Saturday, December 22, 2012

Share and share alike

Laborjournal and the local newspaper Wochenblatt report that the University of Regensburg has rescinded the doctorate of a dentist who had submitted a dissertation that was essentially that of her husband's.

The story begins with a organ transplantation scandal that broke in Germany in mid-2012.  Apparently, in 2010 and 2011 patient data was manipulated in order to enable certain patients to jump the queue for receiving an organ, as the weekly Zeit reports, for example many persons from Italy. The liver transplantation specialist from the University of Göttingen, Aiman Obed, was in the middle of this scandal, stepping down from the university at the end of 2011.

Obed had submitted his thesis on liver cancer to the University of Regensburg in 2004. His wife, Manal, is a dentist and had submitted her thesis to the same advisors on the same topic in 2006, although liver cancer is quite an unusual topic for a dentist. According to the news weekly Focus, the dissertations are not word-for-word copies, but have a similar structure, strikingly similar data, identical graphs, and even some of the same spelling and grammar errors. Focus obtained the theses and offer them as pdfs for others to check. Laborjournal published an editorial in October 2012 comparing a number of passages from the two dissertations.

Focus reported that a letter from Manal O. had been sent to the medical faculty of the university stating that she had plagiarized her dissertation and announcing that she would "return" her doctorate. Her lawyer insisted that she did not write the letter, but the university began investigations, as reported by the local Wochenblatt.

Laborjournal points out that there is no news on whether the university will be taking action against the advisors for the two theses. Since both are still active, Hans-Jürgen S. as a director of an institute for medicine at the University of Regensburg and Bernhard K. at the Mannheim Clinic at the University of Heidelberg, the question does arise as to how they are to be permitted to continue advising doctoral students. Although, when one looks at other medical theses from the University of Heidelberg, for example the case documented on VroniPlag Wiki of a doctoral thesis copying extensively from the habilitation of her doctoral advisor, it seems that quite a number of doctorates in medicine in Germany do not have anything to do with good scientific practice.
FORSCHUNG UND TECHNIK, MEDIZIN: Herr und Frau Doktor - weiter lesen auf FOCUS Online:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Research Center Borstel

The German research financing foundation DFG has also published the press release about the sanctions for two researchers from the Research Center in Borstel in English.

  1. Sylvia Bulfone-Paus
    "The DFG Committee concluded that Bulfone-Paus had committed 'gross negligence of her supervisory duty' in her function as the leader of the working group and was therefore guilty of scientific misconduct as stipulated in the DFG procedures."
    Retractionwatch notes that Bulfone-Paus has had to retract 13 papers. However, since only 4 of these were DFG funded, the punishment has turned out to be quite light. She is barred from applying for funding for 3 years, and the time that she voluntarily refrained from using DFG money is applied to this time period. The University of Lübeck seems to be continuing its investigations. (There is also a Spiegel report on the case).
  2. Elena Bulanova
    Bulanova was a researcher with Bulfone-Paus and co-author on a number of the retracted papers. She has been identified as being the person primarily responsible for the data manipulation and is barred from applying for funding for 5 years.
The comments at Retractionwatch show the shock elsewhere in the world that Germany has only applied such mild sanctions. It is beginning to look like one just gets slapped on the wrist for scientific misconduct in Germany. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This and that

Again, I'm posting some links with a short description, as the links are piling up with no time to spend digging deeper.

  • Ireland: The Irish Times reports that the chairman of the Institute of Technology Tralee is said to be stepping down while an investigation into plagiarism found in his Master's thesis is investigated.
  • Canada: The Windsor Star reports that the dean for the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, has taken administrative leave without pay. This is linked to an unspecified "academic integrity breach". 
  • Utah, USA: The Salt-Lake Tribune reports on a case of English as a Second Language teachers at the Southern Utah University permitting their students to plagiarize. 
  • PNAS published a report by Fang, Steen and Casadevall: "Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications"
    Abstract: "A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes. "
  • Germany:  An informative article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on professors who plagiarize from their students.
  • Germany: Transparency International will be looking into corruption in German universites, Spiegel Online reports. 
  • Germany: The DFG has announced results in three accusations of academic misconduct:
    • Silvia Bulfone-Paus, FZ Borstel, may not apply for funding for three years and must give up all her official research duties with the DFG
    • Dr. Elena Bulanova, FZ Borstel, may not apply for funding for five years for manipulating data
    • PD Dr. Volker Korz, Universität Magdeburg, has been found not to have used good scientific practice, but to have not crossed the line that would entail sanctions.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Quick Update

I have all sorts of links around that need documenting here, but not enough time to do thorough research on the topics. So I'll just drop them here:
  • The vice prime minister president of Hungary, Zsolt Semjén, is now also facing plagiarism accusations in his dissertation. The former prime minister president, Pál Schmitt, was already forced to resign because of plagiarism in his dissertation. 
  • A historic plagiarism from the 1580s: Giordano Bruno.  (additional article: Auf Gänsefüßchen schleichen, by Elisabeth von Samsonow)
  • An article in New Scientist: Fraud fighter: 'Faked research is endemic in China
  • A discussion is going on in Germany amongst librarians as to how best to deal with all of the rescinded doctorates. Do they pull the books? Stamp them as plagiarisms? Only mark the catalogues? Just remove the "dissertation" label in the catalogues?
  • VroniPlag Wiki has released cases #34 (medicine from the University of Ulm), #35 (a habilitation in business science from the Distance Education University in Hagen), and #36 (medicine from the University of Düsseldorf).  
  • An interesting dissertation from Halle by Jens Blecher: "Vom Promotionsprivileg zum Promotionsrecht: Das Leipziger Promotionsrecht zwischen 1409 und 1945 als konstitutives und prägendes Element der akademischen Selbstverwaltung". The English abstract:
    At the beginning of the 13th century, the oldest universities of Paris and Bologna acquired ius promovendi, a procedure that differed from the internal examinations and publicly awarded degrees in used in other educational institutions. German universities appropriated this hard fought right and continue to employ it as one of their fundamental academic privileges up to the present. In the nineteenth century, most of the medieval privileges of the university were absorbed into state administration. Only the independent right to graduate students remained. This right not only served as a means to Self-government the faculty, but is also remains an important element with which the University achieves its social recognition. Using examples of discussions surrounding reforms, particularly focused on the Philosophical (Liberal Arts) Faculty, this work will present the evolution of graduation regulations up to the end of the National Socialist era. Important caesura along the way include the effects of the Reformation (including both the loss of papal protection and the right of supervision by rulers), the elimination of confessional requirements at the end of the eighteenth century, the development of specialized departments and the reduction in status of the Master’s Degree, the efforts of democratic professors and educational reformers to liberalize the nature of doctoral studies, the role of doctoral studies in the political sphere after the turn of the century, particularly during the Weimar Republic and finally the nation wide standardization and appropriation of doctoral graduation procedures as a political instrument during the Third Reich.  
  • The court in Freiburg upheld the rescinding of Veronica Saß' dissertation by the University of Konstanz. The court ruling, although "anonymized" gives lots of details about her grades.
  • The court in Cologne upheld the rescinding of Margarita Mathiopoulos' dissertation by the University of Bonn. Mathiopoulous feels that the court did not understand her and is considering continuing legal action.

