Monday, August 31, 2009

Captchas now activated

Sorry for the inconvenience, but there has been so much Japanese spam advertising for medicinal compounds lately, that I've turned on captcha and moderation for older posts.

Plagiarism in China

A German researcher about plagiarism in China, Lena Henningsen from the University of Heidelberg, passes on this great article about plagiarism and cheating in China: "No stopping China's cheaters", by Stephen Wong, Asia Times, Aug 22, 2009.

Some of the high points:
  • Organized cheating on college exams is rampant.
  • A novel experiment in detection of cheating on exams found that young pupils made much better proctors, catching two and a half times more cheaters than the adults did. The average age of the pupils was 12 years old.
  • Wong notes that "A commentary of the national Guangming Daily newspaper stated that adults don't lack the eyes to see problems. They lack the courage to expose them."
  • There is an examination law being proposed, but the question of enforcement lurks unsolved.
  • Southwest Jiaotong University vice president Huang Qing has had his dissertation revoked. He has protested that it was "only 7%" and doesn't understand what the fuss is all about.
  • Tsinghua University has developed software that supposedly detects plagiarism. But it doesn't detect much, there is counter software available that helps people "fix" their stolen papers.
I think the comment from Guangming Daily is spot on for the Western world as well. We see problematic behavior (read: scientific misconduct of all shades and strengths), but we lack the courage to call people out on their misconduct.

Thanks for the link, Lena!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Update: Doctorates sold in Germany

A reporter for the Frankfurter Rundschau has made it clear that the Cologne district attorney's office was a little imprecise in saying that 100 honorary professors were being investigated. What was meant was that over 100 "außerplanmäßige" Professors (apl. Prof.) are being looked into.

There is a difference. An honorary professorship is something like an honorary doctorate, only one step up the ladder. An apl. Prof. is one that is "outside of the plan". That means, they get to call themselves Professor, and they have to teach, but they don't necessarily get paid. Many of these people either have a German second doctorate (Habilitation) or they were so-called "Junior Professors" that got to be "real" professors straight from their doctorates for six years and then failed to find a job-for-life.

This introduces a strangeness to the cases. If tenured professors were to take a bribe, they are looking at fines, prison, and perhaps being stripped of their pension. But since these apl. Profs are not paid, there's not that much of a problem in them taking bribes.

So who is to blame? Well, what are these faculty boards and dissertation committee doing during their meetings about the dissertations? Did no one read and thoroughly research the work done? Did they just rubber stamp the proposals and hope that the meeting was over in time for dinner?

The hard part is: how do we get this sorted out? In Sweden it would be simple. All public service documents are in the public domain. Some reporter with time on hir hands would ask for the list and start making calls. In Germany we have "data privacy" laws that are very useful in situations like this. And since it is not the national government, but the individual states that run the universities, there are 16 "Kultusminister" or "Wissenschaftssenator" that have to check out their own house.

In a fantasy world, each state would request the list of their own institutions from Cologne and call in some university presidents for some hard discussions. They might even cut budgets from departments that granted degrees that show up on the list.

Oh, and there are apparently over 200 names on the list of grantees, just 100 apl. Profs. that participated. Stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, August 24, 2009

From the Department of Oops

As reported previously, the German magazin Focus (among others) reported that German professors sold doctorates after they were given a bribe by an institute that "found mentors" for its customers. In a classic Google Ads "Oops" the article at Online Focus on August 22, 2009 is decorated with an ad for just such an institute (red box added by me):

Thanks to W. Cloud for finding this gem!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

German Professors sold Doctorates

The Cologne district attorney's office has completed its investigation after having confiscated papers found while searching the offices of the Insitute für Wissenschaftsberatung in Bergisch-Gladbach. They had been in business for over 20 years. The University of Hanover took back nine doctorates in March 2009, when they discovered that the professors "mentoring" the theses had taken bribes to do so.

Now Focus, Neue Westfälische Zeitung, Spiegel Online, and Tagesschau report that over 100 other doctorates have been found to have been granted on the basis of bribes. District Attorney Günther Feld has confirmed the press reports that professors from the Universities of Bayreuth, Berlin (Free University), Bielefeld, Cologne, Frankfurt/Main, Hagen, Hamburg, Hanover, Ingolstadt, Jena, Leipzig, Rostock, and Tübingen are involved. Many different fields are represented, among them law, medicine, sociology, business administration, engineering, and veterinary science.

