Wednesday, December 16, 2015

More plagiarism in South Korea

The Korea Herald reported on November 24, 2015 that around 200 professors from 50 universities will be charged with plagiarism. It seems that they published books that they didn't write with just the cover pages changed to include their own names. As most have admitted to the deed (which would be hard to deny, as the original books are published and thus available for comparison), they will soon be charged and fined, which may result in some losing their jobs.

It seems the "academic" publishers were in on the scheme, and even the original authors kept quiet as they did not want to sour their relationships to publishers, as they need publications for their own continued employment. The Korea Observer notes that publishers have even used the tactic to reduce stocks of unsold books, as students will tend to purchase a book "written" by their professor.

The Melville House Publishing company blog lists a number of other academic misconduct issues currently plaguing South Korea.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mathiopoulos loses court case about rescinded doctorate

As Spiegel Online reports this afternoon, Margarita Mathiopoulos lost her second case against the University of Bonn in an attempt to regain her revoked doctoral degree. She received the degree in 1986, and soon after the newsweekly Spiegel published an article about plagiarism in the thesis. The university decided in 1991 that there was no proof that this misconduct was deliberate, and did not rescind the thesis. A thorough documentation of the case, including many supporting documents, can be found at the MMDoku Wiki.

In the aftermath of the Guttenberg plagiarism scandal in Germany in 2011, the VroniPlag Wiki academic community had a closer look at the thesis and found much more material that was plagiarized, both in sources that were known in 1991 and in additional sources that were identified. The University of Bonn was informed, and they opened a new investigation that ended with the thesis being revoked in April 2012.

Mathiopoulos, who is currently still an honorary professor at the Universities of Braunschweig and Potsdam, took the University of Bonn to court. In December 2012 the administrative court in Cologne decided that the university acted correctly. That court decided that no appeal was permitted. Mathiopoulos sued first against that, and won the right to an appeal. That appeal was argued today in Münster in the Higher Administrative Court, however, this court also decided that the university was within its rights to rescind the thesis. It did, however, permit an appeal to the Federal Administrative Court, and Mathiopoulos has announced that she will be appealing, according to Spiegel Online. Since to date the German courts have upheld almost all rescinded doctorates (when someone was successful, it was on the basis of procedural problems that can and usually are easily corrected), it will be interesting to see what the Federal Court has to say.

In another case at the Higher Administrative Court in Münster today that involved the University of Bonn, it was found that the university was within its rights to revoke the doctoral degree of the director of a company that was found to bribe professors into helping people obtain doctorates, even though the thesis itself has not been found problematic. This case, too, can be appealed.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This and That

Sorry about the long silence. It's not just been my day job and my research. Someone who was unhappy with one of my blog posts had some lawyers get active. I have had to remove a post (can't say which one or it will cost me even more). I am quite disturbed that scientific discussions are more and more overshadowed by legal threats. Enough on that for now, a reader sent me a fine list of interesting links to international articles about plagiarism a while back, so here's a few!
  • The Korean Times reports on "Public officials accused of plagiarism on papers". The most disturbing part of the article is the first two sentences:
    "Plagiarism is everywhere in Korea where novelists, scholars and politicians habitually copy other people's work, making people insensible to this unethical practice. Public officials are no exception." Habitually. Like it's normal. 
  • There's a big row in Korea at the moment about a retraction of a paper about black holes, the Korean Times reports. It seems that a very young PhD published a paper in 2015 together with his advisor [1] that turns out to be textually and mathematically extremely close to a 2002 conference paper by the advisor alone [2]. There is a blog entry at ScholarlyOA about the case and one at RetractionWatch. A retraction notice was published this past week.
    As an amusing aside, the 2002 paper is followed in the conference proceedings by the following figure that is probably some sort of black hole insider's joke:
  • The Moscow Times reports that a Russian Official Has Doctorate Revoked After Plagiarism Charges. The Russian academic group Dissernet had documented plagiarism in the law thesis of a politician, who requested that his dissertation be revoked. He has announced that he wants to re-submit the thesis, with the "borrowing" fixed. I've seen announcements like this in a number of instances, and it puzzles me. Is it believable that people who stoop to plagiarism keep exact records of which bits they stole from what source? I think not. The published documentations are not machine-generated exact tracings of all of the plagiarisms, but only of some of what has been found to date. There can be (much) more.
  • On the topic of re-submitted theses, Neue Züricher Zeitung and Tagesanzeiger have both reported on a VroniPlag Wiki documentation of plagiarism in a Swiss habilitation. The university in question responded, when sent the documentation, that this was a documentation of the first version of the habilitation (which appeared in print) and that has been superseded by a second version. So they consider the case closed. The second version is not (yet) published, so there is no chance to see whether all of the documented text parallels are now properly quoted.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just a notice

