Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Open Letter to the Chancellor

German scientists and doctoral students are signing an open letter to the German Chancellor by the droves. There are some 7000 signatures as of Feb. 26, 2011.
I've had a request for an English translation, how can I resist that, with so many people now reading this blog and commenting? Since I didn't go to the demonstration in Berlin this afternoon, I will offer this translation
Dear Chancellor Merkel,

as doctoral students we have been following the current discussion about the plagiarism accusations against the Minister of Defense, Mr. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. We are shocked and do not understand what is happening. We have the impression that you are trying everything in your power to keep a minister in your cabinet who still insists that he did not knowingly deceive in his doctoral thesis, despite massive evidence to the contrary.

With this course of action, the German government and the members of parliament from the coalition [of CDU, CSU and FDP] damage not only themselves, but much more.

Zu Guttenberg has had to distance himself a number of times from statements he has made about his dissertation. The Internet community has with an unparalleled effort managed to demonstrate numerous incidents of clear plagiarism in Mr. zu Guttenberg's dissertation. The evidence can be openly seen and checked by anyone. It should not surprise anyone that experts in plagiarism are united in the opinion that this is not just a few "embarassing errors". This is massive, systematic deception.

Zu Guttenberg copied large portions of his dissertation from various sources - apparently with great ambition - and did not name those sources in order to obtain a doctoral title that he used for, among other things, election advertising. The University of Bayreuth did not address this issue of deception [when revoking the doctorate].

In the face of the extent and amount of plagiarism found, it should be as clear to you as it is to us that at the end of an exact investigation by the university, only one result will be possible with respect to the intent to deceive on the part of the minister. This cannot be done unknowingly.

Calling the deception a deception has nothing to do with the minister belonging to a particular political party. We would also demand that politicians from opposing parties step down, if they had given their word of honor that the work was only their own, except for sources as noted, and had plagiarized in the same manner.

On February 23, 2011 Mr. zu Guttenberg stated that he only wants to be judged by his performance as Minister of Defense. He alluded to a phrase you had used when you said that you did not hire him as a research assistant.

This makes a mockery of all the research assistants and doctoral students who honestly endeavor to contribute to the advancement of science. This makes it sound as if obtaining a doctoral title by fraud is just a trivial offense and that the academic word of honor is meaningless in everyday life.

When following the rules of good scientific practice it is not just a question of footnotes, trivialities that can safely be neglected in the face of the larger political problems of the day. This is the foundation of our work and our trustworthiness. We strive in our own work, according to the best of our knowledge and conscience, to reach this high goal at all times. When we fail, we run the risk - and rightly so - of being expelled from the university.

Most of us teach younger students. It is often our job to teach them the basics of good scientific practice. We insist that the students be exact at all times, correctly quoting and clearly noting all help that was used. We don't do this because we are fanatics about footnotes or because we live in an ivory tower and know nothing about real life. It is our intention to pass on the understanding that scientific progress - and with it progress for society as a whole - is only possible when we can depend on the honesty of the scientific community.

When our students violate these precepts, we grade their efforts as unsatisfactory. On repeated violation, as a rule we try to expel them. Those who have been expelled are denied access to numerous career opportunities - and rightly so - even for jobs that are much less in need of personal integrity than the office of the Minister of Defense.

We may be old-fashioned and are spouting outdated conservative values when we are of the opinion that values such as veracity and a sense of responsibility should also be valid outside of the scientific community. Mr zu Guttenberg seemed to be of this same opinion until very recently.

Research contributes a valuable service to the development of society. Honest and innovative science is the foundation of the prosperity of our country. When it is no longer an important value to protect ideas in our society, then we have gambled away our future. We don't expect thankfulness for our scientific work, but we expect respect, we expect that our work be taken seriously. By handling the case of zu Guttenberg as a trifle, Germany's position in world science, its credibility as the "Land of Ideas", suffers.

Maybe you consider our contributions to society as being negligible. In that case, we kindly request that in the future you refrain from referring to Germany as the "Republic of Education and Culture", as you often proclaim.