Friday, November 30, 2012

French Academics Circulate Petition

French academics have started a petition against plagiarism in research. The petition is available online at This is a translation by Google Translate prettied up by me:

Refuse to condone plagiarism in research
A few days before the conclusion of the Audience on Higher Education and Research, the undersigned scholars and researchers consider it their duty to remind that the university must ensure the legitimacy of the degrees it issues.
In particular, it must ensure that plagiarism in dissertations, theses, and scientific publications can not discredit the quality of training offered and the French research.As such, the scientific and academic communities must work together against all forms of plagiarism. They must not only work to prevent plagiarism but also in each case see to it that appropriate penalties are meted out. The responsibility of universities or research organizations must be engaged when plagiarism, fraud and attempted fraud are not certified subject such sanctions. The obligation to sanction weighs on all higher education institutions and research organizations.A number of cases analyzed by our colleague Jean-Noel Darts (Lecturer in Information Science and Communication at the University Paris 8 Saint-Denis) are documented in the Archaeology Blog Copy and Paste and point to the failure of ethics in  serious academic research and in issuing diplomas has been committed by the university, as well as doctoral students and by faculty members, without the measures required having been taken to date. A commission of inquiry with all guarantees of impartiality should verify the authenticity of the documents presented on this blog. The articles which are posted online appear to establish a particularly overwhelming picture.The University of Paris 8 is not the only one concerned by the phenomenon of plagiarism, far from it. Such situations require special attention, at the risk of letting it corrupt part of the academic and scientific research. If confirmed, this university or elsewhere, that plagiarism has occurred, and knowingly in violation of academic ethics, only the imposition of appropriate sanctions would end these intolerable practices that hinder the smooth functioning research, both from the point of view of its actors evaluation of the scientific quality of university productions.Safeguarding the freedom of research and academic freedom depends on the quality of degrees, publications and productions. Leave these records state could aggravate a situation that tends to suggest that the French University in persistent ignorance of the extent of the plagiarism, waived defend a level of excellence necessary to take its place in the European and international levels.

If you subscribe to this text and want to make your signature, specify your email address and your qualities bottom of that page, under the heading comment.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Romanian Education Minister Found to have Plagiarized

The second Romanian politician to be found having plagiarized is Ecaterina Andronescu, the Minster of -- yup -- Education. A Romanian documentation site,, has published a documentation in English about a conference paper that Andronescu co-authored with Aurelia Cristina Nechifor in 2003. Andronescu lists the paper in her official CV.

The paper is said to plagiarize three other works and to falsify data. It was published while Andronescu was Minster of Research and Dean of the Faculty of Industrial Chemistry at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest.

Andronescu had declared earlier this week that the plagiarism found in the dissertation of the head of state, Victor Ponta, did not lead to her rescinding his doctorate because at the time that he wrote the dissertation -- also 2003 -- it was okay to write like that, according to the German daily newspaper FAZ.  Romanian intellectuals are loudly protesting this, stating correctly that proper citation techniques was not invented in 2003 but has been around for quite some time.

The platform is run by an anonymous group of intellectuals in Romania and documents plagiarism and scientific misconduct. It is not run like the VroniPlag Wiki in Germany, but is a closed system documenting the cases and then including the opinions of foreign researchers from the field on each individual case. This case is the sixth case that they have published.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

UK academic resigned Belgian post in 2010

I happened upon an article from 2010 in the Times Higher Education supplement about a UK academic who resigned his post at the Belgian Catholic University at Leuven after charges of plagiarism surfaced. A Finnish member of parliament for the Social Democrats, Ilkka Kantola, found tens of pages of his dissertation in a paper published by Martin Stone, a professor of philosophy, according to the THE.

The Voice, an international student's newspaper, requested that the university break through the silence that has surrounded the issue and the resignation of Stone. They want to discuss what happened openly, since there appear to be many more papers by Stone that were plagiarized.

I have heard rumors that Leuven is currently considering a sort of amnesty for academics at the school found to have participated in academic misconduct. This article (in Flemish) seems to confirm this.
"Zolang in wetenschappelijke middens de onvoorwaardelijke belangstelling voor wat waar en relevant is, ondergeschikt blijkt aan de huidige prestatiecriteria, zal gelijk welke andere regelgeving de geest niet in de fles doen."
(in etwa: das bedingungslose Interesse für was wahr und relevant ist, darf den heutigen Leistungskritierien nicht untergeordnet werden)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hungarian Plagiarism

Hungary has had a spate of plagiarism reports, it appears. Here's the link in Hungarian and in the Google translation.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

National Public Radio

I'm pleased that National Public Radio in the US has picked up the story on plagiarism in Germany. One of my new readers posted a link on the Heidelberg page with a link to a song that he composed about someone plagiarizing from him.

One of the other persons interviewed in Germany is a retired German professor who states:
[...] that people without position and little money are using such plagiarism claims to become famous.
Um, let's run that through the logic analyzer,  shall we? The activists are pseudonymous. That means that most are not known by their civil name (although two of us are, and strangely enough, we are both professors). So you just don't know if the rest have a position or not. And their bank accounts are not (yet) available for perusal on Facebook. I'm also puzzled by the consequent -- how does one become famous if one is pseudonymous?

For those who read German: have a look around the Schavanplag site. "Robert Schmidt" has been doing some cleaning up. And s/he's not doing it to get famous. Really. And the VroniPlag Wiki site is up to 34 cases and still going strong.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Talk in Cottbus

I've been horribly busy and have a backlog of things I want to blog about, but I've just had a letter from someone wanting to know about how the talk in Cottbus went, so here goes.

The BTU Cottbus is the university that granted a doctorate to a Vattenfall manager, Detlev Dähnert, on the basis of a dissertation that has large blocks of text parallels on 44 % of the pages, as has been documented by VroniPlag Wiki, and for which at least some of the research was done by the company Infratest, as a former worker for the company has stated (third portion).

The university deliberated and announced that they were not rescinding the doctorate, as there were only "technical weaknesses" in the thesis. I, and others, have been calling on the university to publish the expertise about the thesis. One would suppose that this expertise would list the 125 fragments of text parallel that VroniPlag Wiki documents and explain for each one what exactly the weakness is and why this is not to be considered plagiarism. I, for one, would fail a student on pretty much just one such fragment.

One fresh graduate of the university, who was not planning a career in academia, gave a talk in July in which he concluded that there was extensive plagiarism in the dissertation and called on the university to re-think its position. He is now no longer with the university (his contract ran out, as is normal for graduate student contracts in Germany), but a group of students contacted me and asked that I continue the discussion in the winter term.

There appeared to have been a bit of a scuffle between the university and the students on permission to use a room, but I was allowed to speak. There were only 18 persons there, including one member of the commission. I spoke on many cases of plagiarism in dissertations, including many historic cases and some VroniPlag Wiki cases  (slides, 16 MB, the slide numbers 32-35 include excerpts from Dähnerts dissertation).

The discussion was excellent -- there were many issues raised on how to go about determining plagiarism, why the need to demonstrate intent should be necessary, remarks that the intent is clear if you actually look at the text parallels, comments that one of the persons plagiarized didn't feel cheated so it must be alright, and a general criticism of the numerical fixation at VroniPlag Wiki and the barcode representation that overly abridges the issues involved.