The customers paid the institute between 4000 and 20 000 Euros for finding an "appropriate" mentor and topic. The professors received between 2000 and 5000 Euros for taking on the customer. In general, however, it was not the tenured professors who were caught, but honorary professors, who have been given the status of a professor, and the right to mentor doctorates. They are required to teach a course every year to keep their titles, but are not paid. The departmental boards of each school, however, are normally involved in the granting of the doctorates. It is not clear why none of them complained or stopped any of these degrees.

The conviction of a law professor from Hannover on bribery charges is now final, he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 75 000 Euros. He had appealed to the Federal High Court of Justice, but they refused to hear the case.

Spiegel Online also has an interview with the Munich professor for business, Manuel René Theisen, who has been fighting against companies such as the Bergisch-Gladback institute for over 25 years.

See the update on this case!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Swedish Red Cross Officer Faked Academic Records

There were reports in June 2009 in alternative media (The Local,, Swedennews) that Johan af Donner, the communication officer for the Swedish Röda Korset, was not only remanded into custody charged with defrauding the Red Cross of more than 2.5 million SEK (about 250.000 €), but had also defrauded the Swedish Cancer Society of another 3 million or so when he served as their head of donations. He also misused the Red Cross business credit card for personal expenses.

During the investigations it came to light that af Donner had also apparently falsified his qualifications, using liquid paper on a copy of a degree from a friend. He left both copies behind when fired from a previous company and made to leave immediately, according to Realtid, an online business zine that has been closely following the case. The link is in Swedish, but there is a picture of the falsified document, presumably before being fotocopied. The University of Stockholm has determined that af Donner was enrolled in a business administration program but was never granted a degree.

af Donner was released from prison four weeks later, since the government had by then managed to freeze his assets, in particular the money he made by selling off his apartment in a fancy part of Stockholm (Ostermalm) just before the Red Cross story broke. A crony who helped in the fraud by sending made-up bills has also been identified and charged.

In other news, the Red Cross Hospital in Stockholm has to close because they have no money. They are, however, economically separate from the Swedish Red Cross, so the officers of the Red Cross deny that there is a connection here.

A Plagiarist Reformed

The Washington Post reports on the reporter who had to leave the New York Times because of plagiarism. It is rather strange that this is newsworthy, but maybe in order to show that there can indeed be life in a different field after such a scandal. I'm glad he's found a job and seems to be doing well at it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How do we deal with accusations?

In a previous blog entry I demonstrated an example of what I called "CV bloat" with reuse of previously published material. I wrote to the person involved and asked if he could give any clarification on the matter. He wrote a very nice letter back, explaining the situation.

In his letter he raised another, very valid point. Should I have blogged this publicly? This would seem to be also against the DFG rules:
Trotz ihrer zum Teil gegensätzlichen Rollen teilen der Beschuldigte, seine Institution und derjenige, der Zweifel an der Arbeit geäußert hat, das Ziel einer möglichst schnellen Aufklärung der vorgebrachten Verdächtigungen ohne öffentliches Aufsehen. (Despite their opposing roles, all three parties - the accused, the institution to which he or she belongs, and the accuser - should have the goal of a quick clearing up of the matter without public attention. [emphasis mine])
The DFG rules go on to describe a long process that must be conducted in utmost secrecy. Indeed, I can see that this is important in a case where we have A and B, each with a copy of the same text, and it must be determined who copied from whom. And it would be important for the accusers to be able to remain anonymous, although in many cases that I see (doctoral theses copying word-for-word from diploma or master's or bachelor's theses they mentored) it is trivial to guess who must have blown the whistle.

But how can we discuss questions of what is acceptable and what is not, if we do not do it publicly? No one will discuss the topic unless there is a concrete case at hand that starts people thinking and asking questions.

I have spoken about this reuse with a number of colleagues in the past few days and have found that many do not find this to be a problem, although I have pointed out that in many grant applications and applications for professorships only a quantitative analysis of the CV is done (I must emphasize that in in this particular case it was an online CV, not one used for any particular purpose!). If on the one hand it is okay to reuse text in multiple circumstances without referring to the previous usage, then we shouldn't be just counting publications as if they were beans.

If it is not okay to reuse text, i.e. publish the same text in multiple venues without referring to the prior publication(s), then we have a problem on our hands. How do we go about telling active researchers that their current practice is not okay? How do we tell beginning researchers what is considered to be out of line? I find us coming back to the question often asked me by students: How many words to I have to change so that it is not plagiarism?

I feel very strongly that we need to get discussions of all facets of scientific integrity out of the closet, so to speak. We need to discuss openly what options are available for reusing text - among many, many other topics such as "cleaning up" data and ghostwriting and making up publications that never happened and all the little things that come out now and then.