The Undersigned [at the time of translation]

3242 doctoral students
persons with doctorates
other supporters

Around 300 persons gather downtown under the motto "summa cum fraude" and walked peacefully to the Ministry of Defense, where they put shoes on the top of the spikes on the railing - a symbolic gesture of disrespect used during recent protests in Northern African and Middle Eastern countries.

Update 1: Here are some pics from the demo from the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel.
Update 2:
Polished up a bit, thanks to missionmi!
Update 3:
If you want to sign the German version, please click here or on the link "open letter" above!
Update 4: Wow - the open letter made it to the evening news (Tagesschau)
Update 5: Now you can sign the letter in English as well! There is also a possibility for non-academics to sign. Today alone over 12.000 signatories were counted!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dr. Strg+X

Well, this has to be a record. I believe this is the shortest university decision process in the last 400 years or so. Last Tuesday evening the story broke, just over a week later the university commission for good scientific work at the University of Bayreuth reached a decision.

They are rescinding his doctorate.

They didn't go into details, and most important, didn't decide if he plagiarized on purpose. He says he didn't, the documentation found on the GuttenPlagWiki screams a different story. Since he has announced that he wanted to withdraw his doctorate anyway, he won't contest it, so they don't have to do the normal detailed analysis.

Spiegel notes that he has sacrificed that title for his career as minister. And that his popularity has risen through all this. Some are calling him the German Sarah Palin.

And I am a bit worried about the tide of anti-intellectualism washing over Germany at the moment. People who have been irritated for years at people with doctorates pulling rank and being high and mighty about having this special title. It's been demonstrated to be a sham, all this "summa cum laude" stuff, so just ignore them. The Green party was being very snide during the public grillings today, constantly calling him "Herr Dr." - since the doctorate had not yet been rescinded, they could not be rebuked by the president.

This whole affair has done a great disservice to the German scientific community. We have been tried in the court of the mass media and found lacking. We must get serious about the topic of plagiarism and scientific misconduct NOW. No more playing around, being gentle to colleagues caught red-handed. No more doctoral titles easily purchased. No more made-up data. The hard part will be convincing the ministers of education that funding universities on the basis of quantitative measures is nonsense.

I suppose I should thank Mr. von und zu Guttenberg for getting my topic of plagiarism into every newspaper and every Stammtisch. Can we get back to work now, please?

The Story Continues...

It's really great to see that the discussion is continuing although zu Guttenberg has said that he will give up his doctorate and has written a letter to this effect to the University of Bayreuth. Some of the major points:
  • How can the two army universities currently deal with plagiarism, if their commander-in-chief is a plagiarist?
  • Why do people in business need doctorates on their doors?
  • What is the state of science in Germany if simple plagiarisms like this are not found? Does that mean that many more are floating around?
  • People who worked hard for their doctorates are madder than hornets at this, as people keep asking them if they really did their own work or only plagiarized.
  • People who like zu Guttenberg still insist that this is still just a commie plot to discredit Mr. Clean, even when faced with a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
  • Why don't the universities mentor their doctoral students better?
  • Why can't a software be written to sort of solve all our problems?
  • Mr. Gadaffi, Jr.s doctorate from the London School of Economics seems to smell a bit like a plagarism
Oh, and I think since the nation has been so obsessed with this for the past week that a new stamp needs to be issued:
From the fine collection of Guttenberg Artwork at the GuttenPlag Wiki, by Freecopy
I just listened to him explain himself to the German parliament in a grilling. He's sorry, he had a lot to do, he didn't do it on purpose, it has nothing to do with his job as commander-in-chief, and he's setting a fine example, encouraging people to work hard and be even more careful than normal when doing research.

Now, what do I do with the two plagiarists I caught this week reading through papers?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guttenberg folds

He's given up.

The crowd-sourced project at GuttenPlagWiki published a summary (in German) of the most interesting bits of plagiarism found during these intensive days. It's fascinating - and very well done. They have worked hard to remain scientific about this, slapped down the gleeful punks (they get rid of their excess energy in the chat: "Mein von mir verfasste Plagiat ist keine Dissertation", my plagiarism written in my own hand is not a dissertation), and brought it to a sharp point. I spoke briefly - and anonymously - on the phone with the main author today. He is said to be a doctoral student, and I think he did a smashing job getting this organized and sorted out and written. And very nicely sourced.