We didn't solve any problems -- and it is not clear if the university is indeed looking into the case again, or if they are focusing solely on the reorganization that is being imposed on them from by the state. But I have the feeling that the discussion is indeed continuing, at least amongst the students, especially in the face of the fact that Vattenfall provides about a third of the external funding for the university.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Medical Triple Header

It was a busy Friday afternoon on the VroniPlag Wiki site. Even though there are still fragments still awaiting a second opinion, three German medical dissertations were named on the home page:
  • #31:, clocking in with just 60 pages, already has 53 % of those pages documented with text parallels. Eleven of those pages contain more than 75 %. The thesis was submitted to the medical department of the University of Freiburg/Breisgau in 2009, defended in 2010, and published in 2011. 
  • #32:, is a veterinary thesis submitted to the  Tiermedizinische Hochschule Hannover in 2007, "only" has text parallels on 28 % of the pages, but there are some complete pages that are copied (Page 13 and Page 33) as well as extensive copying from the Wikipedia and a number of other dissertations submitted in veterinary medicine both at the Hannover school as well as other schools.   
  • #33:, is a medical thesis submitted to the University of Tübingen in 2001. There are text parallels on  21 % of the pages, and it seems that this thesis was also the basis of some of the plagiarism in Case #32. Most of the text parallels found to date in this thesis are from older dissertations published in the year 2000.
Should we bother documenting plagiarism in medical theses? The discussion rages on behind the scenes. A medical doctorate is just not the same level of work as a doctorate in other fields. I think the German universities need to switch to a more honest M.D. degree that they award (so they can still call themselves "Doktor"), but to quit the pretense of doing research. It appears that fragments of text, much like DNA or RNA, splits apart and recombines with other texts, with a few different numbers thrown in here or there. 

I've written to the universities in question, but I'm not holding my breath. There is a lot of feet-dragging going on in investigating the accusations of plagiarism.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hamburg doctorate rescinded, court case pending

Apparently, the University of Hamburg rescinded the doctorate in law of one of cases documented on the VroniPlag Wiki at some time in the recent past, as reported by the Hamburger Abendblatt. They report on the complexities surrounding this case that involve lawyers suing lawyers over lawyers fighting other lawyers. But no matter what the circumstances -- a thesis that has so many text parallels, often covering more than half of the page on over 86 % of the pages,  is extremely problematic. The findings page lists the most important text parallels.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Frankfurt School of Management rescinds doctorate

The Frankfurt School of Management, a private institution of higher learning in Germany that confers doctoral degrees, has announced that they have rescinded the doctorate from a candidate, the first degree awarded at this school, who had plagiarized on 94 of the 380 pages of his thesis, as well as many other problems with the thesis. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on the case, but the article is behind a paywall.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to find Plagiarism in Dissertations

Germany is awash in another wave of discussions about plagiarism. This time it is the Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan. The story about plagiarism in her dissertation broke in May, and the University of Düsseldorf has been examining the case since. Today, October 17, the committee is meeting to decide on the results, but the documentation that they prepared was leaked to the press this past weekend, and the press has been in a frenzy.

And I have laryngitis and can't talk. I have journalists pleading with me to explain how the "magic" VroniPlag Wiki software works. The problem is, there is no magic software. The method used to find plagiarism in dissertations (or any other written work) is called "research". Just normal research.

But since so many people need to know how this is done, here's a crib sheet with 10 easy steps:
  1. Obtain the thesis. If you are just trying to find the dissertation of a particular person who did their doctoral work in Germany, give the German National Library a try. Type in the name and see what it comes up with. Then use the catalog of your local library (often called an OPAC, online public access catalog) or a union catalog to try and locate a copy. Most German states have a union catalog, in Berlin it is the KOBV.  If there is none in your locality, you can obtain a library card and then have the thesis sent to you using inter-library loan.
  2. Read the thesis. There is no royal road. The so-called plagiarism detection software can turn up the odd reference, but only if the sources are online. The best bet is to start reading it, and look for shifts in writing style, or places where the writing turns Spiegel-esque, or for sudden useless details, or misspellings, or just wrong content.
  3. Google. I've given up on other search machines. Just belly up to the search bar and type in three to five words from a sentence or paragraph and see what turns up. If you get a lead through Google Books, use step 1 to obtain a copy of the book. If you get lucky and the first paragraph is taken from the FAZ or the NZZ -- paydirt! Don't just try one paragraph, take a few from different parts of the book. 
  4. Follow the footnotes. University teachers do this when teaching their students how to footnote, and it scares the daylights out of students when they see that the professor found out that they were just making up the footnotes. Does the reference exist? Is the thing being said found on that page? Is the whole paragraph taken from the reference with the quotation marks "forgotten"? Does the chapter in the dissertation continue on after the footnote without a further reference? Is this paragraph perhaps just a translation of the reference? 
  5. Browse the bibliography. What is the most recent source used? Is it five years older than the dissertation? In some fields, this would sound an alarm. Is there some strange or obscure literature listed? Obtain it! Do you need journal articles? Germany had a wonderful listing of the holdings of all libraries nationwide, the Zeitschriftendatenbank. It will tell you where they can be found, and many can even be delivered to your email account as a pdf for a few Euros. Many libraries also subscribe to digital libraries that can be used when sitting at the library. A walk would do you good, anyway, so get over there and have a look.
  6. Digitize. If you have already found a source plagiarized in a dissertation, the chance is that there is more. Have a good look at each, and now digitize the relevant portions. Use a book scanner in the library to get a high-quality scan of the pages as a PDF. You lay the book flat under the camera, press a button, turn the page, press a button, until you are done. Experienced scanners can do over 100 200 pages per hour. Now use an optical character recognition (OCR) software on the PDF. There are free ones like Google's Tesseract or professional versions such as the one built into Adobe's Acrobat or OmniPage or Abbyy Fine Reader.
  7. Compare. This is one if the few software systems the VroniPlag Wiki people use. It is a text comparison tool that is based on the free algorithm of Dick Grune. The tool marks identical passages in two documents that it is comparing. Put the dissertation in one side, the source in the other, and press "Texte vergleichen!". Don't forget to make a screen shot if the results turn out colorful.
  8. Document. If you find anything, document it exactly. Page and line numbers from the dissertation, URL or page and line numbers from the source, and a copy of each. A two-column side-by-side has proved easy to understand when showing the results to others.
  9. Need help? If you have already found some nasty text parallels, drop in at the VroniPlag Wiki chat ( on channel #vroniplag) or use the drop if you want to be discreet. You might be able to interest someone in working on the case. But remember, they are all volunteers. Or you can continue on yourself, and then inform the ombud for good scientific practice at the university in question.
  10. Publish. If you feel that it is necessary to publish your results, you can either choose a wiki, such as the GuttenPlag Wiki or the VroniPlag Wiki, which makes it easier for others to help you with the documentation, or you can publish on a blog, like the SchavanPlag blog, which gives you complete control of what is published. Or you can print up a book, like Marion Soreth did in 1990 when she documented the dissertation of her colleague Elisabeth Ströker. 
All clear? If I've missed anything, please add in the comments!

