Friday, December 2, 2011


There are now two cases of people accused of plagiarism who have been permitted to keep their doctorates, as determined by the respective universities.
  • Johannes Hahn, University of Vienna
    The former Austrian Minister of Education and current Member of the European Parliamenthad been accused previously of having plagiarized his dissertation (a number of articles can be found at the blog Plagiatsgutachten). The University of Vienna reopened the case, hemmed and hawed, asked for expertises, and then decided that the thesis would have been unacceptable today, but they could not determine what "rules for quotations" were valid 25 years ago. Many people found this shocking, as pretty much the same rules for quotations have been in place for more than 25 years.
    Reports can be found at Die Presse - Spiegel Online - Official university statement
  • Bernd Althusmann, University of Potsdam
    The current Minister of Education in Lower Saxony and chairman of the German national board of Ministers of Education (in Germany, education is the responsibility of the states, not the federal government) was accused of plagiarism in the newspaper Die Zeit in July. The University of Potsdam took the issue up and looked into the thesis. Everyone agrees that the thesis is pretty bad. Some even say that it should never have been accepted. But the problem is, the doctorate was granted, and the rules say that in order to rescind the doctorate, you have to prove that he knowingly cheated. Much of the plagiarism is of the sloppy kind that you normally throw in the face of a bachelor student and demand a rewrite. It appears that he was actually asked to rewrite one or two times, and then they gave up and gave him a rite on it, a grade meaning "go away and stay away from university, but you can put the letters in front of your name". The commission felt that they could not prove intention, just sloppiness, and so did not rescind his doctorate. There is a good discussion on the blog de plagio explaining the reasoning.
My problem, today, is that I caught a student plagiarizing three times. Okay,  I hadn't graded the lecture summaries for 2 weeks, so there were four half page reports for each student to grade. One student stole from the Wikipedia twice, and a tutorial once. The first Wikipedia one was easy, he forgot to remove the links to other Wikipedia articles. The second one he even had the word "Wikipedia" on the page, but didn't use quotation marks. The third one was stolen from a tutorial site, and easy to note, as in the middle of the second paragraph it said "In this tutorial....".

Now, if I apply the reasoning above or the reasoning zu Guttenberg uses, if the plagiarist is busy or does not know the rules, then it's not plagiarism.  Which pretty much means that we can pack in as teachers. How can we enforce tough plagiarism policies, when education leaders get let off the hook for sloppiness?


  1. two half-page lecture summaries per week from each student, graded by the professor personally?

    As a student, I would be totally demotivated by such low-level direction of how I am supposed to study, and by having to do stuff that dozes of others do as well, which is not very sophisticated anyway, and thus is likely written for the trashbin. And as for the correcting part: I would not consider this an efficient organization of university exams, not even university-of-applied-sciences exams. An apparently these exercises are part of an compulsory exam, otherwise you would not grade them and the student would probably have refrained from handing in anything, instead of such obvious plagiates.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jens!

    This is for an introductory level computer science course. Students have been trained in schools to copy down everything the teacher puts on the board - I want them to reflect on what they, personally, have learned from the session. If they cannot attend, they are to look up material on the topic and summarize it in their own words.

    This is a didactical device (part of a learning diary approach) to get them to learn good study habits. I make it clear in the syllabus that they are not to copy, but summarize in their own words. The point is not that dozens of others have written about it. The point is for *them* to understand the material The collection of these actually makes a great study help for the final exam ;) And for me it is a shocking feedback on what they didn't actually understand.

    I don't grade on content, I comment on what they write (sometimes). They are graded binary: had it / didn't have it. Doing this gives the students 20% of their grade, so that the shakier students have a bit under their belt when they enter the exam.

    First-year students need a lot more training in how to learn, I feel.

  3. I had hoped that in the 10+ years I am out of school now, the style of teaching you mention has become very rare. Maybe it hasn't.

    OK, I guess a simple summary should be a matter of maybe 10 minutes after the first one or two ... I guess some more specific questions ("What are, IYO, the most important differences between an array and a linked list?") might help as well. I mean, that is the kind of reasoning students will have to produce later on.

  4. Actually, Jens, those kinds of "specific questions" you propose bring it down to a pre-university level. Because "the kind of reasoning students will have to produce later on" does not boil down to answering specific questions. It has at least as much to do with their ability to parse high-level / generic assignments & then reduce those to specific questions on their own.