An interesting kind of retraction was recently brought to my attention. It seems that a professor of law had published an article in the bi-weekly Juristenzeitung on, of all things, copyright and academia. As the Passauer Neue Presse reports and the Legal Tribune online comments, this article about Open Access reproduced some passages from another legal scholar without attribution, and the university is investigating.

Sharp eyes found an intriguing entry on page 936 of the current issue of Juristenzeitung: For only $ 33 plus tax (unless your institution subscribes) you can download a copy of this short notice (translation mine, names left out to keep me from being sued):

Notice about the article "'Ein Knauf als Tür' ...." by U..... M.....:

This contribution contains verbatim material on pages 222-225 of the main text as well as in the footnotes on pages 223, 224, 226, 227, 231, and 232 that was taken from the article by A.... P. .... I regret deeply, that this presumption of copyright happened and accept the full responsibility for it. I would like make a formal apology to A... P...

U..... M......

(Editor's note: We were informed of the problem by the author and wish to join in the apology. The electronic version of the article is no longer online.)
Hmm, this is a de-publication at the publisher's site instead of publishing a retraction notice. The online table of contents jumps from page 221 to page 232, the article has vanished. Of course, the abstract is still on the Juris database and at Researchgate and probably a number of other places. Do lawyers not understand that an article, once published, is now publicly available, and thus should not just disappear, but a notice of what happened put in its place? It could even have been quoted, and of course still may be, as it is in the print issues.

Isn't there something also missing in the "notice"? An apology to the readers? Because they, much more so than the original writer of the text, are the ones who were misled. A documentation and discussion of the extent of the "verbatim material" can be found in the depths of the Internet.

Academic corruption

I attended the 7th Prague Forum - “Towards a Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education” sponsored by the Council of Europe on October 1-2, 2015.  I was invited to speak about “Plagiarism in Medical Dissertations in Germany” to the working group on plagiarism.

The Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Union) is a human rights organization that has 47 members and 3 affiliated members. In the 2013 session in Helsinki they called for a Pan-European platform to be established "to study the possibility of developing a framework instrument on the ethical principles of good conduct and professionalism for teachers. Such an instrument would as a consequence also higher the status of the teaching profession."

Supranational European Bodies

Wdcf, The Emirr, NikNaks93,
CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The initiative was launched at the Prague meeting. The meeting began, after the usual ceremonies that included the Minister of Education, Youth, and Sports of the Czech Republic, with a plenary session. Christian Manquet first presented the work of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). Then Ian Smith and Tom Hamilton from Scotland presented their work done to the present on ethics, transparency and integrity in education.

I was surprised by the use of the term "academic corruption" that seems to be the umbrella term for referring to a vast number of improper behaviors in the academic world. It encompasses not only plagiarism, ghostwriting, and falsifying data, but it also includes diploma mills, taking bribes or requests for sexual favors in an academic environment, and many other issues. By the end of the conference I was convinced that this is, indeed, the proper term, especially as plagiarism is often not just something one person does, but many factors from the environment enable the behavior and prevent detection and appropriate sanctions.

The second session was focused squarely on academic corruption and included Haldis Holst, from the Global Federation of Teacher's Unions, Education International; Boris Divjak from the anti-corruption resource center U4; Muriel Poisson from the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning; and the head of Transparency International in Russia, Elena Panfilova. The latter gave a powerful speech with much insight. For example, she noted that Europe is facing massive migration of people from parts of the world where people expect to have to bribe officials in order to get their children into a good school.  We have to explain to them that this is not how our society works [Or does it? There are reports in Berlin of security guards at the asylum application office taking bribes for good places in line...]. Panfilova noted wryly that there is much plagiarism in the theses of Russian officials, suggesting that one check the Russian Dissernet pages before shaking the hand of one and calling him or her "Dr."