Update: A correspondent noted that when you scan once you actually get two pages. And that an experienced person can do 200-400 pages an hour. I'll stick with the lowest number.
Update 2: A student of mine improved the comparison tool. It is available as similarity-texter free of charge online.  It runs in your browser. If you find something colored, just click on it - and the identical text on the other side will align with it. This makes examining large files very easy, and it is also easy to prepare a PDF with the passages marked using the tool. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Stumping Plagiarism Software

A correspondent shared an email correspondence with me he had with Ephorus, the Dutch plagiarism detection software company. It seems that his school pays good money for the Ephorus system for general use.

Although Ephorus had given a student's paper a clean bill of health, the professor had not been satisfied and she sat down to google. She found over 30 % of the paper was plagiarized from online sources!

They wrote to Ephorus to ask how this could be. The answer is rather shocking: the texts aren't identical, you see. The punctuation was changed, and the student paper often had two blanks where the source only had one. Ephorus wrote:
The erroneous punctuation has implications for the effectiveness of the plagiarism scan. we [sic] will examine how large the effects are and what we can do about it.
Um, guys? If your system can be tricked by inserting a blank after every second or third word, we might just as well flip a coin to determine if a paper is plagiarized. This does, however, confirm that the false negatives are a big problem with Ephorus. In our study with former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's doctoral thesis, which was determined by the GuttenPlag Wiki to have 63 % of the lines on 94 % of the pages to be plagiarized, Ephorus reported only 5 % plagiarism:

A French Puzzle

An anonymous correspondent dropped this link into my box this morning: Imposture à l'Université ?

Google Translate lets me know that this is a bit of a French puzzle. Professor Imad Saleh of the University of Paris 8, lists as an important paper in a CV:
Meziani Rachid et Saleh Imad (2011), « Towards a collaborative business
process management methodolgy [sic] », ICMCS ’09, IEEE, 6-8 April 2011
Maroc, 8 pages (article indexé).
That is, a paper from the 2009 conference ICMCS sponsored by IEEE in 2011. Okay, that might be a typographical error. The ICMCS'11 did take place in Morocco, but from 7-9 Apr 2011. Okay, off-by-one is normal for computer scientists.

The article posts a link to that paper. And it posts a link to a paper written by Rachid Meziani and Rodrigo Magalhães from the Center for Organizational Design and Engineering in Lisbon, Portugal in 2009: Proposals for an Agile Business Process Management Methodology.

Shall we compare the abstracts with the VroniPlag Wiki SIM_TEXT comparison tool?

(You can click on the picture for a larger view)

Needless to say, the article continues pretty much word for word, table by table, picture by picture.

Saleh is professor and the director of PARAGRAPHE, an interdisciplinary research laboratory attached to the doctoral School (N°224) Cognition, Langage and Interaction (CLI) of the University of Paris 8. There is no Meziani listed there or at the web site of the University of Paris 8. There is a Rodrigo Magalhães to be found in Kuwait, and he does BPO, but there is not a complete bibliography listed there.

So the French Puzzle is: why are these two papers identical? What happened to Meziani and Magalhães? There has been a case submitted to the French Council on Universities. It is interesting to note that Saleh is a member of that council

And if I may add a question myself - why do we continue to prize conference publications in computer science? We can't tell the mock conferences from the substantial ones, and plagiarism seems to be rampant because the peer-review systems is dead for conferences.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Danish eLearning Unit on Avoiding Plagiarism

Three Danish universities, the University of Southern Denmark, Aarhus University, and Copenhagen University cooperated in 2010 to produce an eLearning unit on avoiding plagiarism. There is a version in Danish and in English.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Welsh Medical Dean under Investigation

The Times Higher Education reports on investigations being launched in Wales into an image manipulation case. There have been allegations of six papers published by B. P. Morgan, who is dean of medicine at Cardiff University, containing manipulated images.

Morgen is a prolific author, having published 400 172 papers since 1998. As one of the commenters noted: "That's one every single fortnight, rain, hail or sunshine, Christmas, Easter and summer for fourteen years. And he has had time to be Dean for part of that, too?"

Science Fraud has more detail on the cases,  and Retraction Watch details one paper that was retracted from the Journal of Immunology.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Plagiarism in Turkey

Some Turkish academics have been very busy the past few months, it seems. Perhaps inspired by the VroniPlag Wiki documentation in Germany, the authors have put together a massive documentation of plagiarism in Turkish theses that A. Murat Eren, a computer science Ph.D. and post-doc researcher in the United States, has published on his blog. The cases are documented with a short description of each and the committee that accepted the thesis, and some pictures with original and plagiarism.

I've translated the results section with Google translate and tried to fix the sentences to make sense - if someone can provide a proper translation I'll be glad to replace it. :
With such ethically problematic theses and publications by the thesis advisers themselves who are now permitted to mentor students who themselves are submitting plagiarisms, there is a new generation of academics being produced that completes a cycle. 

One of the largest problems is being able to access the theses themselves.  University libraries arbitrarily restrict access to theses. In order to solve this problem the Council of Higher Education needs to set up a Thesis Archive.

On the other hand, even in thesis cases where a high level of plagiarism is found, the legislative is found to be a bottleneck as no deterrent penalties are being proposed.  Instead, there are severe reactions [against the whistleblowers] when scientists point out the theft, so the perpetrators continue to quietly steal.
I would hope that the authors work out a bit more hypertextual representation and that English translations would soon be forthcoming. There are a number of smaller blogs and articles that have popped up over the years: Plagiarism in Turkey - Plagiarism (in Turkish) - Plagiarism by Turkish Students - Retracted (a selection of retracted papers by Turkish authors) - a description of a mass plagiarism scandal in physics in 2007 in Turkey.

It will be interesting to see if there will be any sort of reaction on the part of Turkish officials to the new documentation of wide-spread plagiarism.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Russia to check doctorates centrally?

One of my bots has turned up a press release from Russia stating that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wants Russia to have software for checking for plagiarism in graduate theses and PhD dissertations, as well as setting up an Open Access repository of these theses. I don't believe that it is any easier to find plagiarism in Russian than in English or German or French, as plagiarism is more than just word-for-word copies. But it is a step in the right direction, and a step more than many countries, for example Germany, are willing to take. Teaching people about plagiarism and how to write scientifically would be more helpful, in my opinion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Swedish Editor-in-Chief Steps Down in Plagiarism Row

Katarina Ekspong, the editor-in-chief of the Swedish daily newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, published in Örebro, stepped down the end of August/beginning of September over a plagiarism row

At first it seemed that she had only plagiarized one piece by a free-lance journalist published in January of this year about Örebro.  Upon closer inspection of her work, additional word-for-word plagiarisms were discovered.

