Monday, August 2, 2010

A Book Forbidden

I owe this blog at least two book reports that I have not gotten around to on account of semester pressures. I'll take them one at a time.

The German law professor Volker Rieble published a thin blue book entitled "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat - Vom Versagen eines Systems" in April of this year. It is fascinating in that it names names. I ordered my copy immediately, fearing that it would be removed from the market. And so it has happened - a court injunction has forced the book out of print, effectively forbidding it. The publisher, Vittorio E. Klostermann writes:
Two law professors who were named in Volker Rieble's book and whom he criticized on their citation methods, have obtained an injunction from the Hamburg regional court (Landgericht) against this publisher. We are not allowed to publish certain passages from the book. The currently bound and sold copies of the book are, however, not included in the injunction. This has made it easier for this publisher to forgo an expensive legal battle and to accept the injunction as the final legal arrangement. 

As I am not a lawyer, I do not want to discuss the subtle points of law that both of the plaintiffs brought forth to establish their cases. Why the court decided the way they did is not known, because an injunction does not come with justification. I have learned that a German court can forbid a statement without giving a reason. I don't find this a good thing. It would have been useful if the Hamburg judges had at least given a brief sketch of their reasoning. Then we would know if they had read the book, or only the passages in question, and how the judges interpret the passages in the context of the book.

I decided to publish Volker Rieble's book because I found his concern to be important - pointing out problematic conventions in the scientific community. His goal is scholarly honesty: Not (only) plain-old plagiarism, but also the bad habit of using other people's intellectual property without properly identifying the author is problematic. For the various practices of this kind he introduced the term "Wissenschaftsplagiat", scholarly plagiarism, and used it in the title of his book. He explains this thoroughly from page 80 onwards. 

The debate about the things Rieble writes about does not belong in court, but in the glaring light of the professional scholarly public. That the scientific discussion that we are attempting to further in publishing our books could be gagged under threat of punitive action has happened for the first time in the 80 years of the existence of this publishing house.

But we have known, at least since the FAZ reported on June 2, 2010 about the Weigend review of the book by Calvo-Goller about the International Criminal Court (the Chronicle reported in English), that scholarly free speech is threatened.
Many of the cases Rieble discusses are, of course, from the area of law. Many of these cases were new to me, and I am thankful for the good footnotes that he uses to document the cases. My only quarrel is that he has a bizarre bit at the end where he finds Open Access to be responsible for the increase of plagiarism, something I cannot follow. Open Access helps us to better find those guilty of plagarism! The texts are open, dated, and the authorship is clear. I think we need more Open Access and not less. I have an essay on this topic that will be published the end of 2010, more on this later.

It is sad to see academic discourse being subjected to the vagaries of legal decisions.


  1. Volker Rieble comments by email and gives permission for me to publish this: "Aber in Bezug auf open access haben Sie mich mißverstanden. Ich bin nicht gegen open access, stelle vielmehr selbst alle meine Aufsätze nach einem Jahr online. Was mich stört sind remix-Lizenzen in Bezug auf die Wissenschaft, weil ich das als Einladung zum Plagiat verstehe und der Verzicht auf jegliche Sicherungsmaßnahmen. Der Autor wird allein gelassen.
    Also nochmals: keine Generalkritik an freiwilligem open access - aber doch die Bitte, den besonderen Gefahren zu begegnen!

    Das kommt in meinem Buch auch deutlich zum Ausdruck. "

    ("You misunderstood my stand on open access. I am not against open access per se, I put all of my own papers online after a year. what bothers me is the remix licenses with respect to scholarship, because I understand them to be an invitation to plagiarize and because they do not incorporate any security. The author is left alone. Again: this is not a general criticism of open access, but a request that something be done about the special risks involved! This is made clear in my book" - translation DWW)

    The Open Access license allows remix - with attribution as specified. If the author does not specify attribution, then indeed it could be used, but would still be unethical. If attribution is required, then using a text without attribution is not only unethical but also illegal.

  2. Hallo,

    in dieser Diskussion hier wird offenbar open access mit open content/freien Lizenzen vermengt.

    Und man sollte sich daran erinnern, dass diese Lizenzen, insbesondere was das "modifying" anbelangt, ursprünglich für das Verändern von Softwareprogrammen geschrieben wurden. Eine 1:1-Übertragung auf (oder eben auch Modifizierung für) wissenschaftliche Texte halte ich für höchst problematisch. Aber leider wird das (wie so vieles andere auch) in der "scientific community" kaum diskutiert bzw. gibt es fast nur Wissenschaftler, die freie Lizenzen bedingungslos gut und hip finden.

  3. Sowohl die freie Lizenzen für Software und für Texte erlauben ein freies Remix - wenn die Lizenzbedingungen eingehalten werden. Und das heißt: Quelle angeben, und selber unter open Lizenz veröffentlichen! Wissenschaftlich kann man die Texte immer nutzen, aber man muss die Quelle angeben, das ist wissenschaftlich redlich.


Please note that I moderate comments. Any comments that I consider unscientific will not be published.