Other issues touched on:
  • One needs to differentiate not just public from private education, but particularly for-profit from non-profit entities.
  • Financial transparency is vital for discovering ghost teachers on payrolls who get paid without teaching, ghost schools that do not exist, and ghost students or inflated student numbers given in existing schools in order to obtain additional funding.
  • The first step is to publicly acknowledge that there is corruption as well as violence against women in education.
On this last point I joked at dinner that this rather reminds me of the one of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, the governments must start admitting that they have a problem and are currently powerless to control what is going wrong, so they must come together and talk about how to make amends for the past and resolve to do better in the future. The more I think about it, though, the more appropriate it seems. In many countries, academic corruption is the pink elephant in the room that no one is speaking about

As a short-list of actions it was suggested that:
  • the new online platform ETINED - Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education organize information;
  • example teacher codes-of-ethics be developed;
  • educational courses be organized;
  • working complaint channels be established;
  • "critical friends" who are able to explain that you have a problem or can ask difficult questions without getting an angry and defensive response be cultivated; and
  • the corrupt politicians be brought to justice.
Okay, that's a mighty tall order.

In the afternoon working group on plagiarism Irene Glendinning presented the results of her investigations into plagiarism policies across the EU member states, IPPHEAE. As was perhaps to be expected, there is a very wide difference of opinion on what plagiarism is, what should be done about it, and what is actually being done about it. There is an individual report for each of the EU countries investigated, as well as a summary report. She also presented her adapted Academic Integrity Maturity Model that is a tool for comparing institutions or countries, showing how mature their procedures are for dealing with academic misconduct.

I spoke about medical dissertations in Germany and the plagiarism that VroniPlag Wiki has documented in over 80 cases, giving a few brazen examples. I spoke of the patterns of plagiarism discovered that can lead to uncovering academic corruption, for example chains of plagiarism found in theses by the same advisor. In one example, at the University of Münster in Germany, there is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a thesis that could possibly also be plagiarized, except that no one felt like continuing the documentation. Just the day before my talk, the university announced that it is suggesting to the disciplinary board that the professor in question have all of the perks he has been awarded discontinued and that he be reduced to minimum pay scale. That's about as far as a university can go in Germany, and to date this is only a suggestion, the final decision has not yet been reached.

Other patterns include intra-institutional plagiarism in which a thesis is spliced together from doctoral work done at other institutions, and extra-institutional plagiarism that relies on the Wikipedia (yes, really) or textbooks or fun stuff found on the web. For example, this is from a dissertation that still has Wikipedia links embedded in the PDF:
Dental dissertation Al, University of Münster, page 13
The first commentator summed it up rather nicely: Horrifying! It became clear that software and seminars for PhDs will not solve this problem. The theses documented are not just isolated singularities, but the result of underlying, systemic problems. Thus, radical solutions will be necessary. But first the medical community in Germany has to admit that they have a problem.

There was a great discussion round after the presentations, we could have continued for at least another hour or so. The rapporteur for the group summarized the generally agreed-on points: we need to start early; involve students; set general standards; encourage professional development, but not cast rules; change funding rules from counting things to general funding for all researchers; promote the understanding that we are dealing with a public research record and not personal data; learn to respect others; understand that plagiarism is only part of the problem; encourage nations to set guidelines for quality assurance, for example as part of accreditation procedures; and strive for a holistic approach to the problem.

The second day started off with a round table that first presented the results of the working groups. The working group on professional standards was concerned with how to change the mindsets of all stakeholders in the process. Promoting professionalism instead of focusing on misconduct would be ideal, but when one is dealing with a country that has slipped badly down the slope of tolerating academic misconduct, some nasty sanctions may need to be levied.

The working group on recognition of qualifications looked both at the automatic co-recognition of degrees in the Benelux countries and the problems Sweden has been having with identifying diploma mills. There are issues both with faked diplomas, which are real ones with forged names on them, and fake diplomas, which are issued by a non-accredited body. They find it frustrating that students spend more time evaluating items they want to purchase than the schools they will attend.

