Saturday, September 14, 2013

German University Revokes venia legendi

The WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar is reported to have decided to revoke the venia legendi, the right to teach that is conferred with a habilitation, of Ulrich Lichtenthaler, according to the Rhein-Zeitung. He was a young shooting-star who received both a doctorate and the venia legendi from the WHU after studying in Bamberg and Grenada, according to his Wikipedia entry. At 30, the Rhein-Zeitung reports, Lichtenthaler was made professor and since 2011 he has been a professor at the University of Mannheim.

In 2012 Strategic Organization retracted a paper by Lichtenthaler and Ernst at the author's request. In a comment on the blog an editor notes that Lichtenthaler contacted the journal proactively and claims responsibility for the statistical errors. Retraction Watch picked up the story, noting that two more papers in Research Policy by Lichtenthaler had also been retracted. Research Policy gives a very detailed reason for the retraction: not only were there statistical problems, but the journal was also misled in that "the author failed to disclose (through specific citations, or through a mention in the 'acknowledgements' section, or in a covering letter to the Editor)  the existence of other closely related papers by the same author." The journal Research Policy has published a paper on the role of retractions in the scientific community and more recently one by editor Ben Martin on the problems of plagiarism, self-plagiarism and coercive citation in research assessment. Both WHU and the University of Mannheim began investigations into Lichtenthaler's research, Retraction Watch notes.

Retraction Watch continued keeping score:
  • One month later, Strategic Management Journal retracted another paper. 
  • Retraction five was documented a week later, from Journal of World Business.
  • Three days later, retraction six from the Journal of Management Studies is found, it was first reported by the OpenInnovation blog.  
  • Holger Ernst, the doctoral and habilitation advisor and frequent co-author of the now-retracted papers, was removed as second author from a paper on Journal of Product Innovation Management.
  • In November 2012, Organization Science reported on retraction seven.
  • A few days later, Retraction Watch found retraction eight on the Journal of Business Venturing. That journal notes a familiar pattern: statistical irregularities and multiple publication.
  • Number nine was from the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change. OpenInnovation  noted that they had previously thought this paper to be ripe for retraction.
  • The Journal of Product Innovation Management now retracted #10 and #11.
  • The twelfth retraction was noted in May 2013, from the journal Industrial and Corporate Change.
A press release by the WHU on Sept. 13, 2013 states that the investigation has now been completed and the habilitation rescinded. The press release notes that the decision to revoke the venia legendi was taken unanimously.

The University of Mannheim is on record from July 31, 2013, stating that they can't really say anything on account of data privacy, but that their own investigation is continuing.

This is an interesting dilemma currently confronting German universities. Although publications are openly seen to be plagiarized, published multiple times, withdrawn - the university treats the case as if it was an internal, disciplinary matter. Of course, they are afraid of lawsuits in the increasingly litigious German society. But still: academic matters are published matters, and the discussions about them should be public and not under the threat of lawsuits. It will be interesting to see what the university decides, as a venia legendi is still generally a requirement for obtaining a university professorship in Germany.