Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Die Wissenschaft" and plagiarism

There's a bit of an absurd discussion running in Germany at the moment. The Süddeutsche Zeitung published a guest editorial by eight formerly important men in the German universities and scientific bodies. They make this clear by stating at the beginning of the editorial how important they were. They represent "Die Wissenschaft", science and scholarship.  Except for one, I believe they are all now retired.

As Anatol Stefanowitch makes clear, he was expecting them to state some clear demands, such as that plagiarists should not hold public office, or perhaps even a word of thanks for the GuttenPlag Wiki and VroniPlag Wiki collaborative plagiarism documentations. Or maybe even a brief reflection on the sins of the system "university" in Germany.

But no, none of the above. They waffle around, trying to redefine what plagiarism is. They beat around the bush. Are they really writing about the *Plag Wikis, or is this about the demands that a politician accused of plagiarism step down? The press has so readily printed these demands from someone thrown out of one of the groups over 7 months ago for, among other things, unscientific behavior. Or are they writing about flying teapots? They don't even make it clear who exactly they are writing about. They prefer to not go into detail, to clearly state their business, but they hide behind statements that are open to interpretation.

Then the editorial writers make it clear that they do not understand at all what the discussion is about. The Internet has not set down some "new" methods for documenting sources in scientific discourse. It has always been clear (or it should have always been clear) that one must delineate the beginning and the end of what one uses from others, and give a clear and useful reference to the source. That's all. The Internet does, however, make it much easier to find and document the sins of the past.

The *Plag Wikis have not been discussing the content of the dissertations, no matter how often they have been sorely tempted to lose some words about the sordid state of many of them. They have just been documenting plagiarism, for everyone to see. The University of Heidelberg, again an "excellent" university in Germany, states that 70 % plagiarism is fine and dandy in medicine. That's the way they do science in medicine. The BTU Cottbus thinks that 40 % is okay, as long as the doctoral student donates lots of money by way of his company to the university. Or so one must assume, as the expertises investigating the cases have not and presumably will not be published. Everything is highly secret, you see.

Science must be open, for all to see and discuss. Science, as Robert K. Merton stated (and I know that I am starting to sound like a broken record on this), is universal, communal, personally disinterested, and exercises organized skepticism in order to produce new knowledge. Hiding the reasoned discussion of why these blatant plagiarisms that even a primary school child can see are considered perfectly okay, is spineless.

The problem of plagiarism and scientific misconduct is endemic. It can be found in all levels at the university. And it won't go away by pretending that it does not exist or that the people pointing their fingers are somehow not qualified. And it won't go away because of pointless editorials. The universities must wake up and take charge of the situation. Plagiarism must not be tolerated on any level. And the universities would be well advised to move to transparent communication and a timely resolution of accusations.

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