Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Warsaw Conference on Plagiarism

I was invited to speak at a seminar about effective anti-plagiarism policy in Warsaw, organized by the Polish plagiarism detection system / The seminar was held in a lovely high-ceilinged room at the library of the agricultural college in downtown Warsaw. They went to the trouble of organizing simultaneous translation, so I was able to follow the Polish talks as well.

The first session was for the politicians. The minister of science and higher education, prof. dr. Barbara Kudrycka, had sent her regrets two days ago, but sent dr. Andrej Kurkiewicz from the ministry to speak. He started off with a misconception common amongst politicians: Somehow, plagiarism and intellectual property rights get themselves mixed up in their heads. The topic at hand is plagiarism and scientific misconduct - that may occasionally have something to do with intellectual property rights, but is not the main focus.

At least, the Polish ministry is doing something. Last year they set up a committee and purchased a number of different software solutions for plagiarism detection (not that they work as expected, but at least they make the tools available to the universities). The ministry has insisted that all universities set up bylaws for dealing with plagiarism. The ministry is also setting up an open access database, POL-on, for collecting scientific resources and making them available to the general public.

There are new nationwide laws on dissertations and professorships, the reviews must be made public and the theses themselves published, which apparently was not the case previously. They are currently in the middle of a two-year transition.

Then dr. Sebastian Kawczynski spoke about his company, the system that they sell, and the processes that they are trying to get instituted in universities across the country. They want to see all papers of all students nationwide tested for plagiarism. He did note, however, that ghostwriting is on the rise, and papers are being offered for as low as 200 Zloty (50 €) up to 2400 Zloty (600 €), so it appears that students have the loose change for purchasing papers. I did not get if he noted that plagiarism detection software is useless on custom-made papers.

There appears to be a problem with students at different universities colluding to submit the same paper or thesis. He felt that this would be stamped out by using plagiarism detection software, however, this would only identify the second paper, not the first.

He then detailed a new Polish law about plagiarism - I didn't understand much of that. He announced that his company is working together with the Kluver publishing group to include a check of the Kluver journal articles on law. They are also discussing including further areas published by Kluver.

Some statistics: There are currently 149 public universities in Poland (32%) that use a plagiarism detection system regularly. 64 of them are using the shared database that his company is offering. 73 of the 76 private universities, however, are also using PDS - he emphasized that it is the quality universities that do so. He then detailed the procedures that they have developed for using their software at universities.

I also learned what copy / paste is in Polish: "kopiuj / wklej". Not that I can pronounce it.

The third speaker of the morning was prof. dr hab. Hubert Izdebski, the secretary of the Central Commission for Degrees and Titles. He spoke about plagiarism and the quality of doctorates and professorships. He noted that they have had many cases, recently a plagiarized thesis in theology and yesterday a medical one. They also had to deal with plagiarism in a thesis that was submitted 20 years ago. They decided that there is no statute of limitations on this, since when they decide that the thesis is invalid, it is not rescinded - it is considered never to have been granted. So they do not have a "sit-it-out" policy such as was just recently suggested by Wolfgang Löwer in Germany, who thinks that if you've had your doctorate for 10 years, you get to keep it, even if it was plagiarized.

There is a definition of plagiarism in the legal code, but he had issues with this, saying that no one understands what the law intends. I did not understand this, as the slides were not translated. He also has problems with universities who don't want to deal with plagiarism cases and send them back and forth. He began talking about self-plagiarism problems, but the translator needed vocabulary here, so I am not sure what was said.

There was a lively discussion afterwards. The dean of the Department of Management at the Academy of Sciences spoke at length about the condition of students graduating from high school. They have learned to tick boxes, but cannot think critically and are unable to write. If primary and secondary education is not changes, universities can't get to the root of the issue.

Someone noted that students see university education as a game to win - by cheating, if necessary.

Marek Wronski, the Research Integrity Officer of the Warsaw School of Medicine noted that there is a complete lack of statistics, especially about the cases that have been handled. He asked when they will be available, and got no answer.

Kawczynski made it clear that his system only provides information, it is up to the universities to decide what they do with that information.

There was a very brief (15 minute!) coffee and sandwich break, and then I spoke about the German situation. I have a link to my slides. I was grateful to the Ombudsmann für die Wissenschaft organization, who had published an excellent short report on their activities in 2010 including many statistics.

Then Julius Kravjar from the Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information spoke about the unique initiative that the Slovakian government has put into practice. They have started a database of all theses submitted to almost all Slovakian universities, and they run them through the Slovakian software system of the SVOP company.

The initiative for this measure came from the Ministry of Education, beginning in 2009/10 they require all publicly and privately funded universities operating under the Slovak legal order to make use of this system. The universities run a local repository, but they must send a copy to the central repository which then makes them available as open access publications.

They have currently taken in 189.000 theses up until the end of April. Kravjar notes that there is not a steady stream of papers submitted, but this is a seasonal business - the spring is the busiest time, and they have survived a peak day with 4595 theses submitted. The theses are checked with the software and a report generated and returned to the university within 48 hours. There are 4-5 people taking care of the central repository and the plagiarism detection system as a part of their full-time duties.

They are looking into branching out to include scientific papers, project and grant proposals, and materials from secondary schools. There is also a strong interest from the linguistic research community in having access to the system.

After another very short lunch break there was a ceremony held in which universities that had been certified by the company as activists in the area of plagiarism detection - submitting all papers to their system and following the defined procedures - were given a certificate.

I had some interesting conversations during the breaks, and was especially happy to meet Marek Wronski, whom I have reported on before.

The interesting question is: when will the German ministries start to get active in the question of dealing with plagiarism and scientific misconduct? The current procedures are not working, as VroniPlag and others demonstrate. I feel it is time for some serious action.

(Updated 14.5.2012 with minor corrections on the Slovak Centre, 16.5.2012 Link for POL-on)


  1. "The interesting question is: when will the German ministries start to get active in the question of dealing with plagiarism and scientific misconduct?" - Well, Germany belongs to one of 13 countries (amongst countries like Syria, North Korea, or Sudan) that didn't even ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption. So what do you expect? ;-)

  2. This conference summary (thanks, Deb) was a useful reminder to me of all the activity going on in Europe around plagiarism - thankfully, reported here in English. To illustrate the connections, I am writing from Sweden, sending the link for this blog to a Finnish colleague, alerting others in the UK who have an interest in plagiarism studies around Europe about the Polish conference [including a few PhD students studying the field], discussing the blog text on Poland with a Swedish colleague who works in this area - over breakfast! See how the issue creeps into everything? Maybe, Deb, you can use this sort of argument to strengthen your efforts in Germany - why get left behind even further?