Sunday, March 27, 2011

What do you charge?

Prof. Dr. Frank Möbus, professor for German Literature in Göttingen, was kind enough to share an email that hit his email box the other day. He has kindly permitted me to post this, however, we are changing the name of the student. The telephone number given did, however, match the name in a reverse telephone number lookup.
Dear Prof. Möbus!
I found you by way of the Internet and I would like to ask you if you are willing to write an expertise about my dissertation, because I am not happy with the previous expertises. The topic of my dissertation is [...]. If you would be willing to write an expertise, then I would like to ask how much you take and in what time frame you could do this. Many thanks in advance.
Sincerely, Nick Clueless, Tel: XXXXXX

After Prof. Möbus regained his composure he fired off this response:
Dear Mr. Clueless,
were I not completely convinced that your hoax in these post-Guttenberg times is a (perhaps even promising) attempt to gather material that you can use for journalistic purposes, I would immediately expend energy in order to find out at which university you have submitted your thesis and who your advisor is. I would then either chew you out myself or have you so royally chewed out that by comparison "Smoke on the Water" [the song Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had played during his farewell ceremony] will sound like Joan Baez playing the acoustic guitar on a warm spring evening.

Your request for a purchased expertise demonstrates not only blatant ignorance of academic conventions, but also contradicts all ethical principles of scholarship, were it to have been asked in all seriousness.

I wish you success with the answers that you obtain for what is most certainly a mass-mailing. If someone does, indeed, give a positive answer, he or she deserves to be nailed to the wall. Do keep me informed!

Prof. Möbus
What on earth was clueless thinking?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

False Professor Sentenced

The newspaper Volksfreund reports that the district court in Bitburg has sentenced a man to 2 years in jail suspended for 4 years for falsely calling himself a professor.

The man was born in 1941 in Leipzig, in 1964 he completed training as a physical therapist and then continued training as a nontraditional healer (Heilpraktiker). He also studied acupuncture in Hong Kong. In the 70s he came in contact with practitioners in Hamburg and Tübingen and began calling himself "Professor GUS" (GUS is the abbreviation for the Commonwealth of Independent States, former Soviet republics. In Germany, if you have a foreign title you have to include the name of the place after the title).

The man felt that he was entitled to call himself this, because he had been a guest "professor" on cancer in Kiew, Ukraine. Apparently, he had been hounded by courts for using false titles and had been repeatedly fined for using them. But he still kept on, feeling that at least in foreign countries, he was considered an expert. He blames a Belgian group for stirring up all this "slander" about him not having a proper title, and is now so poor that he can't afford to attend conferences.

Why the court only gave him a suspended sentence, despite past crimes in the same area, is beyond me. The Wiki esowatch has a page that sounds very much like him, and his home page still lists him as Prof. h.c. GUS. So the question comes up - even if someone is taken to court and found guilty of using a false title, who goes around and checks that they remove all traces of this false title?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

German Public Misunderstands Plagiarism

The blog Nebelhorn picked this letter to the editor out of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung from March 13, 2011. I do think it needs to be translated so that the world can understand what the German general public thinks of the Causa Guttenberg:
I find it appalling and intolerable that a person is so defamed just because he has some plagiarized parts in his dissertation, as long as other dissertations have not been so closely examined for similar plagiarism and their authors put in the pillory, just like in the Middle Ages! I desire a government for German that would introduce a media law like the one in Hungary for print media, so that in the future such biased and polemic newspaper articles that break journalistic ethics can be punished.  
They really don't get it. So many people think of this as just a little bit of cheating just like everyone does on their taxes and stuff. They do not understand that plagiarism pulls the carpet out from under science.

I do agree on needing a pillory, though, and the list of applicants for the next spot up on the pillory is growing by the day over at the PlagiPedi. I assume that there will eventually be need for a group pillory, as illustrated by John Brand in 1842.

German World Record in Retractions

Somehow this flew under my radar, so I'm picking up the pieces here. Much is already well documented in the Wikipedia and The Telegraph.

German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt had a stellar career - he had published about 200 papers, many on the use of hydroxyethyl starch (HES) during anesthesia. As it turns out though, he did not actually have either the permission of the patients to do the research, nor did he have approval of the ethics board for this research. In one case, the ethics board flatly refused a proposed study.

He was a professor at the University of Gießen and mentored numerous dissertations there, at least two of which were conducted without explicit permission after the university set up explicit procedures in 2000, according to the Hessischen Rundfunk.

