Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Plagiarism or best practice in medicine?

VroniPlag Wiki [where the author is a participant] has documented extensive text parallels in four medical dissertations published on eDoc servers in the past weeks: Tz - Aho - Da - Feb. Tz and Feb are doctorates in dentistry, Aho and Da in medicine. Tz sports three "Dr." titles in front of his name, Feb uses this impressive collection of titles on his home page in his native country:
Dr. Dr. <Feb> D.D.S., Dipl. Funct. Dent., Dipl. Orth., M.S.D., Ph.D., Ph.D.
The doctorates were granted from different universities:
  • Feb was granted two doctorates in dentistry, one in 2009 from the University of Tübingen and one in 2010 from the Charité in Berlin.  The Charité thesis is the one documented at VroniPlag Wiki, and it builds strongly on a thesis submitted to the University of Gießen in 2005, and the University of Würzburg in 2004. The thesis was given the Alex-Motsch-Preis 2009, awarded by the Deutschen Gesellschaft für Funktionsdiagnostik und -therapie – see [1], [2]. The thesis is a heavyweight for a medical thesis with 150 pages in the main part. However, almost 30 % of these pages are plagiarized.
  • Tz has one doctorate in medicine, one in dentistry, and one in natural science. 56 % of the thesis in dentistry, which consists of just 30 pages and was submitted to the University of Mainz, is taken from a thesis submitted to the University of Gießen in 2003.
  • Aho has 18 pages of his 58 page medical thesis that was submitted to the University of Hamburg that are completely taken from other works. In all, 51 % of the pages are found to contain plagiarism. One interesting copy & paste problem can be seen in this fragment, the formula becomes completely senseless: Aho/Fragment_040_01. This thesis was published in 2012, well after the zu Guttenberg plagiarism discussions were going on in Germany, so one wonders why the author would put a copied thesis online.
  • The medical thesis of Da, with 45 pages, was submitted to the University of Freiburg/Br. in 2007. 51 % of the thesis is taken from other sources, in particular two dissertations from the Humboldt University Berlin [3], [4].
The three cases documented before these on VroniPlag Wiki are not from medicine directly, but from natural sciences close to medicine. Iam (Göttingen) has 35 % of the 81 pages containing text parallels, Mag (TU Braunschweig) 28 % of 110 pages, and Arc (FU Berlin) has a whopping 62 % of the 51 page thesis taken from earlier sources.

One can see by the size of the theses that that they are more similar to Master's theses than doctoral dissertations. The universities are often not interested in rescinding the doctorates, see for example the University of Gießen ([5, dentistry], [6, medicine], [7, medicine], [8, dentistry], three of the four not rescinded, one still under consideration, one other dissertation in law not rescinded). And as one of the authors of a medical dissertation documented on the VroniPlag Wiki pages stated when we spoke on the phone, they were told to use particular texts in their theses by their advisors. There was a folder next to the machine they used for their experiments, and everyone just copied the text from there. The real value of the thesis, he explained, was in the experiments conducted. Did they not realize that when publishing their theses online, the whole world can see the text copied?

So is this not plagiarism, but best practice in medicine and dentistry? Even if it is the same experiment, is it not possible to give the reference to the paper that first described the experiment, explaining changes that one has made to the setup? Why is it necessary to take so much text when the theses themselves are quite small? Two theses from the LMU Munich have been found that discuss experiments done in different years, but for which the text is practically identical ([9, 2006], [10, 2007]), without the later thesis mentioning the earlier one.

If it is best practice, then I think German universities should stop awarding doctorates in medicine. This is not science, but going through the motions in order to have those letters "Dr." (or multiples of the letters) to put on one's shingle. Let's not confuse the two.

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