Friday, April 11, 2008

Icelandic professor fined for plagiarism

There is quite a drama playing out in Iceland at the Háskóli Íslands. A controversial professor for political science there, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson (link is to the English Wikipedia, the case is briefly mentionen there), published a book in 2003 about the Icelandic Literature Nobel prize winner Halldór Laxness that contained many paragraphs that are plagiarisms of the works of Laxness.

Laxness' widow Auður Sveinsdóttir and daughter, the Icelandic filmmaker Guðný Halldórsdóttir, sued him on the basis of a 200-page document prepared by Helga Kress demonstrating the plagiarism from Laxness and from Thor Vilhjálmsson, Stefan Zweig, Peter Hallber and herself. Hannes won in a lower court, but the supreme court decided in March 2008 that he was guilty of plagiarism and the widow is to be paid damages to the tune of 5 million Icelandic crowns (about $ 68000) and to pay all court costs.

Hannes (Icelanders only have first and second names, what looks like a last name is the patronymic) contends that he did nothing wrong, as he is a political scientist and not a literature professor.

The university is debating how to handle this, and quite a number of fellow professors have come out in his defense (!), publicly giving support to him via a blog and a half-page ad published in a local newspaper last weekend which also requested donations to help him pay the fines. Other teachers are very vocal (also recorded in the blog) in saying that it was a good thing that he was fined, as honest scientists of any field do not steal other people's words. A very hot debate is currently running as to whether he needs to be additionally punished by the university.

The sources are mostly in Icelandic. The word for "plagiarism" in Icelandic (which tries to be pure and not use words borrowed from other languages) is ritstöld, theft of writing.
  • A blog Hannes og Háskólinn I - II - III - IV . The blog is asking teachers at the university to answer five questions. This is a translation of the questions asked (if you want to try and decode the answers, use this online Icelandic dictionary):
    1. What do you think about the recent sentencing of Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, professor for political science at HÍ?
    2. Should the rector of the university get involved in this situation?
    3. If so, in what way?
    4. What do you think about the advertisement that Hannes' supporters published in the paper this weekend?
    5. Have you considered supporting this collective assistance for him?

  • Hannes own blog and university home page
  • A local newspaper, Morgunblaðið, has a page collecting their articles about this
  • The decree


  1. Hello, my name is Halldor, son of Guðný Halldórsdóttir the filmmaker.

    I just thought you wanted to know that the university decided not to do anything about the issue. He got a reminder in a letter, stating his work ethics were unsatisfying. He did not receive an official warning or expulsion.

    I am curious to know, what the case would have been in Germany?

    Halldór Halldórsson, journalist.

  2. Hello Halldór, thanks for the update.

    It is unclear, what would have happened in Germany, we have had some cases. One discussed here in this blog has just had a reprimand. In other cases (that included the selling of doctorates and misuse of public funds) the professors were just recently jailed.

    We are starting to discuss the problem of plagiarism by professors in Germany, but many university administrations try and sweep everything under the carpet.

    Thanks for letting us know, and keep us posted if there are new developments!

  3. I would like to point out that the case was not about plagiarism. I do not know where you got that information from. The case is about copyright. The Supreme Court found me guilty of breaching the Laxness copyright by too extensive a use of his texts, in my biography of him. I did not hide at all that I used his texts extensively, indeed I pointed it out in the postscript. I would like you to correct this. Hannes H. Gissurarson

  4. Hello Hannes, I have my sources linked above. In many places, a too extensive use of copyrighted material is also considered to be plagiarism. But you are welcome to set anything straight that you feel is not correct.