The internet platform was then officially launched, ETINED

The conference closed with a talk given by Bertrand de Speville. He is the former solicitor general of Hong Kong, who cleaned up the corruption in the Hong Kong police force. He had some wise words for those dealing with corruption:
  • Fight tough, but fight fair and for as long as it takes
  • Prepare for pain
  • Have the will to win
  • Cast values into law
  • Have a fight plan that includes educating people, enlisting support, enforcement of the rules and prevention means
  • Put the plan in action by involving a community
  • Collect the resources you need
  • Stick with it
Fighting corruption means first encouraging people to trust you and to come forward with stories of corruption. Ultimately, you want to change the community's attitude to the corruption charges. There are no quick fixes, however. He closed by noting that just because you are in a corrupt system, it is never a justification to be corrupt yourself.

It was quite educational listening to the discussions between these highly educated and professional people who are dead serious about getting a handle on academic corruption. I do hope that they are able to get things moving in at least some of the member states.

Update 2015-10-10: The first version of this article included an illustration with a non-medical dissertation. It has now been replaced by one from a dissertation about retinas awarded to a candidate in dentistry.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

VroniPlag Wiki case #152: Another German Politician

On Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, case #152 on the Vroni Plag Wiki site was posted, a doctorate in medicine from 1990. Normally, journalists yawn if they even hear of something like this, as German medical doctorates are more or less a joke. Even the Wissenschaftsrat tried to explain this in 2004 to the medical schools:
Schon seit langem wird - auch von Medizinern - die medizinische Promotion hinsichtlich akademischer und wissenschaftlicher Wertigkeit stark angezweifelt. Aufgrund der in der Bevölkerung weit verbreiteten Gleichsetzung der Begriffe Arzt und Doktor hat sich eine Art akademisches Gewohnheitsrecht entwickelt, demzufolge die Verleihung des Doktorgrades weitgehend unabhängig von der Qualität der Promotionsleistungen erfolgt. Die berufliche und gesellschaftliche Anerkennung als Arzt ist in Deutschland mit dem Doktortitel verbunden. Daraus erklärt sich auch die im Vergleich zu anderen Fächern hohe Promotionsrate (etwa 80 %). Nicht selten wird der Lerneffekt bei Doktorarbeiten angezweifelt. Insbesondere dienen sie durch ihre schlechte Betreuung häufig nicht der wissenschaftlichen Grundausbildung.103 Der wissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinn dieser „pro-forma“-Forschung ist daher fragwürdig. 

Dieter Schmid: Die Doktorarbeit im Visier – Titel zwischen Traum und Trauma, in: Via Medici 4, 2003, S. 16-20.
[Wissenschaftsrat, Empfehlungen zu forschungs- und lehrförderlichen Strukturen in der Universitätsmedizin, 2004, S. 75]
(Translation by DWW: The academic and scientific credibility of medical doctorates has been called into question for quite some time, even by medical practitioners themselves. Because the general public widely equates the terms physician and doctor, a sort of academic custom has developed by means of which the the doctoral degree is conferred independent of the quality of the research achievements. The occupational and social appreciation of physicians in Germany is linked to the doctoral degree. This explains the high rate of degrees conferred (80 %) when compared to other fields. It is not seldom that the learning effect of the doctoral theses are doubted.  In particular, because of poor mentoring they often do not even serve to teach scientific basics. The scientific contribution of this "pro-forma" research is thus questionable. )
The medical schools have made the occasional attempt to demonstrate that they are doing something, but by and large it has been business as usual.

VroniPlag Wiki case #152 is, however, a special medical thesis. It was submitted by the current Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen. One of her predecessors in office, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, ended up having to step down four years ago after his doctoral dissertation in law was found to be extensively plagiarized.

The press has thus jumped on the case, and is now remembering the academic grumblings about the low quality of medical doctorates. The bloggers are having a field day (Archivalia I - II, Causa Schavan, Erbloggtes I - II - III, all in German, all long). Even Spiegel has both the plagiarism documentation and a discussion of the quality of medical doctorate quality as the lead article in issue 41/2015*. The Medical University of Hannover has already announced that they have opened an official investigation into the case.

