Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Plague on your Doctorate

Whew. The International Herald Tribune just published an article about the VroniPlag work on the New York Times site, and it seems this is very widely read. The Philadelphia area Church of God's magazine, the Trumpet, has a broadside by Ron Fraser about the German doctorate plagiarism scandal that is just filled with venom and rhetorical questions. Never one to duck an honest fight, I just sent this response to him.

Hi Ron,

I just found your Trumpet article, and I seem to hear you asking for a response.

By the way, I spell my name without an h and I'm from an engineering college, not the Technical University. And I've not been in hiding at all. I just use a nick in the online worlds, a nick I have been using on the Wikipedia since about 2004. Besides being a professor who works with media and computing, I'm also dean of a rather large business school, a member of the German computing society's working group on Ethics in Computing, and a lay preacher at my local church. So I do have a smattering of knowledge about ethics.

You've asked a lot of rhetorical questions - I'll be happy to answer them. Perhaps you can publish this rejoinder so that English-language readers can understand. I'll put it on my blog as well, just to make sure it gets out.

Why initiate such an investigation? Well, we didn't. It was a professor in Bremen, Prof. Fischer-Lescano, who was in the process of reviewing zu Guttenberg's thesis. He found some plagiarism, and zu Guttenberg - a very public figure - tried to play it down. This angered people who are working on proper doctorates, and they had a look. The current count is 94% of the pages containing plagiarism. It does not matter who he is, this is not science, full stop.

Why choose the doctoral theses of the three in question? We didn't. After zu Guttenberg, an anonymous tip about the thesis of Veronika Saß had some folks take a look. They found a large block of word-for-word plagiarism, and so the VroniPlag split away from GuttenPlag.

Why not choose three high-profile academics rather than three prominent people with such strong political connections? Oh, we have quite a number of more or less suspicious theses around. People are begging for us to look at this thesis or the other one, but since we all have day jobs, we can't do them all. The press loves politicians, so we do politicians for now.

Why not choose three high-profile liberals from Germany’s Green Party? Many don't have doctorates. They don't go in for all the title idolatry that is so common in Germany. We've been asking for tips on a Northern German, left-leaning engineering person for weeks, but nothing has materialized.

What does it have to hide? Many people attack the messenger in anger about the news. Since many of the activists work in serious jobs or are completing dissertations themselves, they are trying to shield their jobs from the fallout. They are working here as private individuals. And the attacks are mighty, there are numerous ugly, viscous, and threatening letters and comments that arrive daily.

Why not set the example and be wholly transparent itself? Our work
is completely transparent. Just point your browser to http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Home - all work in progress is done in public. We are focusing on the plagiarism, not on the people pointing out the plagiarism.

Coincidence? Well, three is not much of a sample for determining a pattern.

You speak of our motives as being "a load of deceitful rubbish" and talk of the "damage done to the reputation of individuals". I think you have your perspective wrong here. It's the plagiarists who have deceived us. They put their reputations on the line in chase of that doctorate that should - in my opinion - only be used in science and education and not in politics and business.

You speak of "this national desire for a newly confident and proud national persona". Not all Germans want to have a reprise of what happened the last time a confident and proud national persona took the stage.

I am looking for truth in science. I object to people using scientific titles as vanity objects, and misusing the scientific process. Have a look at what Robert K. Merton had to say about the sociology of science - start at the Wikipedia and scroll down to the middle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_K._Merton

Germany has been sweeping plagiarism and scientific misconduct under the rug for ages, and it has gotten very lumpy. I think we need to lift the carpet up, give it a good beating to get out the dust, sweep up the garbage that has collected, and get a fresh start. There are so many good scientists in Germany who have to defend themselves against all this bad science.

Don't side with the liars.

I look forward to continuing this debate!

Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff

Typos corrected 26. April 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Dissertation

So, because science seems to be all about bashing each other anymore, especially when politicians are involved, everyone wants to look at my dissertation, as if the quality of my dissertation had anything to do with zu Guttenberg's or Koch-Mehrin's dissertations.

