown last week on public television is about plagiarism, so I will discuss it here.

Menschenraub, the theft of a person, is what the word "plagiarism" means. When Martial, a Latin poet in the 1st century, discovered that a fellow poet had taken some of his poems and published them under his own name, he called him a "Plagiarius", someone who steals children. He felt that his poems were the children of his thought.

This "thriller" is not thrilling, possibly because the topic of plagiarism is quite boring when shown on TV. In an institute for forensic medicine and thanatology at the University of Hamburg there are all sorts of plagiarisms being found - and of course, deaths, otherwise it would not be a thriller. A teacher found a plagiarism in a student's work and exposed it in front of the entire class, announcing that she will be ex-matriculated. She kills herself.

This teacher is soon found dead, and it turns out that he has found out that the doctoral thesis of a colleague is a translation plagiarism of a scholar's work in the former Yugoslavia. Another colleague learns of this plagiarism and he too is soon dead. The plagiarist ends up committing suicide during a police interrogation to protect his girlfriend (also a colleague), who was the real murderer.

As an aside, one of the police detectives is "writing" a piece for a criminal justice journal, and he is typing in some other paper to be published in his own name.

Next to this very contrived situation - an entire institute dead within days because of allegations of plagiarism - there are so many details which are just wrong. I know of only one German university that actually ex-matriculates students because of plagiarism, and that does not happen just because a professor writes a letter. They go on at length about how much a professor gets paid, but they use the new pay scale and are using the lowest one (which pays 3700 Euros a month) but saying that this is 7000 Euros. This is the idea many people get of salaries of professors, but it is not true. Most are happy to get 4000. But honestly - who cares?

Plagiarism is an important topic for scientific discussion: what is it, how do we avoid it, how do we handle plagiarism when we find it. But as the topic of a thriller it just does not pack much of a punch.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Plagiarism of Swiss Medical Paper

The "Tages-Anzeiger", a Swiss German-language daily newspaper, published an account on Nov. 7, 2007 (page 36) of the problems encountered by Berne medical researcher Werner Pichler.

A paper that he wrote about immunology for the magazine "Allergy" was published at a later date by the Czech researcher Marcela Z. in "Folia Biologica". The papers are almost identical.

The problem is, that Pichler had submitted the article to "Lancet", and it was rejected there. One of the peer reviews done on his manuscript was done by a researcher leading a laboratory in which Marcela Z. was working.

Luckily, he managed to have his paper published before Marcela Z. published hers - with co-authors who now say that the paper was published in their name without their knowledge.

The discovery of the plagiarism was by chance. Another researcher who was aware of Pichler's work happened on Marcela Z.'s article while researching in online databases.

Marcela Z. is said to have been terminated from her position at the University of Prague, and proceedings on her doctorate are said to have been stopped. She was unavailable to the newspaper for comment.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Kitchen Radio on Plagiarism

I was the weekly guest on the Berlin "Kitchen Radio" on the topic of plagiarism. This is a podcast that has been produced by four German radio journalists for a couple of years.

They have some simple recording equipment and an interesting table microphone. They invite a guest to their kitchen, start the recorder, introduce everyone, and then just talk like as if we were having coffee together for an hour.

They said that in their "day jobs" they are only out for the sound bites, have just a few seconds to explain their topics. They wanted to experiment with simple in-depth interviews, but also to see how this informal format could work.

I found it relatively chaotic with four journalists asking the usual journalist questions all at once, so I often had the feeling of not having answered a question thoroughly. We got off on quite a number of tangents, but one of the journalists kept focusing the group, bringing us back to the topic of plagiarism.

They are proponents of Creative Commons, of the creative re-mix, and didn't really understand what all the fuss about plagiarism was about. I do feel that I was able to explain why authorship is so important in science.

Listening to the podcast I find it remarkably easy to listen to, much of what I felt was chaotic comes across well in the podcast. If you understand German and have an hour - listen in, the link is in the first paragraph!