She first just stepped down as publisher, but has since resigned from all positions. She declines all requests for comment or interviews.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Large-scale collusion at Harvard

The academic world in the US is currently discussing a widespread case of collusion that Harvard announced a few days ago with the publication in the Boston Globe of a letter that the Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay Harris, sent to all students:
"I am writing to alert you to deeply disturbing allegations of academic dishonesty involving a significant number of Harvard College students, and to remind you of every student’s duty to embrace our ideals regarding, as well as the specific rules governing, academic integrity. [...]
Harvard takes academic integrity very seriously because it goes to the heart of our educational mission [...]. Academic dishonesty cannot and will not be tolerated. I join [with others] in hoping we can all use today’s news to foster a culture of honesty and integrity in everything we do as members of the Harvard community."
This is the absolutely correct step to take -- discuss the issue of academic integrity involved here instead of trying to sweep everything under the carpet. And with a motto of veritas, truth, it is important that the university make the effort to find out what happened and perhaps use this as a teaching moment on academic integrity.

What had happened? In a course "Introduction to Congress" with 279 students (according to the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson), the professor set a take-home exam (documented here at the Boston Globe). This pedagogical concept is not clear to many, so I will elaborate a bit here. This is not a multiple choice, short answer exam like typical proctored exams, but an open book and open Internet exam. Questions are asked that must first be researched, then written up and cleanly documented. It is not testing the regurgitation of factoids, but an investigation into how good people are at research and synthesis of own material. Usually there will be a very short time frame involved, just 2 or 3 days, so that students must begin immediately and not wait until the very last minute and hope to Google something together.

In this case Prof. Matthew B. Platt stated clearly on the exam: "students may not discuss the exam with others". Now it is clear, that if it easy to cheat -- there is no proctor, only the students' own sense of integrity is at work here. They can use the library, their notes, or any other materials, but must not discuss with anyone other than themselves.

While correcting the results, according to the New York Times, the professor noted similarities in some of the answers and contacted the university authorities. They decided to investigate and looked at all of the exams. They contacted all 125 students suspected of working with others before they made the case public.

The Crimson notes that the university can impose sanctions up to suspending a student for an entire academic year, depending on the extent of the cheating. The student newspaper also documents lots of student complaints: We didn't understand the questions, they were too hard, the class was bad, the professor was bad, the last office hours before the exam were cancelled,...., the usual excuses. But even if the professor was horrible and the class time misspent and the assigned textbook on the wrong subject: the exam was given under stated conditions, and they must apply to all students equally. There is no excuse for cheating, full stop. One of the accused complains anonymously in Salon that s/he never went to section, because it was supposed to be an easy class, and now they feel that they are being made scapegoats. Well, not cheating would have been the smart thing to do here.

There is, of course, the question of why a school that is asking its students to pay more than $35,000 in tuition per year is offering classes that are this large. But that, too, does not directly bear on the question of cheating.

Another question that arises for teachers is how to determine that collusion has happened. My research group has been working on testing collusion detection programs for the past year, we hope to be able to present the results shortly. This is an entirely different question than scouring the Internet for plagiarism sources, this is a question of checking every paper submitted against every other one, looking for commonalities.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Linkspam #1

Due to other pressing projects I am not getting around to discussing all of the cases that should be discussed here. So I herewith steal borrow that most excellent idea of geekfeminism and will start posting linkspam at irregular intervals. No, the things I am linking to are not spam. I am just spamming my regular readers with some links that may or may not be interesting to them.
  • The Journal of Nietzsche Studies has a long article, Telling the Same Story of Nietzsche’s Life, by Mark Anderson, with a number of rejoinders linked on the left hand side. It is not about plagiarism, but about a matching story and concludes: "[...] although a biographer must of necessity adhere to an accurate chronology of events, nothing compels a specific selection of facts, quotations, or vocabulary."
  • Retraction Watch (which needs to be on your required reading list, anyway) documents the University of Frankfurt in Germany snapping at whistleblowers:
    German university calls whistleblower’s emails “dangerous”. This is quite a complicated case with personal insults and injuries being mixed in with scientific ones. Retraction Watch states:
    But we are also on the record insisting that institutions and journals take whistleblower allegations seriously, even if they are anonymous. So while we take the university at its word that it will “take any allegation of scientific dishonesty very seriously and its designated committee will thoroughly investigate any such accusation,” we really hope this letter isn’t an attempt to discourage future whistleblowing, or a precedent for why universities should ignore such allegations.
  • I found this letter to the editor of Upsala Nya Tidningen (in Swedish) in January 2012 from students complaining about the media reporting on plagiarism. They feel that the reports on cheating are vastly exaggerated and that students caught are put on the stocks and treated as criminals [well, they did cheat, actually - dww] and the fault is of course with the government for not giving the universities enough money or instructional time or face time with professors. 
  • Der Standard in Austria reports that the head of the Slovakian Christian Democrats Party (KDH), Jan Figel, is said to have committed plagiarism in his doctoral thesis, according to the Deutschen Presse-Agentur (dpa). Figel was Comissioner of Education for the EU from 2004-09 and Slovakian Minister of Transportation from 2010-12.  
  • Ulrich Lichtenthaler is now up to six retractions.
  • And then there is South Korean researcher Hyung-In Moon who appears to have used identity theft and identity fabrication in order to self-review his papers.
Many thanks to readers who send me links - I think this format is a good way to get some links out to people to find out more about these cases. Do keep sending them!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

German politician's son loses doctorate, too.

The Bavarian daily newspaper Münchener Abendblatt reports that now also the son of the former Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber has been stripped of his doctorate by the Austrian University of Innsbrück. Previously, one of his daughters -- whose nickname "Vroni" was the basis for the plagiarism documentation platform VroniPlag Wiki -- had also had her doctorate rescinded on the basis of plagiarism by the German University of Constance.

The detection of the plagiarism in the doctorate of the son was done by Stefan Weber, a private plagiarism investigator, on behalf of the Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageblatt, the Münchener Abendblatt reports. The newspaper notes that Stoiber's son is contesting the rescinding of his doctorate in the courts. His sister also went to court, but the court confirmed the position of the university.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Guttenbergs Ghostwriter

I've just finished a novel that has been lying around for months. Ich war Guttenbergs Ghost - Eine Satire (I was Guttenbergs Ghost - A Satire), by Norbert Hoppe (a pseudonym). The idea that zu Guttenberg, the German defense minister whose plagiarized dissertation set off a long-running discussion of plagiarism, had hired a ghostwriter was hotly disputed last year.

The GuttenPlag Wiki has a number of pages that discusses all angles of this notion: The Ghostwriter Forum - The Stylistic Forum - The Stylistic Analysis. The variation used in this book is that a the author, Hoppe, who had known zu Guttenberg since third grade, had been helping shape the media figure zu Guttenberg for a number of years. When zu Guttenberg finds that he doesn't have the time to finish the thesis, he dumps the box of diskettes on Hoppe and asks him to finish it up for him.

The story is a bit long at times, and Hoppe professes a puppy love for zu Guttenberg's wife as one of the reasons he went along with everything through all the years. But the story does present a plausible explanation for the extensive patchwork quilt plagiarism in zu Guttenberg's thesis. It is also interesting to see how things change from when zu Guttenberg is just a member of parliament to when he becomes a minister. Everything is now focused on his media presence, and he get new "handlers" who organize his day.

