Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Universities

Germany has been having to deal with plagiarism problems in doctoral dissertations on a large scale the past two years. In particular, with all the discussion about plagiarism, the universities are being informed about many more cases than usual. And if my own email and snail mail is any judge, they tend to be of the sort: X is a nasty idiot, I bet s/he plagiarized.

There are two ways to react to this:
  • University of Düsseldorf, Faculty of Arts and Letters:
    This is the school that just recently had to deal with plagiarism in the dissertation of former German Education Minister. One can assume that they have understood the problem, as they published a report on 15 August 2013 on the current situation with two cases of a dissertation revoked. One has taken the university to court, one accepted the result. They don't expect the amount of cases to go down, mostly because of the media attention. But, as the author, Prof. Rohrbacher, states: Wissenschaft in der Verantwortung, it is the responsibility of science to deal with these cases. Objective, unemotional, to the point. As it should be.
  • Technical University of Dresden
    As reported in the blog plagiatsgutachten, an anonymous blog has documented problems in a dissertation from this university. There are many fragments documented, but as far as I can see, it mostly documents missing citations and problematic references. One or two might have been negligible, but with 120 documented fragments, one would expect the university to at least take a look when informed of the situation.


    plagiatsgutachten quotes the answer that the blogger received from the Ombud for good scientific practice at the  TU Dresden:

    “Solange Sie Ihr Visier nicht heben und es vorziehen, als anonymer Heckenschütze zu fungieren, sind Sie niemand, der in der wissenschaftlichen Welt akzeptiert wird und der sich moralisch über die Beschuldigte stellen kann. Ich brauche Ihren Namen, Ihre Adresse, Ihren Beruf, Ihre Dienststelle und eine Erklärung der Beweggründe, die Sie dazu führten, die Dissertation von Frau D[...] zu untersuchen.
    Vorher werde ich nichts unternehmen.

    Prof. Dr. Achim Mehlhorn
    Ombudsmann der TU Dresden”

    Let's see if I can preserve the tone of this letter while translating it:
    "As long as you keep your visor down and prefer to act as an anonymous sniper, you are no one who is acceptable in the world of science and who is morally able to stand above the person accused. I need your name, your address, your workplace and an explanation of the reasons that led you to investigate the dissertation of Ms. D[...]. Until I have that information, I will not undertake anything."

    It does look like Prof. Mehlhorn got a bit carried away with all the data the NSA is collecting about us. I don't see that it makes a difference if a sanitation engineer documented the problems in a dissertation, or a retired professor of Latin. But one does get the impression that they are a bit touchy in Dresden. They have been working (one hopes) on the VroniPlag Wiki case of Rh, an example of plagiarism in mathematics known for over a year now. I do have the word from the rector of the university, however, that a decision is expected for September. Rh appears to be currently working as a professor in South America, that makes it all the more important that this case be resolved.
A substantiated accusation - one that contains some documentation - should be investigated, in my opinion, regardless of whether the person doing the documentation is known or not. The volume of the other sort of accusation should serve as an alarm signal that something is very, very wrong in the way people use doctorates in Germany.

[thanks to plagiatsgutachten for alerting me to this]


  1. This is maybe a bit off-topic but I'd like to make a remark on your comment on the 'VroniPlag Wiki case of Rh'.

    You write that this is an example of plagiarism in mathematics. This is however not the case. The dissertation has been written at the economics department. If anything then it is attempting to be concerned with statistics but not math.

    The degree is also a Dr. rer. pol. but not Dr. rer. nat. It seems that there is no case of plagiarism in the sciences (Dr. rer. nat.) so far in VroniPlag. Plagiarism exists and is a problem in every field. Also in the sciences we can do a lot more to discover plagiarism. However, there seem to be some fields in Germany (and maybe only in Germany) that have a big problem with plagiarism and scientific quality in general; and it is not math.

  2. You are correct that it is a dissertation in rer.pol., that does involve a good bit of mathematics. I blogged about a non-VroniPlag Wiki case involving mathematics in 2010: There are three engineering dissertations on VroniPlag Wiki (Dd, Aos, Jg). Nm is a PhD, as it was done in Denmark, but would have been considered a rer. nat. (computer science). I have had one case in chemistry, one in materials science, and one in another engineering discipline that I have advised universities on, but they are not public. Plagiarism exists in every field, unfortunately.