I was at the 7th Prague Forum of the Council of Europe “Towards a Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education” this past week, speaking on plagiarism in medical dissertations in Germany. I added a slide on case #152, as so many people were asking me about it. More on the Prague Forum in a coming post, as they have set up ETINED as a site for helping combat academic corruption.

* although they demonstrate in the article that they don't understand Creative Commons licenses. CC-BY-SA means that you name the source and put the result, if you reuse or modify it, also under such a license. They changed the color of a bar and reformatted it to fit, and then slapped a "Der Spiegel" copyright on the picture.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Where there is smoke, there is fire

The researchers at VroniPlag Wiki have grown tired of documenting plagiarism in medical dissertations, especially as some universities don't see a problem with theses such as ones that have nine pages (out of 61) completely copied from the Wikipedia without reference. They call it a cultural difference, they say that the focus is on the data. I have a different opinion on that. If an author was that careless and naive in one place (and it turned out that over half of the pages in that thesis have text overlap), how can we be sure that the data was carefully measured and recorded?

The most recent VroniPlag Wiki case is another example of "where there is smoke, there is fire," showing that just finding one instance of extensive plagiarism may indicate that there is more.

The LMU Munich has an open access thesis repository, so some German-language theses in different fields from that repository were compared with the German-language Wikipedia. The thesis at the top of the list was interesting, as it had a long sequence of characters identical to just one article in the Wikipedia, although it was not a large percent of the entire thesis. Googling phrases from the thesis quickly turned up many more sources (currently 24, three of them other Wikipedia pages) for text that was often used entirely verbatim and without reference. The documentation was published last week on VroniPlag Wiki and the university informed. 

Dissertation #151 (Xg) was submitted to the Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy at the LMU Munich in 2009 and is about the intercultural understanding of art. If you look closely at the bar code generated from the manual documentation you can see three large patches of bright red that indicate that more than 75% of the page has been taken from a source without proper attribution.
The Xg Barcode (Report in German)
  1. The first largish red band, pages 6471, was taken verbatim from the German-language Wikipedia article on art.
  2. The next large red band, pages 7593, was taken verbatim from a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 2006 about a Chinese painter.
  3. The largest rest band, pages 113157, was taken from a Diplom-Thesis (approx. a Master's thesis) that was submitted in 1999 to the University of Tübingen and published in 2004 on a pedagogical concept for intercultural education using art. 
VroniPlag Wiki has documented many such doctorates in the past, so this alone would hardly be newsworthy, were it not for a strange paragraph in the Promotionsordnung, the rules governing doctorates at this faculty at the LMU Munich, that have been in place since 2005:
§ 16 (Nichtvollzug der Promotion und Entzug des Doktorgrades)
"(1) Hat der Kandidat bei einer Promotionsleistung getäuscht und wird dies erst nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 bekannt, so kann nachträglich die Doktorprüfung für nicht bestanden erklärt werden.
(3) [...] Eine Entscheidung nach Abs. 1 und 2 ist nur innerhalb einer Frist von fünf Jahren nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 möglich."
Translation: A doctorate can only be rescinded within five years of it being awarded.

That means that the LMU Munich has a statute of limitations on one type of academic misconduct. If it turns out that someone cheated, but it's been more than 5 years, they get lucky. They can keep their doctorate.

Xg's doctorate was awarded 6 years ago, so she can breathe easy. Of course, she might still be open to civil suits brought by the authors from which she copied on the basis of copyright law.

A law professor at the LMU Munich, Volker Rieble, published a treatise in German last year about acquiring a doctorate by sitting tight (Plagiatverjährung. Zur Ersitzung des Doktorgrades). He asks what is more important: Peace and quiet on the dissertation front with less time-consuming investigations of previously examined work, or the defense of academic standards? He pleads for the latter. The blog Erbloggtes had a long discussion about Rieble's article at the time, otherwise there has not (yet) been much reaction to his article. Things move slowly at German universities. But I think that it is time for some serious action about plagiarism at all levels: students, graduate students, researchers. Defining it away will not make it go away.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Norwegian journalist caught plagiarizing

The Norwegian daily newspaper Dagens Næringsliv has admitted to having published a story that was plagiarized from The New Yorker and included fabricated quotations (documentation of some excerpts here [norw./engl.]). They have removed the article in question from the Internet. Reports on the case have been published by DagbladetNRK, Journalisten, and other media. The story broke when a Norwegian journalist, Øistein Refseth, twittered about the similarities in the two stories.

