Sunday, July 22, 2012

Breaking the Spell of Silence

I have offered Conrad Kunze from the University of Cottbus guest blogging rights. This is his article about deciding to discuss plagiarism at a university that thinks 44 % pages with plagiarism in a dissertation is okay.

Breaking the Spell of Silence – talking about plagiarism 

Dr. Conrad Kunze,
Lecturer at the Chair of Environmental Issues in Social Sciences
Technical University of Cottbus

The most obvious thing about plagiarism in a university should be the public shaming of offenders. And usually there is quite a consensus amongst professors and lecturers when it comes to complaints about students and the need to be harsh with frauds. Who would hesitate to reject a Bachelor's Thesis in which a page copied from Wikipedia is found? Probably no one.

So why not also reject a PhD Thesis if even more than a page is copied? Probably no one? The story looks different, as I learned during the last two weeks.

I did not expect, that it was exceptionally easy to get support from officials for a case that shows a lack of scientific standards at the faculty and university in general. But that a blame game would start, in which I should be the offender was nevertheless a surprise.

It all started with a a few colleges who told me quite politely, but with a raised eyebrow, to stop talking about the case. Then, on a Friday the 13th, the voices criticizing me turned to a hysteric high tone. After a public presentation, two colleagues blamed me for “pulling the commission for scientific standards through the dirt”, for starting a “witch-hunt”, celebrating a “tribunal” and so on. How had it come so far?

A day before I had invited colleges and students to a presentation in which I explained as precisely as possible, why I hold the PhD in question to be a case of plagiarism beyond all doubt (as everyone could see in VroniplagWiki), although some criticism of the university commission that had just come to the opposite result was inevitable. Nevertheless, I tried to give all the rational reasons that had motivated me. I hoped to initiate a sober discussion, based on facts, not accusations.

Two weeks before, I read in a national newspaper about the plagiarism case at my university. The paper made quite a scandal of the commission´s decision not to rate the PhD thesis invalid. The proof is online at Vroniplag Wiki. Page for page and line for line, 52 pages out of a 119 page thesis are shown to be copied from other sources without proper citation.

After a quick click on the Vroniplag Wiki I grew more and more curious and surprised, if that ought to be right, that the PhD was a complete fraud. Knowing from experience that normal questions are usually ignored or brushed away, I wrote an open letter to the university´s president, asking if we should not consider to change the statutes. If that PhD was not a case of plagiarism with 44 % of all pages with incomplete citation, then what was still plagiarism, less than 44 %? Would it not be easier to save precious time and give up all the controls for scientific authenticity?

Of course the question was quite polemic, but it helped to make the problem of a double standard clear. Normal students would have probably failed. The PhD in question was written by Mr. Dähnert, who is a high ranking official at Vattenfall. This is a company that contributes millions of Euro to the university´s research activity every year. Of course that is not a proof, but isn´t it reasonable to be even more careful with such a PhD and treat it with highest scrutiny?

One can only answer "no" with the premise, that high amounts of money do not influence an organization. But experience has shown rather the opposite tendency. Large amounts of money usually have a certain influence, as the receiving organization might try to avoid losing that support.

Withdrawing the PhD would have meant risking a confrontation between the university and a high-ranking official of one of its important economic partners. As experience has shown, some of those who lost their PhD – especially people of public interest – initiated law suits against their universities.

After Thursday night's presentation, quite a number of people congratulated me for going public, wishing good luck for this struggle, although they did so personally or in private e-mails. The opposing side, university officials and those colleges who were part of the commission, criticized me openly in mailing lists.

What had happened? The usual silence that falls on important political questions was broken. I had dared to talk about a case many had thought and blogged about anonymously in the internet. But assembling with like-thinking colleges and students was something very different.

When the local media reported widely the following Friday, the silence was broken. The more brave ones started to talk openly on the topic and the university´s officials faced a pressure to act towards reopening the case.

The struggle against an attitude of “let's close our eyes on this and not think about it any more” is also a struggle for freedom of speech. The atmosphere of fear that surrounds the case was summarized by a college who told me “You are in the position to do this, but I have just started my PhD and a work position, so how could I dare to?"

I do not plan to get a new contract in TU Cottbus anyway, other people do. That is why the lot fell on me to scandalize what in my opinion, after studying the proof on Vroniplag Wiki, deserves to be a scandal.

Last week the commission started re-considering the case, only half-officially and half-heartedly, but at least there is some movement. After all, public pressure had succeeded over the spell of silence, thanks to many people´s efforts and contributions, at Vroniplag Wiki, the local media, colleges and students!


  1. I've just been working through the DFG recommendations for good scientific practice. There it is stated in recommendation 2:

    "Universities and independent research institutes shall formulate rules of good scientific practice in a discussion and decision process involving their academic members. These rules shall be made known to, and shall be binding for, all members of each institution. They shall be a constituent part of teaching curricula and of the education of young scientists and scholars."

    Binding for *all* members. These were published in 1998, one year before the Dd-Thesis was handed in, and it only codified what was then standard scientific practice.

  2. actually, the BTU Cottbus is not a member of the DFG, although it tries hard to become one...

  3. I'm reassured by the fact that somebody at BTU Cottbus took this step. My thanks to Conrad Kunze.

  4. I was an early 'plagiarism hawk' in universities I taught in. I was successful not just because of Google but because I could spot the tone of overly-authoritative phrases stuck, out of place, in an undergraduate or postgraduate dissertation. A combination of that 'eye' for things out of place and a tool like Google meant I started sending names (and evidence) to the Deans as early as 2002.

    And guess what? They did nothing because it was all just too much trouble and ultimately, from a business perspective, it was counter-productive. Nobody could afford to throw a student out; far less entertain them for endless painful re-submissions of what would always be, unsurprisingly, inadequate work.

    By 2003/4 plagiarism was rampant in my university and, to my amazement, it wasn't even restricted to written dissertations. I will never forget one drunken graduate at the end of his Degree Show opening night cursing the institution that had awarded him a 1st without realising he'd plagiarised all his practical design work. But what I remember most strongly was the curious mix of disgust and self-loathing he gave off, knowing even then that he'd achieved nothing.

  5. Isn't the problem that you are attacking the very foundation of how universities are funded and run - you try and attract the best and brightest that you can as a fraction of your students so they give your university's degrees cache and value, and then you sell off the rest of the places using various methods and give easy versions of the degree away to the people that pay so they can leverage the other students efforts to make themselves look good.

  6. Interesting comments -- I for my part would like to express my respect for Conrad Kunze and the hope that he will pursue this important case.

  7. Thank you! Too often when we highlight cases of plagiarism and related misconducts, people think about UG students and they are ready to condemn the guilty ones. But when we reveal they are either PhD candidates or even "respected" academics, we start to get problems and some even try to discredit us, one way or the other (it could be by higher authority of the university or even on the governmental point of view).

    Thank you for revealing the case, thank you for your inspiring work. It continues to motivate us.

  8. This is really a pressing issue. Although there are professors who take plagiarism with gentle good humor, they really should be a little stricter as this is just a way for students to get away with cutting corners instead of fabricating authentic thesis topic ideas. Although I disagree with public shaming, I'm sure there's a better, perhaps more effective penalty for offenders. Stricter expulsion policies perhaps?


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