Friday, May 24, 2013

That's progress!

In the enormous pile of administrative nonsense and advertising I pulled out of my box this morning was a manila envelope from the Technische Hochschule Mittelhessen. Inside was a lovely letter from someone who had attended one of my seminars on plagiarism. She was delighted to inform me that her school had put together a 54-page brochure for students on the topic of plagiarism: Der kleine Plagiats- und Täuschungskompass (yes, you can download it, too!).


Great short articles on many topics: What is plagiarism, how is it detected, what are the consequences, how do professors see the topic, some legal advice, interviews with students, plagiarism detection software, data privacy considerations in the use of such software, preventing plagiarism, how to use Citavi.

I wish every university could get all their departments to sit down and think about plagiarism and what is important for them and how they plan on dealing with it. And then put together their own brochure. The THM has set the bar high: time to get off your duffs and educate your students about plagiarism!

Friday, May 17, 2013

More details on Plagiarism in Hungary, Romania

The Times Higher Education web site has a long article by Paul Jump, "A plague of plagiarism at the heart of politics" with many details on cases of plagiarism in Hungary and Romania.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Swiss Politician's Thesis

The Neue Züricher Zeitung (Felix Schindler) reported on April 30, 2013 about a case of plagiarism in a thesis of a politician, Doris Fiala, a member of the Swiss National Council. It seems that although she did not have a matura, the Swiss school-leaving certificate the enables one to study at university, she was able to attend a post-graduate program for a Master of Advanced Studies at the ETH Zürich. This program is a tuition-based program in a country where public university programs are free.

The NZZ reported that a person working at the department of psychology of the ETH Zürich had used her thesis (which was available online and was removed, but still can be found on the Internet Archive) to test a plagiarism detection system, and it came up with a number of text parallels, including a number from the Wikipedia.

Ms. Fiala defended herself profusely, for example in the Tages-Anzeiger on 7 May 2013 (Lorenzo Petrò) or on TV: Teletop (13 May 2013, video, in Swiss German) with a copy of her thesis.

At some point the beginning of May VroniPlag Wiki started to take a look at the thesis. It was not a doctoral dissertation, but it was interesting to see what kind of plagiarism was to be found. There were interesting things to be seen: Many statistics on pages 132-141were taken from official sources as screen shots, with the official copyright notices cut off. There was indeed plagiarism from the Wikipedia and even two articles from the NZZ. Chapter was an almost complete plagiarism, as were pages 146 and 147. It was decided to publish the documentation, since the case was already being discussed in the press and there were attempts being made to play down the extent of the plagiarism, which currently stands at 41 %.

The Tages-Anzeiger (Lorenzo Petrò) reported on 14 May 2013 about the VroniPlag Wiki documentation, including a link to a copy of the current preliminary report, but noted that the university is currently not commenting on why this thesis was accepted, except to say that they are looking into whether to start an investigation.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Does Plagiarism-Detection Software Deter Plagiarists?

I just finished reading an article by Robert J. Youmans in which he reports on a study investigating whether plagiarism-detection software deters plagiarists:
Youmans, Robert J. (2011) Does the adoption of plagiarism-detection software in higher education reduce plagiarism? In: Studies in Higher Education.  Vol. 36, Issue 7, pp. 749-761.  DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2010.523457.
[It just became available online at our university library, as this journal participates in the 18-month embargo trying to force researchers to pay more for timely access to journals, or make a physical trip to the library to read the article.]

Youmans reports on a fascinating study that divided up students into a 2x2 group: being required to cite 3 peer-reviewed publications in a 10-page paper or only receiving the suggestion of using peer-reviewed publications, and then half of each group randomly selected and publicly warned that plagiarism-detection software would be used. All of the students were actively educated about plagiarism and signed an honor code prior to writing the papers.

The surprising results were that there was no difference in plagiarism incidence between the groups. They used Turnitin, and modified the papers before submitting to remove some of the extraneous text parallels that this system tends to flag on items such as bibliographic information. They also had all of the papers graded by an instructor who did not know the Turnitin result for each paper. Still, there was intentional plagiarism, even in the group of students who were warned that their papers would be checked!

A second study looked into whether the students' knowledge of how the system works would affect the plagiarism amount found. This, too, did not predict whether they would plagiarize or not.

Youmans has a few theories about why this is so, but the study itself only addresses the question of whether just publicly using plagiarism-detection software decreases the amount of text parallels found. The result is: no.

This has quite important consequences for the decision of a university to adopt the use of such systems. Youmans notes that the reports of the system have to be analyzed by a teacher who understands what the results are reporting, as there is a good bit of non-plagiarism reported as text overlap, as he calls it, but that the systems are a useful tool for finding candidate sources.

Let me repeat myself: Software cannot solve social problems.  There is no magic software that will detect plagiarism. This means that we have to work hard at educating students on how to write properly, and as Youmans suggests, it needs to be regularly repeated.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Plagiarism in Kosovo

Deutsche Welle reports on plagiarism in Kosovo. A public protest has demanded that the minister of education, Rame Buja, and the rector of the University of Pristina, Ibrahim Gashi, have their doctoral theses investigated. Rama Buja has said that he is willing to have his thesis investigated.

Critics have grumbled that the University of Pristina is currently producing doctorates at a rather rapid rate. Since the country was founded in 1999 (it was formerly part of Yugoslavia), there have been 416 doctorates granted. But with 40.000 students attending 17 faculties in a country of only 2 million inhabitants the number does not look to be that large. The local media had reported that there were companies that were ghostwriting theses. An investigation was mounted, the ministry of education stated, but the company was only offering technical assistance, according to Deutsche Welle

Students have been complaining that there are too many students taken in (the article states 100.000, Wikipedia has 40.000) and not enough qualified teachers.