He has had his professorship withdrawn for not teaching and has had to retract an extraordinary number of his papers. Retraction Watch reported in November and now in March on the investigations into almost 90 of his papers. 88 studies published in 18 journals have had to be retracted, one turned out to be okay, as he could produce documentation of ethics committee permission for the study, although he had changed the title of the study. The studies are funded by the pharmaceutical company producing the HES drug.  The complete list of retracted papers is available online, signed by all the journal editors.

This, according to Retraction Watch, is a new world record, topping Jon Darsee with 82 retractions.

Luckily for patients in the Ludwigshafen area, he has also been fired from the clinic. The current professor for anesthesiology in Gießen, Markus Weigand, sent an internal email around the department denouncing the TV documentary on the case "defacto".  Weigand is said to have called the defacto story unscientific and only interested in scandal. He also outlined the procedure for obtaining ethics board approval for research. It seems much needed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

In Technicolor

The data generated by the investigations into the zu Guttenberg thesis is a wonderful basis for visualization people. Here are some links to some fascinating pictures:

The complete thesis with all sources in different colors:

The bits lifted from his "Doktorvater":

Footnotes vs. Full text

The infamous bar code:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Danish Misconduct

There are actually other misconduct cases being reported on beside the German former defense minister''s plagiarism. Nature reports on a Danish neuroscientist, Milena Penkowa, who resigned amidst accusations of research misconduct and misuse of grant money.

The young shooting star, who is said to have already published almost 100 peer-reviewed papers, apparently began with serious questions being raised about the experiments done for her dissertation work when the number of rats examined was apparently quite exaggerated.

Her work is seeming to be irreproducible and the University of Copenhagen had to return a quarter of a million € in grant money.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's Google's Fault

I was rather flabbergasted this morning when Spiegel called me for a comment on the press release by the first and second corrector for Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's doctoral thesis. Instead of letting the press frenzy die down, they fanned the flames. Here's a fine bit from the middle:
While discussing the thesis one should keep in mind that it was not common to check dissertations [for plagiarism] with technical tools in 2006 and it is still not common today.  In addition, the technical tools available in 2006 were barely able to detect plagiarism. Plagiarism software [sic] as well as other methods were not as highly developed as they are today. Even Google did not have the finely tuned searching methods as they do today. In particular, software that works with legal texts are still being developed. In the interests of all participants there will surely be technical examinations done on dissertations as well before [they are read by the examiners] (The entire text can be found at the FAZ site in German)
After a good laugh I recovered enough to look up my first paper on plagiarism detection that was published in a real journal: "Kein Kavaliersdelikt: Wie man Plagiate entdeckt und was dagegen getan werden muß." Forschung & Lehre, 6/2003, S. 307-308. (Not a trivial offense - how to discover plagiarism and what to do about it). This magazine is the monthly publication of the association of university professors, Hochschulverband, and is widely read in German universites. And this was published way before zu Guttenberg handed in. 

Google worked fine in 2003 for discovering plagiarism. Why, I even found plagiarism before the Internet was born! You notice the different styles while reading it.

This puts a rather bad light on the situation in Bayreuth. Did they really not know that the other universities were using Internet and software? Sure, the software doesn't pick up much. But let's assume they took a good sample, let's say 10 pages. With the current tally being 75% of all pages are plagiarized, that would mean that 7 of these 10 pages would contain plagiarism. Now, the software is only partially useful and only finds about 60-70 % of the plagiarism. So let's assume that out of 10 pages tested, 3 came up plagiarized - and plagiarized big time. Shouldn't that ring a bell and have a more intense investigation get started?

The comments on the newspaper web pages are caustic at best. This did a great disservice to science at large, demonstrating that this corner of the scientific world has remained blissfully unaware of what is going on around them.

I used a metaphor in a letter this morning: the entire Guttenberg affair has lifted the corner of the rug under which German academics have been sweeping their academic misconduct for ages. It is time to pull the rug out from under them, smack it clean and hose it down.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another German Plagiarism Suspected

Spiegel Online reports that the University of Freiburg Department of Sport Medicine, under investigation for doping cases, is under investigation for plagiarism. An external investigation team found a doctoral thesis and a habilitation (a second doctorate deemed necessary in order to be a university professor in Germany) to be extremely similar. It appears that the habilitation - submitted later by the mentor for the doctoral thesis - is the plagiarism.

The mentor is currently head of the department. There are also allegations that his wife used parts of theses he mentored in her own doctoral thesis.

It is interesting to see so many cases currently coming to the surface in Germany.