I begin to understand why politicians don't actually seem to get things done. They are so absorbed in presenting themselves and making sure not to make public gaffes that there is little time left to be thinking about the actual politics. Hoppe gives a shockingly plausible reason for zu Guttenberg getting rid of conscription. He meets a recruit at a bus stop, the soldier is sitting sloppily with his feet on the seat. zu Guttenberg is shocked, tells him to sit up straight, and gets a snippy answer. "Do you know who I am?", zu Guttenberg demands. "Nö" the soldier answers.  When zu Guttenberg tells him that his is actually his top boss, the soldier doesn't care. His tour of duty ends in a month. So on the spur of the moment, zu Guttenberg decides to only have a volunteer army of people who want to be there.

The book is not great literature, and probably does not make much sense for people who do not know the zu Guttenberg case. But if you do and you read German, it is an amusing read.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

VroniPlag Wiki Case # 29

The cases of plagiarism in dissertations seems to be a never-ending story. VroniPlag Wiki's case # 29 was awarded the best grade and a prize at the TU Dresden in 2009. This thesis, submitted to the business faculty, deals with statistics and risk management. Currently, 32 % of the pages contain text or formulas that closely parallel other works.

Are the universities actually doing anything to fix this obviously broken system? Yes, they are having the submitters swear on oath that they did everything correctly. And purchasing software (that can only suggest text parallels, never determine the absence or presence of plagiarism).

The magazine "ZEIT campus" is currently publishing the results from a three-year investigation by the University of Bielefeld into how many students cheat. Their results (partially published at Zeit Online) are shocking: 79 % of students asked self-reported having cheated. It's only going to get worse if nothing happens.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Case of Faheed Zakaria

The news from the States is full of stories about India-born Fareed Zakaria, an American journalist with Time and CNN who has been suspended in a plagiarism scandal. He has admitted to plagiarizing a number of paragraphs from a New Yorker article on gun control. His article, "The Case for Gun Control", is still online, as is of course the article by Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore, "Battleground America". CNN appears to have suspended him for similar plagiarism in a blog that has been taken offline.

I feel that this is a problem, to take stuff offline. I want to be able to examine the evidence for myself. My news feeder (Shameless plug for Highbeam) from the States led me to the Seattle Times' article "CNN's Zakaria sorry for plagiarism". There an example of the "plagiarism" is given, and I looked up, puzzled. This was statement of fact. The only text similarity was the name of the person quoted and the book quoted from.

I dug around for the articles and threw them at the comparison tool, SIM_TEXT, that we use on the VroniPlag Wiki.

Fareed Zakaria

Jill Lepore
Hmm. Wow. We have cases of plagiarism in Germany that have massively more copy and pasted that were found by their universities (BTU Cottbus and University of Heidelberg) to be only "technical weaknesses": Dd with 44 % of the pages affected: 2835 - 48 - 103; Nk with 75 % of the pages affected (many from her doctoral advisor): 17 - 66 - 81 - 90.

I am, of course, of the opinion that both universities listed above are in error and that these theses are grave plagiarisms, the doctoral titles should be rescinded.Fareed's sin is the selection of facts and quotes, that were lifted from the New Yorker. It is right to suspend him, give him some time to think about what he did here. I don't know about other texts that might contain similar material. But this is far, far less than the Jayson Blair case. But should he be fired? What do my readers think?

Update 2012-08-19: The Chicago Tribune reported on Aug. 16. that Zakaria has been reinstated both at Time and at CNN. I'm quite glad, as it would have been very difficult to explain large-scale copy and paste in Germany being okay, and a paraphrasing error in the US costing one their job.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Inquiry results published

The Ludwigshafener hospital has published a press release about the results of the inquiry into the research of Joachim Boldt. He was the former "retraction king", having had to retract 88 of his publications. He has since been "de-throned" by Yoshitaka Fujii (as reported by Retraction Watch).

Boldt already left the hospital in November of 2010, after criticism of his research grew too loud to ignore. The board examining his papers needed a good 18 months to go through everything and determine that "in a large number of the studies investigated, the conduct of research failed to meet required standards. False data were published in at least 10 of the 91 articles examined, including, for instance, data on patient numbers/ study groups as well as data on the timing of measurements."

They try and play it down as being mostly a procedural thing, and are relieved that no patients came to harm. They promise that they have fixed procedures.

But I still have a few questions:
  • Where did the money for this research come from? Was this government money? Was it from a pharmaceutical company?
  • Has anyone used the since-withdrawn studies? That is, did anyone else quote his papers or try and replicate the experiments?
  • Is Boldt still permitted to practice medicine?
  • The hospital states that they will be monitoring future clinical studies - how will they be encouraging people to speak up about falsification of data? That has nothing to do with monitoring, which brings up notions of even MORE paperwork. How are they going to foster an environment in which people can question the research being done without fear of retaliation.
  • Why did this take 18 months?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Plagiarism Vocabulary

I was digging around looking for papers on how exactly plagiarism detection software works, when I was directed to "Classifications of Plagiarism Detection Engines", published in 2005 by Fintan Culwin and Thomas Lancaster in the online journal ITALICS 4(2). As a software engineer I was quite enjoying digging out the ancient papers quoted there about detecting plagiarism in programming exercises in FORTRAN. Ahh, those were the days, my first programming language.... and what a great use of Halstead's Software Science!

