Friday, July 6, 2012

Laudatio Zedler Award for VroniPlag wiki

VroniPlag Wiki was given the Zedler Prize for free knowledge 2012 as the knowledge project of the year 2011. The laudatio has been published online, I've tried to translate it with some of the VroniPlag Wiki activists so that it can be understood world wide. A major problem was the use of the metaphor  "raised visor", that was used throughout the laudatio. "Open and above board" would probably be a better translation, or "with all the cards on the table", but it does not fit with many of the allusions in the text, so we have stayed with "raised visor":
Laudatio by John Weitzmann to the winning project VroniPlag Wiki
A laudatio, according to Wikpedia, is a speech in honor of a person. In that respect, the article needs some rework, since we are obviously dealing with a project here, not a person. Furthermore, the following quotation does not at first quite seem to fit a laudatio:
"A senior expert compares the motivation of these youngish plagiarism hunters to the 'idealism of senior citizens reporting parking offenders to the authorities' — instead of letting the authorities handle it themselves."
That was written in August of last year by journalist and critic of VroniPlag Hermann Horstkotte in an article written for ZEIT online. So, for a change, let's approach the matter from the viewpoint of the critics. They mainly criticize the fact that the accusations documented there are partially made anonymously. Such "accusers", they say, discredit themselves in some way. Some say that one can only criticize with a "raised visor", anything else is cowardish and somehow shameful. That's why first the question needs to be answered: When or from what point on is it legitimate to criticize somebody publically, or state accusations? As long as they are acting in private, that is not necessarily the case. But how about the moment, for example, where the criticized themselves enter the public stage? At least from the moment of the publication of a scientific thesis, one must face criticism and reviews, even in a very formalized manner. And that publication is obligatory for a reason. It constitutes the counter piece to the right to publicly use a particular title hereinafter. A "secret doctoral title" does not make much sense, it would contradict the meaning of the word "title". 
Fair enough. Now what about the non-openness, the "not open visor", that has been used as an excuse for some of the more fierce criticism of VroniPlag? An open visor can help to infer from the person and the qualification of the critic how well-founded the criticism is, that is clear. And it intends to deter abusive criticism, that lacks any real basis. One must stand accountable for such accusations. But it is also clear that the "open visor" is not an end to itself. When the criticism is made available so that it is comprehensible for anyone, when the scientific errors are clearly identified and documented, are these reproaches any less substantial, only because the persons who found them are not all known? The jury thinks: no. Is plagiarism no longer plagiarism because we don't know the middle name and address of the person that discovered it? Is it not sufficient that in a group only part of the contributors are known by their real existence? Is it not understandable that particularly academics who do not have a tenured position, but who want to protect their academic profession as a whole against negative developments, prefer to do this as a virtual incarnation of themselves, unknown to the general public? Is that not better than to remain silent? The jury was of the opinion: oh yes, that is better. All the more so with the participation of a proven plagiarism hunter who has long been working in this field, namely Ms. Weber-Wulff, which makes the criticism of VroniPlag appear rather threadbare, almost helpless. 
The critics of VroniPlag complain further, that the ambitions of the collaborators on VroniPlag are not clear — or worse — that political motivations against certain parties are discernable. The fact is that a remarkable number of politicians of the FDP and the CDU have come under the suspicion of plagiarism. But it is also true that the self-cleansing powers of VroniPlag are immense. Participants in the project were excluded from working on the project when they refused to submit to the conventions of the project and indeed appeared to be politically motivated. It is also a fact that VroniPlag also investigates theses from persons who are not politicians. In the meantime there are more and more people from business or medicine that have entered the sights of the plagiarism hunters. Thus leaving the second question that the jury had to deal with — is the unknown motivation of the Vroniplagger, some of whom remain anonymous, more important than the blatant errors of the people seeking degrees? The jury was unanimous: no. It is not the messenger of the bad news that needs being punished. It is not the persons that found the plagiarism that produced these plagiarisms. The jury had a catalogue of criteria that formed the basis of the evaluation for selecting the winning project: 
* Does the project reach the goal of creating free knowledge? 
* Is the content really freely available and sustainable? 
* Is the project dedicated to a topic that Wikimedia projects cannot approach?
* Does it achieve appreciable publicity? 
* Is it possible for newcomers to freely and as simply as possible participate in the project?
* etc. 
VroniPlag belonged to those projects that only had very minor shortcomings with respect to all these requirements. In the end it was clear for the jury that VroniPlag out of all of the projects deserving a prize — and all of the here nominated projects are really good made the most sustainable impression in the year 2011. It was the one that was most present in the public perception, it was devoted to an important topic and approaches that topic despite its critics — in an adequate and fair manner.
In this spirit, the Zedler Prize for Free Knowledge in the category "External Knowledge Project of the Year 2011" goes to the project "VroniPlag". Congratulations!

Update 2012-07-07: A few more typos fixed, a missing sentence added.

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