Friday, March 4, 2011


We spent the day preparing, among other things, a handout for the workshop we are giving at a high school teacher's conference next week on the ethics of computing. On the handout we have two references, one is to the so-called "Heinz dilemma". Lawrence Kohlberg proposed this in his Essays on Moral Development. 

I just copied and pasted the footnote with the dilemma and the reference into the handout from an older one and kept going. During proof-reading one of the grad students noticed something odd: "It says here that the woman lives in Europe, but the medicine costs $2000. That can't be!" Harumpf.
So we googled. We searched our hard disks. We only came up with this exact quote, and the book was not available in Google books. Another book was that had a very different wording in German, and was also in quotation marks. 

Luckily, we had the footnote. I checked our library - praise be, we actually have two copies! But they are at the other campus. Even though it is a Friday afternoon, the library is still open until 6 pm. So we ordered the book, cleaned up the coffee cups and cookies, packed up the computers and I raced to our other campus by car. The rest of Berlin was already on vacation, so I made it in good time.

I got to the loan desk at 5.45 pm and there were six (6!!!) people ahead of me in line. To get books. For the weekend. Three cheers for our students, who still read real books! The book was waiting for me, I sat down at the next desk and flipped to the page that was given in our footnote. 

And there it was: Europe and dollars. The quotation is exact, even if confusing. 

So for the handout we will elide the "in Europe" with [...] to make it less confusing. Was it worth the hour's worth of work just to check a footnote? Absolutely. This could have been from someone entirely else. The book might not have existed, although the Wikipedia was sure that it did. It could have been taken out of context. And since most of our discussion depended on this, the quotation should be exact. 

A lot of science has to do with checking what you are doing, doubting yourself at all times. And taking one small step, hopefully in the right direction.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

And now: The Movie

The bar code symbol with a black line for one plagiarism found on a page and red lines for multiple plagiarisms on a page came to be a symbol of the GuttenPlagWiki work. Every now and then someone would generate it form the current list of pages found.

Of course, people want to see it as a movie, so the challenge was to read the timestamps on the Wiki pages, decoding the page names to understand the page numbers and then produce a nice bar code.

Here's a first version, thanks to MoonofA:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Guttenberg was thinking

A friend, Wolfgang Coy, used to produce these word clouds and gave me permission to post them:

This is what zu Guttenberg said today:
This is what zu Guttenberg should have said:

This is probably what zu Guttenberg meant:


"Weggetreten!" - the military command soldiers are relieved to hear was the title of the special news report after the 8pm evening news. Mr. zu Guttenberg called a press conference for 11.15 and declared that he was stepping down - not because of the pressure, but because the focus was on his person and he wants to avoid hurting the army in the process (video - text).

Merkel regrets his decision, the CSU is shocked (they now have to dig up someone willing to take on the job), the scientists are relieved, his supporters are busy liking the Facebook page. One commenter on the GuttenPlagWiki page estimates that there are about 30 likes a second happening. The GuttenPlagWiki is collecting all the press references to them.

Germany's journalists are all disappointed, they've been collecting material like crazy for the past 2 weeks, they now have to figure out how to use it. I am enjoying a lot of questions about ghostwriters and plagiarism detection systems.

An interesting phenomenon is the polls asking if he did the right thing. Telephone polls are running 1:9 saying he should not have quit. Some online polls are 1:1 undecided. Other online polls are 9:1 saying it was about time. This demonstrates quite nicely the bias inherit in many of the methods used for polling. Young people often don't have a landline anymore, so calling on the phone will skip many young people. Not all Internet users will take polls, either. So all we know is that we don't really know what the German populace really thinks. 

Maybe now we can have some peace and quiet. I am currently looking at how the plagiarism detection systems rate the thesis. It's a lot of work, but we are making some interesting discoveries on how the systems deal with this kind of thesis. I will report on the results when we have them!

I want to thank all my new readers (and especially the commenters!) and I hope you keep your RSS readers tuned to this station. I am certain that this is not the last bit of plagiarism or scientific misconduct.

Guttenberg steps down

I have to get to a meeting, but we have to have this news in English right now:

At 11.15 this morning zu Guttenberg held a brief press conference and announce that he is resigning immediately as Minister of Defense.

Yesterday a basket full of signatures from scientists and doctoral students in Germany was taken to the Chancellor's office protesting the opinion that it was just a few footnotes that were missing. Honesty is our currency in science!

We are very relieved that he has taken this step. We also hope that this is a wakeup call for the scientific community to look more closely into how we mentor students.