Then I realized that Thomas Lancaster had submitted his dissertation "Effective and Efficient Plagiarism Detection" in 2003 to the London South Bank University, London, UK. He has an excellent, detailed classification of the plagiarism detection systems available at that time, and a good overview of a lot of the technical papers that are to be found on the topic. The glossary alone is a joy to read, and I have asked for and received permission to repeat portions here. There are also a number of papers that Lancaster has published or prepared on the topic included in the appendix. Lancaster focuses in the thesis on a four-step process for determining plagiarism:
  • Collection stage - The first stage of the four-stage plagiarism detection process. This
    is where students submit their work to an electronic system so it can later be analysed for similarity.
  • Analysis stage - The second stage of the four-stage plagiarism detection process. Here all submissions are compared with each other (for intra-corpal plagiarism detection) or the external sources such as the Web (for extra-corpal plagiarism detection) to find submissions that are similar to each other or the Web sources.
  • Confirmation stage - The third stage of the four-stage plagiarism detection process. Here a tutor checks the pairs of student submissions that have been judged to be similar to see if they represent plagiarism or they represent legitimate shared citations or false hits. The tutor decides which pairs will go on to be investigated further.
  • Investigation stage - The fourth and final stage of the four-stage plagiarism detection
    process. This is where pairs of similar submissions have been found and they have
    been confirmed by human inspection to be similar and possible cases of plagiarism. In this case further evidence is collected, such as student interviews and marked up
    copies of the submissions and penalties are given.
My selection from the glossary (my favorite definition is in blue):
  • Academic plagiarism - Plagiarism carried out by academics, for instance copying journal articles and submitting them as their own work for possible career development.
  • Attribute counting metrics - A count of some property of a single document which
    might involve tokenisation. This has been redefined to remove the inconsistencies
    from the literature but is not considered a sensible classification.
  • Authorship attribution - The branch of linguistics that aims to calculate the author of
    a work based on knowledge of works by other known authors. This is not appropriate for plagiarism detection since there is no corpus of known work by a given student.
  • Characters Metric - A simple metric that measures the number of sequences of
    characters of a chosen length two documents have in common. 
  • Cheating - Unauthorised behaviour that is going against student etiquette when trying for an academic award or to gain an advantage over other students. Examples include plagiarism, use of cribs in exams and paying someone to complete an assignment specification on your behalf. 
  • Closeness Calculation - A computationally part of automated plagiarism detection
    where a single number is generated from a number of different metrics to decide how similar two submissions are.
  • Contractive plagiarism - Plagiarism where the source is larger than the copy and
    hence the source has been reduced in some way to create the student submission.
  • Corpal Metrics - A multi-dimensional metric that is a measure of a property of an
    entire corpus, for instance the proportion of submissions using a given keyword.
  • Collusion - Where two students discuss and work on an assignment specification
    together and complete elements of their final submissions together. This might be
    judged to be intra-cor[p]al plagiarism.
  • Direct copy - Two student submissions that are identical to one another with no
    attempt at disguise. One is a direct copy of the other. 
  • Disguise - Where a student has attempted to change a source and hand it in as their
    own submission so that the use of the original source won't be noticed.
  • Expansive plagiarism - Plagiarism where the source has been extended, either by
    adding new thoughts or adding filler words and phrases to make a student submission. 
  • Extra-corpal plagiarism - Plagiarism where the plagiarism source is outside the
    corpus of student submissions, for instance a Web site or material from a book.
  • False hits - Pairs of submissions that are ranked high enough for a tutor to investigate them but are judged to be dissimilar, thus being a waste of tutor time.
  • Free text plagiarism - Plagiarism that has been done in natural language, for instance, altering the words of another writer and presenting it as your own work.
  • Hybrid metric systems - A system that a combination of both attribute counts and
    structure metrics to find similar submissions. This has been defined to remove the
    inconsistencies from the literature but is not considered a sensible method of
  • Intra-corpal plagiarism - Plagiarism entirely within a corpus, primarily meaning two
    students who have copied from one another.
  • Missed pairs - A pair of submissions that contains plagiarism but is not automatically ranked in the upper portion of an ordered list of similar pairs and hence not investigated further by a tutor. 
  • Mosaic plagiarism - Plagiarism where chunks from different sources are used and rearranged in a way that could be considered like a mosaic is created from combining and arranging different pictures.
  • Multiply sourced - A student submission or external source that has been used in
    multiple student submissions.
  • Ostrich plagiarism policy - Where an academic institution states that plagiarism does not exist in their institution and has no formal way of dealing with it.
  • Paraphrasing - Using the ideas of another but rewriting them in your own words
    without suitable and continual acknowledgement. 
  • Plagiarism - Taking the words or ideas of another and presenting them as your own
    without suitable acknowledgement.
  • Proactive plagiarism policy - A policy of an academic institution where plagiarism is actively sought out on a regular basis, perhaps by using automated detection methods and cases are followed up when they are found.
  • Professional plagiarism - Plagiarism in a professional setting, for instance copying an internal report or company Web page from another source or using a service that
    writes standard CVs or job applications. 
  • Reactive plagiarism policy - The academic policy where plagiarism is not actively
    sought out but is taken seriously and followed up when it is identified during the
    course of marking.
  • Similarity - Where two submissions have words or ideas in common they are said to
    be similar. When they have been looked at by a tutor they may also be judged to be
  • Singularly sourced - A plagiarism source that has been copied from once only.
  • Source code plagiarism - Plagiarism of source code submissions, where two students
    have handed in programs where one has been derived from the other in some way.
    Detecting this is a well understood area since the constrained language reduces the
    number of possibilities that must be checked.
  • Structural Metrics - A metric that measures a property of one or more submissions
    where knowledge of the structure of the documents is needed.
  • Synthetic corpus - A corpus of documents that have been generated using synthetic
    means by taking sequences of words or characters in a known and defined order.
  • Thesaurising - A technique for plagiarism where words in a source are replaced by
    synonyms or changed in such a way that the submission makes the same points but
    the intention is that the plagiarism will not be discovered.
  • Visual metrics - A metric which is a based on some property of the similarity
    visualisation that would be generated for a given pair of student submissions.
  • Words Pair Metric - A simple metric that measures the number of sequences of word
    pairs in common between two documents. Identified as the most effective simple
I find it immensely helpful to have terms that are generally understood when we are speaking about plagiarism. I would personally use "Synonomizing" instead of "Thesaurising" (which I can't pronounce). I also like the focus on the process of determining plagiarism and not the products - the software that is used in the process. Lancaster's focus in the thesis is on intra-corpal plagiarism and the visualization of similarity. It is well worth a read, if you are working in this area.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Scientific ghostwriting

The online journal Laborjournal has an interesting editorial on scientific ghostwriting (in German) that includes a number of legal cases in Germany and some interviews with ghostwriters. The author also contacted a company that says that they do not write doctoral dissertations. Writing as a medical student, they inquired as to the costs for a medical dissertation on a particular topic. They were given an offer of 5900 € for such a thesis, much less than the 7-10.000 € normally taken for a Diploma- or Masters-Thesis of about 100 pages.

The also include an interview with the authors of PlagScan, a so-called plagiarism detection system. They do concede that software only finds about 60-70 % of plagiarism, as we have demonstrated a number of times over the years. But the authors are confident that they can soon write a system that can even detect ghostwriting.

I'm not of that opinion. I know that I write differently when I am blogging than when I am writing a scientific paper. I have different styles. Trying to detect ghostwriting with software is just not possible. However, we as professors do have a chance to detect this if we have our students regularly submit drafts so that we can see progress. This, however, takes quite a lot of time, giving feedback on drafts. We have to meet with the students and ask hard questions like: where did you find this paper? We don't have that in our library....

And time is the problem. I don't know about you, but my day only has 24 hours. The more students I have, the less time I have to work with each one individually. If we are not reading the theses, why should the students write them? This creates a culture in which people can get away with submitting ghostwritten papers. Of course, what are they going to do when they have to write after their studies? They've never learned to do research, to structure, to write. So that will either ensure an expensive market for ghostwriters, or they will end up getting fired - if there is someone with the guts to call them out on their lack of skills.

The university system needs reforming, and it needs it yesterday. And not just in Germany, it would seem.

Friday, July 27, 2012

VroniPlag Wiki - Case 28, Theology

I can barely keep up here ... Earlier this week, VroniPlag Wiki published case 28,  a dissertation in theology, approved by the University of Tübingen. In this rather bizarre case (but in a way, they are all bizarre in their own ways) the submitter already has a dissertation in medicine. And since he is working on spiritual healing, he just includes that dissertation here, without reference.

VroniPlag Wiki disregarded this in its page count, as there is a slight chance that the advisors accepted this. The medical doctorate is not included on the CV for Tübingen, but the Dr. Dr. is proudly displayed on web pages where the submitter is active.  There are about a quarter of the rest of the pages with plagiarism. A third of these pages include plagiarism on over 75 % of the pages.

Nature wins libel trial

Nature won a long-running libel suit in July brought against them in England by Mohamed El Naschie on account of the following article (which is now back online) by Quirin Schiermeier : Self-publishing editor set to retire: Criticism grows over high number of self-penned articles in physics journal. (Published online 26 November 2008 in Nature 456, 432 (2008) | doi:10.1038/456432a)

Nature has both published a report on the outcome of the suit and an article by the author of the original article describing the process. The main focus of the 2008 article had been about how El Naschie had been self-publishing in an Elsevier journal (Chaos, Solitons and Fractals), of which he was editor-in-chief, at a very unusual rate, and that he was retiring from this position. Schiermeier was looking into how exactly this enormous publishing output was happening.