I'm so honored.

I think that maybe 5 people in the world besides my two honorable advisors ever read the thing, I have maybe 95 copies in a box in the attic, I'll be glad to sell them for 5 € plus postage, just drop me an email!

My thesis is called "Contributions to Mechanical Proofs of Correctness for Compiler Front-Ends" and it is in theoretical computing. It has been online since about 1997. Yes, I've been online since 1991, I recently found an ancient posting. The Internet never forgets.

Since the thesis was printed using PostScript, your browser may not be able to understand what it needs to do in order to read it. I've fired up Acrobat and produced a version in PDF for the general public.

I've also added the following to the page:

I wish to publicly thank my mentors, Prof. Dr. Hans Langmaack (Kiel) and Prof. Dr. Robert S. Boyer (Austin, TX), for teaching me what science is about. Langmaack taught me to doubt everything I write, to rip the arguments of others apart, looking for the holes. But most importantly they both taught me that we only rip the science, not the person. We go have a beer together, after demolishing the proof. And maybe over that beer we will finally see how the proof needs to be conducted, if my theorem is, indeed, correct.

My dissertation is dedicated to the memory of Kerstin Maaß, my best friend, killed by a drunk driver the day I finished typesetting my manuscript.

And now, could we please get back to focusing on the topic of how to avoid plagiarism and make science more honest? Thank you.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Chase Continues

I must apologize for not writing more, but there is so much happening and then my day job picked up (semester start). I'll see if I can summarize what is up here.
  • In the zu Guttenberg case, the GuttenPlagWiki has found 94% of the pages or 63% of the lines to be plagiarisms. The group there is continuing producing a final report on the findings. The thesis turns out to have quite some value scientifically as an example text on plagiarism. There is pretty much an example of every kind of plagiarism to be found. The University of Bayreuth appears to be close to deciding whether he plagiarized on purpose or not. The press then reported that zu Guttenberg's lawyers had insisted the university not publish the report. Merkel was not amused, the press ran with it for a day or so, now he is okay with them making the results public. There are over 100 legal complaints that have been filed, but there were none from people who were the authors of the sources. The press alleges that now someone has, I'm sure they've been pressured by the press to do so.
  • The next public target is Veronica Saß. She is the daughter of a prominent CSU politician. Her dissertation in jurisprudence is currently at 44% of the pages containing plagiarism. There is a fascinating block between pages 291 and 297 that is a complete copy of one source and then pages 298 - 315 is from another source. When this was made public, quite a public outcry started - against the chasers. This poor girl, she's not in the public limelight, leave her alone, etc. People keep pointing out that by publishing a dissertation and slapping your name on it, you are stating that it is your work. The University of Konstanz is feverishly looking at this.
  • Next up is Matthias Pröfrock, a CDU politician. His dissertation in jurisprudence (is there a pattern here?) was submitted to the University of Tübingen in 2007. His current plagiarism level is at plagiarisms on 46% of the pages. He published a statement that his thesis may have occasional problematic passages when the level was already at 25%. The University is investigating. I've heard the rumor that another politician plagiarized him, but that is still under investigation. Sort of a chained plagiarism.
  • The current target is another politician, Silvana Koch-Mehrin. She is from the FDP party and currently sitting in the European Parliament, where she is one of 14 vice presidents. Her dissertation is on business history and was submitted in 2001 to the University of Heidelberg. This one is lots of work, as it is only available in print and the sources are also only available in print. Many of the fragments are just a sentence, but there are enough that include a complete paragraph, for example page 54. The level is only 20%, but the work continues.
The blogosphere and the press are running wild with bits about "presumption of innocence" and such nonsense. This is not a court of law, it's about science, and honesty in science. Give your sources, don't steal.

I wrote a little piece about Robert K. Merton's organized skepticism for the wiki, as many of the people working on this are not aware that there is such a thing as the theory of science.

The people doing the work - many anonymous - do not call themselves hunters. The German press calls them (and me) Plagiatsjäger. We are just accepting it, not protesting the title, and continuing the search.