Or am I too far off base here and should this be done behind closed doors?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blogspam - Buy Term Papers Online

Nice try, Suzi.

She puts an encouraging comment on a year-old entry from my blog and hopes that I don't see the spam link to buy term papers online. Luckily I check all links. What a shame that Suzi's profile is locked.

I surfed to the site which promises high-quality term papers. Might I note that their home page could use a spelling check? And maybe a brush-up on English grammar?

Oh, and this is a great one - on the order form you have to give them your library login (which is normally also your email login and other such):
If you have your University/College Library access, please provide it for the writer. Our research has shown that customers who provide the research resource get a very high quality paper. We basically need 3 things: a. URL or website address of the library login page b. Login ID c. Password Your information will not be shared by anyone.
Curious, I did a whois-lookup. The domain was first registered in June of this year. They are hiding behind a "protected domain service" that does not enter in any human being names, but just the registrant.

According the the web site, it has been up since 2003 and has 5 people with doctorates on the "board":
  • Dr Russell Conroy
  • Dr Travis Walter
  • Dr Vincent Holmes
  • Dr Alistair Boswell
  • Dr Maria Huggins
Should these people exist, and be running a term paper mill, I think that their doctorates should be rescinded. Russell says that his doctorate is in Chemistry from Alabama State University. I wanted to ask ASU what they think of this, but they don't appear to have email yet. A search of the (rather bad) home page turns up a few telephone numbers, but no email or home pages.

A quick Google for the other four names turns up another paper mill that just happens to have the same people on the board, but no other links. Just as well - if you buy a fake paper it should be from a fake company.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CV Bloat with Recycled Papers

I happened across a paper today and saw that there was a similar paper by the same German authors, just in a different order of authorship:
I wondered what the difference was. So I downloaded them, and discovered that the major difference is in the formatting. Oh, there is a figure dropped and a sentence added and a paragraph or so removed, but even a misspelled word such as "Acknoledgement" is in both papers. Oh, wait - the list of students contributing to the work is missing in the Wernigeröde paper, and the word "proposed" has changed to "developed". It is, after all, three months later.

At Harald Loose's web site there is a third reference to be found:
Hmm. Prof. Loose has lost his co-author - but except for formatting, this paper is identical to the Wernigeröde one. Same text, same figures, same data. The only difference seems to be that he's used a spelling checker and fixed the spelling of "Acknowledgement".

But for all practical purposes, we have three papers that are identical material. Two have the same name, but different authors (one being dropped). They are identical, except for the formatting. Two have the same authors, but in different order with different paper titles, but they are for all practical purposes the same.

Prof. Loose has bloated his CV with three publications by recycling not just the content, but also the wording. Ms. Lemke does not seem to be at the FH Brandenburg any more, although her CV would have two papers for the work of one. Neither of the later papers refer to the previously published ones.

This kind of self-plagiarism is not acceptable according to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) rules for good scientific practice:
"... bereits früher veröffentlichte Ergebnisse nur in klar ausgewiesener Form und nur insoweit wiederholen, wie es für das Verständnis des Zusammenhangs notwendig ist. " (previously published work is only to be reused when clearly labeled an only when necessary in order to understand the context)
Perhaps the papers were never "really" published and are only available online. But I do feel that the newer ones should refer to the older ones, and the identical papers should have identical authors. I have asked the author if he cares to comment.

Update: I wrote to Prof. Loose and asked if he could give any clarification. He wrote a very nice letter back, I've decided to write a new blog entry on a point that he raised there.

He explained that the first two papers were not to be considered scientific papers. They were just the written form for talks given at small workshops. And the order of the authors was switched so that the first author was the one giving the talk. He himself is mystified by the third paper as to why the second author is no longer on the page and will check it up when he gets back home. I wish to thank him for a speedy answer!

Update 2012-07-15: Prof. Loose's home page is linked from his school, but completely unaccessable.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Elsevier Published Ghostwritten Papers

The New York Times reports that the publisher Elsevier (I have previously blogged about them publishing fake journals for pharmaceutical compnaies) published some of 26 scientific papers that the pharmaceutical company Wyeth paid ghostwriters to write about some of their products. The ghostwriters come from so-called "medical writing companies".

This has come to light from legal research involved in more than 8000 lawsuits directed at Wyeth.

The article in the NYT demonstrates the exact ghostwriting process for one of the papers, and names the unethical professor supposedly having written the paper. She insists that she contributed to the paper by phone and not just by the email messages that have been secured, and that the paper reflects her views on the topic.

Where do we draw the line, and how do we prevent this from happening? The paper is surely on her CV.