The journalist who submitted the piece about people's anger when flying, Daniel G. Butenschøn, is a well-known writer in Norway and was the assistant director of SKUP  (Stiftelsen for en Kritisk og Undersøkende Presse, Foundation for Critical and Investigative Journalism). Butenschøn has now resigned from his position at SKUP and has quit his job at Dagens Næringsliv.

This is not the first time that he was found to have plagiarized, people have been combing through his past publications. It seems he was already on his second chance, having plagiarized a piece on Hong Kong as a free-lancer writing for Morgenbladet, for which he was reprimanded. 

The journalism site Journalisten has a number of articles that link the various press reports and a long list of previous plagiarism scandals in journalism in Norway.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

End of Semester Roundup

Here are some links about plagiarism and academic misconduct from around the world that have been languishing in my inbox:
  • A professor for African-American History at the Arizona State University in the US has been demoted from full professor to associate professor, according to the Phoenix New Times, after a second plagiarism scandal about his writing erupted. A  blog contains many more details about the plagiarism allegations. Retractionwatch also has an article about this case. The professor is said to have used, among others, sources many students find useful: Wikipedia.
  • Writing in a blog at the Daily Pakistan Asif A. Malik points out a wonderful piece by physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy from the Express Tribune from January 4, 2013. Hoodbhoy starts off with a thought experiment: "Imagine the following experiment aimed at improving Karachi’s police force: suppose that policemen are offered cash prizes for every criminal they kill in a police muqabala, given public recognition and told that promotions to higher posts hinge on their kill count." He spins the story out that, of course, the police would start shooting at anyone, just to increase their pay. That is, in essence, what is happening in academia, except that instead of a "kill count" there are the magic indicators "number of publications" and "citation index". Since 2002-2003 both the pay and promotion for professors in Pakistan depend on the number of papers published and the number of PhD and MSc students graduated. Surprise! These all increased!
    In 2012 Hoodbhoy wrote about the problem of telling the good from the bad, in the Express Tribune column in 2013 he noted that the apparent increase in quality proudly proclaimed by the Higher Education Council (HEC) "was only possible because many university teachers engaged in wholesale plagiarism, faked data and produced research that no one seems to have any use for. As academic ethics went into free fall, university administrators and the HEC turned a blind eye. The new policy — which required learning how to play the numbers game — had the effect of turning many professors into crooks and thieves."
  • The Times of India writes that a professor from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in Chandigarh has been found to have plagiarized from two US American sources. Rakesh Sehgal retracted a paper from the journal Tropical Parasitology, published by Wolters Kluwer Medknow. The retraction notice states only that the paper has been retracted, not why. In a previous article, the Times of India noted that according to Indian law, a jail sentence between 6 months and 3 years can be levied, and public servants can lose their jobs if found to have plagiarized. 
  • Richard de Boer published an atricle in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on July 4, 2015 called "Welkom in de wereld van nepwetenschap" (welcome to the world of junk science), but the article is unfortunately behind a paywall and in Dutch. I was able to obtain it and use Google translate. The article deals with mock conferences like WASET and junk journals like those published with the OMICS group, which was removed from the PubMed list in 2013. There are a number of interviews with people attending the conferences, positive and negative, and also with a former colleague of the WASET organizer. The article discusses both Jeffery Beall's publisher black list and the Directory of Open Access Journals white list, noting problems with each. What a shame such an in-depth article is unavailable to a wider audience.
  • Hatoon Kadi writes in her blog at Arab News the Memoirs of a Saudi Ph.D. student: The menace of plagiarism. She mis-believes, as many do, that "[t]here are certain programs that take a few seconds in determining the originality of any research material." No, software can only detect potential text overlap, it cannot determine plagiarism or originality, because all systems suffer from false positives (quotation not seen) and false negatives (source not stored in the database). She discusses the question of hiring a ghostwriter with friends and found to her dismay that many had no qualms about using work from others. She calls for strict laws to punish plagiarists. I don't think punishment works -- we need to educate people as to why referencing and quotation is important.
Now, back to grading exams.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Mexican Scientists Found Guilty of Plagiarism

An opinion piece in La Journade (in Spanish) called the "Attack of the Plagiarists" notes that there have been two scientists found guilty of plagiarism in Mexico, and one of them has had his doctorate rescinded. The author, Soledad Loaeza, discusses the excuses given for plagiarism and the problem that people do see the scientific misconduct, but that they prefer to whisper to and murmur with each other, as they don't want to have trouble with a colleague. And thus the problem grows until it no longer can be contained and something big happens, such as a US institution informing a Mexican one that plagiarism has been found.

