Sunday, June 27, 2010

Academic Roadkill

The German journalist Hermann Horstkotte reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from June 23, 2010 on a strange case from the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.

A doctorate in Germany is awarded by the faculty department, and a reference to the department can be found after the Dr. title: Dr. phil. (humanities), Dr.-Ing. (engineering), Dr. rer. nat. (science). There has been a bit of inflation recently, with all sorts of doctoral titles appearing. The faculty of medicine at the LMU can confer a Dr. biol. hom. on people who did not study medicine, but work in the field.

This is very enticing, as medical doctorates are often much easier to obtain than other ones, the demands on the research can be quite low. I remember one from when I was working as a student of computing in a medical lab, the thesis counted the number of words in articles in the German weekly medical journal in an entire year's worth of journals 20 years apart. The conclusions: there are less words, so the writing is more concise; there are more authors per article, so there is more collaboration; there are more pictures per article, so the articles are easier to understand. The thesis was maybe 15 pages, I remember there being an uproar in the faculty on this. But the doctorate was granted.

In Munich we have the computer guy from the medical department being awarded a doctorate for his work in the area of medical imaging. Strangely enough, the entire committee consisted of medical professors, not a computer scientist at all. And there even exist specialists in this area at the other Munich university.

As with many plagiarism stories, this, too was a chance discovery. The author of the software used in the doctorate was curious to see the results. He picked up the handbook and discovered that large portions of the thesis were from his user guide for the software, partially smoothed. But only partially - terms such as "Button" (often found in German computing handbooks) were translated into "Schaltfläche", but the articles were not fixed. It is "der Button" but "die Schaltfläche", in the thesis the author writes of "der Schaltfläche".

The faculty board will be deciding on the recommendation of the university academic integrity committee soon - this body recommends rescinding the doctorate. But many persons that Horstkotte spoke to seemed to view this as just academic roadkill (in reference to Helene Hegemann's plagiarism Axolotl Roadkill) and don't see that a change in the culture of science is really necessary.

I sometimes wonder if German science doesn't need a radical spring cleaning.

1 comment:

  1. "In Munich we have the computer guy from the medical department being awarded a doctorate for his work in the area of medical imaging."

    Haha, I know of a similar case, another country, though, and it was supposed to a habilitation in computational physics (because the computer guy in question had originally been a physicist). Only, the habilitation comittee DID include some computer scientists and physicists. The mediacl people supported the candidte's habilitation, the others, hm, did not. The medical members of the committee claimed that this was because the CS and physicists are territorial and conservative, and do not understand the importance of the problems treated. The CS and physicist pointed out that they not only understand the importance of the problems treated, but moreover are also able to judge that the candidate has not made any significant contribution to their solution. Took a long while, but in the end, the CS and physicists did manage to win.


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