Schiermeier was also curious to know more about this person, as there were a number of blogs that were criticizing him, for example the El-Naschie Watch, but that were being threatened with litigation. Threats of legal action in science are often in inverse proportion to the scientific value of the contested results.  Schiermeier notes:
Still, unlike other science journalists, such as Simon Singh, who had previously had to go through the libel ordeal on their own, I was in the comparatively comfortable situation that my employers had the resources, the stamina and the willpower to take the case on.
Síle Lane, a campaigns manager at Sense About Science in London, is reported by Nature as noting that "[i]ndividuals who lack the financial support of an institution capable of defending against a libel action will probably look at the amount of time and money it took to defend this case and decide that they shouldn’t speak out."

The judgement ([2012] EWHC 1809 (QB)) is available online at Nature and its 91 pages make a fascinating read. I think it should be required reading for anyone dealing with the scientific publishing process, peer review, impact factors, or junk journals and vanity publishing.

The Honorable Mrs. Justice Sharp, DBE, the judge for this suit, should have been made DBE for her thorough analysis of the situation, but she already is. She looked at the norms of scientific publishing, the peer review system, an the problem of journal self-citation by calling on expert witnesses.

In paragraph 90 we see that El Naschie published 58 papers in 2008 (the year he was being forced to step down as editor). That would be more than one paper a week, and the next most frequent published author at the journal that year had only 9 publications. The next paragraphs contain some fascinating statistics comparing the publication record of other editors-in-chief of top-rate journals. 

In paragraph 114 in response to El Naschie's statement that no peer group existed for assessing his theories, so his only recourse was to self-publish, Sharp states: "We are not living in the age of Galileo. Scientists or those with a keen interest in science as informed amateurs are free to publish and thus disseminate their ideas to the outside world: and in the age of the internet, there are many platforms by which they can do so."

Paragraph 120 details the expert witness of Professor Neil Turok, professor for applied mathematics and theoretical physics. His gruesome task was to actually read and analyze all 58 papers published by El Naschie in 2008 in the journal in question. What an enormous amount of effort!
Through Professor Turok, it is said by the Defendants that on analysis, the 58 papers or articles contained the following defects:
i) A failure to define terminology and concepts, including in particular a failure to present the principles and equations of “E-infinity theory” and the predictions which are said to be deduced from it;
ii) Strongly expressed conclusions, unsupported by any, or any intelligible process of logical reasoning; in particular, the repeated unexplained reliance on numerical coincidences in support of the assertion that the Claimant’s “E-infinity theory” is correct;
iii) Statements which are meaningless or obscure, even to a readers with expertise in the field of theoretical physics;
iv) Statements which are simply wrong;
v) Elementary errors of spelling and grammar;
vi) A lack of any, or any substantial, contribution of new knowledge to the field;
vii) An excessive degree of citation of other articles written or co-written by the Claimant, in particular in order to justify assertions which should have been
supported by self-contained argument or references to the work of independent authors (the articles published by the Claimant in CSF in 2008 contained approximately 301 citations of his own articles in CSF, including citations of “in press” articles: i.e. those articles which were due to be, but which had not at the material time, been formally published);
viii) The use of those articles to advertise other articles by the Claimant.
The judgement then goes on to examine each and every one of these defects. In paragraph 122 already Sharp notes: "But to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, you do not have to be a carpenter to see when the legs of a table are uneven, or even to see that it has no legs at all." On questioning about peer review, Turok states in paragraph 169: "Peer review is essentially what separates theoretical physics from chaos."

It goes on, paragraph after paragraph detailing the bizarreness of the case. This includes the witness Anke Boehm who worked for El Naschie insisting that it was not the policy of the journal to keep reviews and papers once they had been published (paragraph 182) and then speaking of "deleting" the reviews when El Naschie insisted that everything was only done on paper and the he does not use email.  Paragraph 290 notes that El Naschie admitted that some of the people who were speaking for him or working at the journal just did not exist.

The judgment also includes material from Elsevier that makes it clear that even they found the journal problematic (paragraph 228). An internal review of the journal is quoted as stating “Although the journal has a growing impact factor, we are concerned that this is too dependent upon self-citation […] The journal appears to have a high acceptance rate with many accepted papers coming from China." I don't normally praise Elsevier, but I am glad to see that they took the initiative here in terminating the editorship of El Naschie.

I wish to thank Nature for standing up for the name of science reporting and against junk journals! It cost them much time and money, I do hope that they can get the money for the lawyers back from El Naschie, which will probably not be an easy task.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Danish Neuroscientist found guilty of misconduct

It has been a long and complicated story. The newspaper for the University of Copenhagen published "Penkowa for Dummies" in the spring of 2011, which gives a good background to the skirmishes of the past year.

Milena Penkowa, since resigned from her position as professor at the University of Copenhagen, had been the shooting star in research in Denmark. Sure, there had been some dark mutterings about her dissertation, as Nature reported in January 2011 on the basis of a report in Weekendavisen by Poul Pilgaard Johnsen. The thesis was first rejected, then accepted on a second review.

Then some of her research had to be retracted, as it was not replicable. Retraction Watch lists 2 papers out of over 100 that were retracted and two letters of concern that have been published in journals. And some research money had been used to pay for lawyers and restaurant visits. The university promised to start a full-fledged investigation.

The investigation was conducted by a group of foreign experts, Weekendavisen reports in its issue from July 20 (they are, unfortunately, not online). Hans Lassmann from the Medical University in Vienna chaired the committee that examined the 102 publications by Penkowa. 23 of the papers were deemed to be unnecessary to examine more closely. In 26 of the remaining 79 papers the committee determined scientific irregularities. Out of these 26 papers, 16 were determined to be scientific misconduct.

The misconduct has involved, among other things, mismatches between the number of lab animals in the papers and in the animal registers, problems with quantitative data, and problems with pictures (for example just turning the pictures as evidence of new work). The data archives were chaotic and filled with errors.

Berlingske, another Danish paper, reported July 15 by Claes Lautrup on the results of the investigation. Not only Penkowa, but also the University of Copenhagen were found to be guilty of misconduct. Penkowa still claims innocence, but notes that her career is ruined already, there is nothing left for her to give up. The university has refused to comment. By law, the report must be made public and is scheduled for August 7.

The university has started a new program for PhD students that includes mandatory courses in research ethics, good scientific practice, record keeping, and documentation, according to Weekendavisen.

The university must now decide what to do with the 16 articles, whether to contact the journals for retraction. They have already taken Penkowa to court on a case of defrauding university funds, which she blamed on a student. She lost the case and has been fined. She currently is running a company for advising patients with neurological problems and writing a book about dog psychology, Weekendavisen writes. 

There is also a political aspect to the drama, involving the rector of the university and the former federal minister of science, but that is just an added layer of complication to an already tangled web.

(If there are any translation errors in my summary, please let me know! -dww)