El Universal also has a story on this and includes some pictures of the plagiarism and the source for one of the cases.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dutch University Rescinds Doctorate

According to NRC.NL [apparently the online edition of a Dutch daily evening paper], the Erasmus University of Rotterdam has recently rescinded a doctorate. The case involves a doctorate granted by the university to a women in 2013 in psychology.

There was a discussion about the case in 2014 in a Erasmus University of Rotterdam publication. That publication states that after the plagiarism was discovered, she was reprimanded and given until October 1, 2014 to "repair" the plagiarism in her thesis. The academic integrity council of the university had recommended immediate retraction of the thesis, but the Executive Board of the university decided that the supervisor was partially at fault and it was "only" a question of sloppy citations. The doctoral student, according the the article in the EUR publication, felt that she had not intentionally plagiarized, and she had had her thesis checked by Turnitin and it had not uncovered any plagiarism. Additionally, the thesis committee passed her, so she felt that she should not be penalized if they didn't have any problems with the thesis.

The NRC.NL article notes that the external committee investigating the case determined that she did not rewrite the plagiarized passages, but only deleted them in the re-submitted version. The quality of the rest was debatable, appearing to be based only on secondary sources. Thus, she has been asked to return her doctoral certificate. NRC.NL says that this is a first for the Netherlands, I am not sure that this is true. She refuses, however, to hand back her certificate and is now initiating legal action against the university, NRC.NL reports.

The argument that she brings of having used software to check the thesis and it not finding anything points to a very big problem in the use of so-called plagiarism detection software. Just because the software does not find any sources, that does not mean that the thesis is original. It just means that no sources were found. There could be a source that is not available on the open Internet, or one from a book, or one that is for some reason not in the database used by the system. It is also possible that the text was rewritten to disguise the text taken, which will foil many such software systems. Software can only be used as a tool, not as a litmus test for determining plagiarism.  

Thanks to Google Translate for filling in the bits of Dutch I couldn't decode!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Court decisions rolling in

There are quite a number of court decisions being handed down recently in Germany on academic misconduct cases. I have three new addition to my list today:
  1. The Bundesverwaltungsgericht, the Federal Administrative Court in Germany handed down an important decision in connection with the plagiarism case of former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The German parliamentary academic service had written documents for him that turned up in his dissertation, verbatim. A journalist filed a freedom of information order to obtain the documents, but the Bundestag refused. Of course, a copy of the documents had already turned up in a brown paper envelope addressed to one of the GuttenPlag Wiki researchers, bearing no return address, and they were already documented. But it was impossible to verify if the documents were correct. The journalist wanted to see if the copies were, indeed true. He worked his way through the lower courts, who rejected his suit to see the documents. Today the federal court ruled that any document prepared by the academic service is obtainable by FOI request. Within hours the first FOI application for a list of all such documents was filed. The newspaper that filed suit, Die Welt, reports on its success.
  2. The Leipziger Volkszeitung reports that VroniPlag Wiki case #8 Sh (documented in 2011) has now been decided by the court (VG Halle) in favor of the University of Halle-Wittenberg, who rescinded the thesis in April 2012. The court held with the university, which stated that the "technical deficiencies" (handwerkliche Mängel) were so numerous that they became the methodology and thus intent to deceive.
  3. A colleague dug out a decision by the VG Würzburg from 25 March 2015 (AZ: W 2 K 14.228) about a doctorate in dental medicine that was awarded at the University of Würzburg in 2001 in the area of the history of medicine. In 2011 an anonymous letter informed the university that this dissertation was a plagiarism of a dissertation submitted in 1999, and that that one had been written by the doctoral adviser himself, as had many others. The university rescinded the doctorate in 2012. The dentist sued the university on numerous grounds, such as the statute of limitations having run out and all sorts of detailed university administrative details not having been attended to properly. The court ruled that the plagiarism was enough for proving intent to deceive, and also listing 199 sources in her literature list where she only quoted 67 served only to inflate the appearance of scholarship and was also to be considered intent to deceive. The text of the decision is not publicly available but can be found using the case number in legal databases.
So as in the plagiarism case against Schavan, the courts appear to be doing a great job of upholding good scientific practice. They stand by the decisions of the university, no matter what the paladins spout in the media.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dr. Hoss Cartwright