Guttenberg announced this evening, just in time to squeeze into the evening news that he reread his thesis over the weekend and has decided to ask the university to rescind his dissertation. He will hand back the certificate, and asks forgiveness from his mentor. Oh, and he's staying Minister of Defense.

The university still needs to continue the proceedings, I feel. And I very strongly suggest that the University of Bayreuth take a deep, hard look at how the mentor doctoral students and how they go about determining grades.

On a side note, it was fascinating to watch a grass-roots movement with some simple, sharp tools (a wiki, a chat, a forum, a scanner) deconstructing the text, determining the sources for most of the pages and even visualizing how the thesis was written: copy & paste, change a word here and there, move some stuff around, translate a bit mechanically. This is the stuff that can radically change science: working in the open as opposed to a closed lab; fending off opponents as you work; and collaborating instead of working alone.

Thanks, Wikia, for providing the storage space!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cartoons and Cryptomnesia

The GuttenPlag Wiki is expanding and now has a large collection of funny collages and cartoons people have contributed.

This simple visualization of the current state of the work shows that there is not much left without a flaw. The table of contents and the appendix (blue) are not considered when the percentages are calculated. Black is for pages with at least one improperly sourced copy; red is for pages with more than one. 

I've just checked a few pages at random. They are, indeed, exceedingly close. Just some minor editing here and there, and not necessarily for the better.

I'm wondering if KTzG thought that this crazy quilt is how we do science. Or if he is perhaps suffering from an advanced version of cryptomnesia. Wikipedia quotes Macrae, C.N., Bodenhasen, G. V. & Calvini, G. (1999). Contexts of cryptomnesia: May the source be with you. Social Cognition, 17, 273–297:
Cryptomnesia is more likely to occur when the ability to properly monitor sources is impaired. For example, people are more likely to falsely claim ideas as their own when they were under high cognitive load at the time they first considered the idea.
Sounds fitting. The saga continues.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The joke's on him

The Germans have now turned to one of their favorite ways of dealing with problems - the jokes. Since there was really no news today other than that Minister Guttenberg will not be using his title socially until this gets cleared up, people spent the day joking.

  • Why doesn't Ursula von der Leyen [German Minister for Work] want to sit next to the defense minister at cabinet meetings? Because he is always copying.
  • News flash - von Guttenberg copied his first names from the Wikipedia (a joke about the prank someone played on German journalists by adding an extraneous first name to his full name in the Wikipedia: Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. The Bild-Zeitung even printed the wrong name on the cover.)
  • Guttenberg's stock appears to consist mostly of companies that produce copy machines.
  • "Wetten dass",  an extremely popular German quiz show that contains a crazy bet, has him betting that he can have all of the authors of his thesis  show up and salute in front of the Cologne cathedral.
  • Helene Hegemann (the young German author caught plagiarizing early last year) to be the next minister of defence.
  • We have people selling "ergonomic Guttenberg keyboards" on eBay with just the CTRL, A, C, and V (for "mark all", "copy", "paste")
  • Update: An intern in the Ministry of Defence asks "Where's the copier?" "Oh, he's in Afghanistan this week!"
Okay, they lose a lot in translation.

All these jokes didn't keep the media from constantly trying to interview me, although I was in a doctoral seminar all day. I fobbed off the interview service to my research assistent. She had not been interviewed before, but there has to be a first time for everyone, so I threw her into the cold water with instructions to only contact me if a national or local TV show wanted me. She almost drowned in all the interviews, and even ended up on the local news herself. Moi? I had a taxi pick me up and drive me to the next state for the 3 minute interview on the Brandenburg local news.

