Thursday, May 9, 2013

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? 

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