Deutsche Welle quotes the minister as stating "We have signed an agreement with the Austrian goverment about digitalizing the dissertations and in connection with this we have ordered a software to fight plagiarism. This will soon be installed so that we can check all the books, diplom theses and doctoral theses." [I blogged yesterday about plagiarism in Austria]

As I have often said (but apparently not everyone has heard it): Software can't find plagiarism. It can indicate copies that have to be hand-checked by teachers who understand how to interpret the findings. There are far too many false positives (plagiarism announced where there is none) and false negatives (not finding plagiarism that is there) for the software to be of general use. Plagiarism is a social problem and we can't solve it by throwing software at the problem. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Original and Forgery

Radio Bremen broadcast a special program on plagiarism today including a 14-minute interview with me (in German) about the situation at German universities with respect to plagiarism.

Austrian Plagiarism

The University of Innsbruck has been in the news recently in Germany at least because of two cases of plagiarism in law doctorates.

The first is the news that Dominic Stoiber, the son of Bavarian politician Edmund Stoiber and sister of Veronica S. (the "Vroni" of VroniPlag Wiki) is allowed to keep his doctorate. Reports are available in German from Spiegel Online, Abendzeitung München, Münchener Merkur (no link, as they support the LSR).

He submitted a thesis in 2010 called "Die Föderalismusreform I der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Beschreibung und Bewertung der Reform und eine Analyse der Bewährung in der Praxis anhand des Nichtraucherschutzes" to the University of Innsbruck, Austria, about some political work his father did.

Spiegel Online quotes the university senate chair Ivo Hajnal as stating that the proceedings focused on the term Wesentlichkeit (fundamentality). According to the Austrian rules the university examiners can only assume that fraudulent merits have been obtained when
 "[..] in Täuschungsabsicht wesentliche Teile der Arbeit ohne entsprechende Hinweise abgeschrieben worden sind. Besagte Wesentlichkeit ist dann anzunehmen, wenn bei objektiver Betrachtung der Verfasser der Arbeit davon ausgehen musste, dass bei entsprechenden Quellenhinweisen die Arbeit nicht positiv oder zumindest weniger günstig beurteilt worden wäre, entsprechende Quellenhinweise also zu einem ungünstigeren Ergebnis (sprich: einer schlechteren Note) geführt hätten". [... with the intent to defraud fundamental parts of the thesis were copied without the necessary references. This fundamentality is given when the author of the thesis can assume that haven given correct references, under an objective examination the thesis would have been graded failed or given a worse grade. This means that if the references would have been given, a worse grade would have been assigned. -- dww]
That means that he would only have been considered a fraud if he would have received a worse grade by giving proper references. And since he would have received the same grade (!) even if the references would have been given, this is not fraud.

The Abendzeitung München reports that an Austrian newspaper, Tiroler Tageszeitung,  asked the Austrian plagiarism expert Stefan Weber to investigate the 287 page thesis. He documented a number of minor transgressions and a copy of a term paper written by a student in the third semester 15 years previously. The university then began investigations, according to § 89 UnivG.

The university has announced that Stoiber will be keeping his degree and for reasons of privacy and secrecy will not elaborate on their reasoning.

The second case is VroniPlag Wiki case #42. This law thesis was being prepared at the HU Berlin, when the doctoral advisor refused to continue mentoring the student. The thesis was a plagiarism of an old textbook. According to the advisor, when the student requested to just be given a lesser (but passing) grade, the advisor threw him out. One year later he submitted a thesis on the same subject to the University of Innsbruck, where it was accepted.

The University of Innsbruck was informed of the plagiarism when the case was publicly named - as well as the university of applied sciences at which the author currently is teaching. They at first did not even acknowledge that they had been informed, it took a number of increasingly intensive letters to get them to assent to opening an investigation.

A journalist for Zeit Online just tried to contact both the universities in question. Innsbruck pretty much told him that they had no intention of telling anyone what the results of the investigation is. The Heilbronn college stated that they are waiting on the decision from Innsbruck before doing anything, although their own ethics policy would permit them to start an own investigation. Seeing as how the documentation is public - and with 68 % of the pages tainted, extensive - it is not clear why they are not taking action. Since Innsbruck seems to be playing secrecy games and it is not clear that they will be informed as to how the case turns out, this is rather a modern-day version of Waiting for Godot.

I find it troubling that questions of academic integrity are not openly discussed, but only decided behind closed doors. Reading the comments section on these articles is even more shocking. A student from Heilbronn writes in the comments section that she does not understand why
"[... ] diese völlig belanglose Plagiatsaffäre eines kleinen und bei seinen Studenten sehr beliebten FH-Profs an einer Provinz-Hochschule hier so breit getreten wird - anstatt sie zunächst einmal der eigentlich betroffenen Uni Innsbruck zur Klärung zu überlassen." [... this completely inconsequential plagiarism affair concerning a small and very beloved professor at an FH in a provincial college is being so widely discussed instead of waiting for the concerned University of Innsbruck to clear up the matter. -- dww]
This does, I suppose, make the German and Austrian situation crystal clear. There are far too many people in German and Austrian academia who do not understand what academic integrity is about and are completely unwilling to take action of any sort. Why don't the people who wrote decent theses in law at the University of Innsbruck get vocal?