I hope that all of this media attention wakes schools and universities up and gets them serious about all aspects of scientific misconduct. That has been my goal since I started working in the area of plagiarism, to get Germany to start talking about it and not try and keep a lid on the bubbling swamp that is out there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Freiherr zu Copy and Paste

Every journalist in the country, it seems, needed to speak with me over the past two days. They need to understand plagiarism, now. They wonder why we just can't stuff Guttenberg's doctoral thesis - which appears to have been heavily plagiarized - into some kind of software and let it chug away and tell us how much was plagiarized.

Every newspaper in the country had an article on it, every news station reports hour by hour on new developments. Guttenberg, the conservative German defense minister from Bavaria, has left the country and gone to Afghanistan. They say this was planned, but right now, he's probably safer there than in the streets of Berlin. The opposition is gleefully taking potshots at him (metaphorically, you understand). His supporters accuse the scientist who discovered the plagiarism of being part of a commie plot to undermine the country, if I understand their tone of voice correctly.

No one believes that a professor might sit down one evening at the computer, in the midst of writing a review of a doctoral thesis that had been around for a while, but had a very prominent author, currently under fire for other things. The professor, Andreas Fischer-Lescano of the University of Bremen, poured himself a glass of Argentine red wine, looked over the thesis and put three words into Google: "säkularer laizistischer multireligiöser" (secular lay multireligious - the thesis includes a chapter on putting references to a god in a constitution).

And he got a hit. From an article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung by Klara Obermüller, written a few years before his thesis was published. Oops. He poured another glass and tried some other terms, and some more. Fischer-Lescano wrote a scathing review, and includes as an appendix 24 word-for-word passages that are not quoted and not referenced. The review will be published the end of the month in Kritische Justiz, 44(1), pp. 112-119.

A number of journalists have spoken with me today to question this way of working. How do I look for plagiarists? "Well," I said, "pretty much the same. Except that I prefer Austrian wine."

There is speculation about whether his doctorate will be rescinded. I remind journalists that this is for the University of Bayreuth to decide. They did the granting (top grades, by the way, they might want to rethink how they grade theses); they are the only ones who can take away. Apparently, KT, as he is affectionately known, has 2 weeks to prepare a statement explaining where the quotation marks disappeared to. Meanwhile, a crowdsourcing project is checking all 400+ pages for more sources.

I give top awards to the reporting of the case to the Financial Times Deutschland for their print edition from Feb. 17. Their lead story, "Freiherr zu Copy and Paste1" includes 9 proper footnotes, including the one in the heading and one in the subheading.

In between all of the interviews I also spent an hour on Bayern2 radio on the topic of what a title is worth in Germany (I also explained this in English to "The Local") and spent a good few hours with a camera team from Focus TV. They are going to have a show on Tuesday evening on Kabel 1. But it looks like they have sold some of the shots to other media already, I saw me reading the paper mentioned above (my rings are rather unique).

One does wonder if there is no other real news to report on, but it is nice that people are talking about plagiarism. And our hits are just tremendous:

Tomorrow I will turn off my phones and attend our doctoral students seminar. And I suppose I shall say a word or two about footnotes.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Baron

Yes. I noticed. The German defense minister, Baron von und zu Guttenberg has been accused of plagiarizing in his dissertation. I spent all day on the phone, trying to explain plagiarism to journalists. I will try and get something put together in English tomorrow. For now just the picture of the hit statistic on my plagiarism portal:

Friday, February 4, 2011

DFG Again Censures Plagiarists

The German research funding organization DFG has again censured plagiarists. A press release was issued this week stating that a schriftliche Rüge (written reprimand or censure) has been issued to two professors.

They had submitted a funding proposal together that included large passages of text taken without giving the source. This was noted by the referees, who notified the DFG. They started an investigation and asked the professors for a statement. They said that they had prepared the proposal together with input from subordinate researchers, who were responsible for including the plagiarism.

The DFG makes it clear that the submitting researchers are responsible for what is in the proposal, even if they have junior researchers doing the writing. They must ensure that the text meets appropriate standards of scientific writing, especially as they want funding for research. They must meet at least basic scientific standards.

This is a very good decision, as it clearly demonstrates that professors can not publish or submit proposals under only their own names, and then point the finger to a junior researcher or student if it turns out to be a plagiarism.