Yes, indeed. The older, or shall I say, more experienced of my readers will fondly remember Hoss Cartwright, of Bonanza fame. A German blogger, Fefe, pointed me in the direction of an article in the Laborjournal blog from March 2015 that I completely missed.

Burkhard Morgenstern is a professor for Bioinformatics in Göttingen, Germany. He apparently got fed up with all the spam solicitations for articles for the many junk journals, that he decided to get back at them. He spammed 20-30 journals (some even in open CC) with a short letter from Dr. Hoss Cartwright, requesting to join the editorial board of "your exciting journal".

Request to join editorial board
About a week later Hoss was welcomed to the board, with apologies for the late response:

Happy to have you
They even put his CV on the page, apparently without reading it. Morgenstern documented it with a screenshot. The CV has since been removed from the page, although the Internet Archive still has a link to a snapshot of the listing with Hoss on the board.
Best CV I've seen in a long time
I contacted Prof. Morgenstern and he noted that he had done a similar thing some years back with another OMICS journal. At that time he managed to get the fictional "Peter Uhnemann", a fake person invented by the German satirical magazine Titanic, on board the journal "Molecular Biology."  Jonathan Eisen's blog The Tree of Life gives details of this scam of the spammers.

If these journals are so careless in putting together their editorial boards, one wonders about the quality of the peer review done for the journals. OMICS had a bit of a spat with the National Institute of Health (lawyer's letter can be read here)  and is now forbidden from suggesting that they are listed on PubMed Central or on PubMed. OMICS appears, however,  to be purchasing journals that are still listed on the databases, according to ScholarlyOA, in order to get around this.

Another attempt to get listed on PubMed Central appears to be to have the authors submit an "author manuscript" to PMC, as NIH-funded researchers are now required to do. When their paper is published, then a link to the OMICS journal article is added. The journal article now also includes a link back to PubMed. Here is one of many examples: Author manuscript at PubMed Central, put in PMC on 2015-02-23 and then received by OMICS two days later and published 2015-03-21.    

Perhaps it is time to teach people that PubMed is an index and not a mark of quality. One must still read and evaluate the papers.

Update:  Dr. Hoss has now been accepted for the editorial board of Pak Publishing Group's "International Journal of Veterinary Sciences Research":
Dr. Hoss accepted as editor for another journal

Saturday, May 16, 2015

576 Swedish students caught cheating in 2014

The Swedish news agency TT reported in March 2015 on the number of students caught cheating in the past year, according to the daily newspaper Expressen: 576, an increase of 50 over 2013. This is the number of students who were found guilty of cheating and sentenced to a lock-out from the university for between one week and six months. There are 28 universities and colleges in Sweden, the largest universities (Lund, Stockholm) also had the largest number of cheating students, 62 and 60. With 47,700 and almost 67,000 students enrolled, this number is quite small. These are the cases, however, that were brought before disciplinary boards, so they will have been quite critical cases. The minister of higher education and research points out in the article that cheating rather defeats the point of a higher education: to learn how to do something oneself.

A lock-out of even a week can be critical if that week happens to be an exam week. Sweden has a good system for financing students. They get a weekly allowance, a bit they can keep, the rest is a loan. In order to get the financing for the next semester, they have to pass enough courses. If they aren't able to take exams, they don't pass and thus can't get the student loans for the next semester.

Do other countries have national numbers on students caught cheating? I know Germany doesn't. I would appreciate pointers to other countries who publish such numbers. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The end of a long plagiarism case

One of the first cases that was documented by the German plagiarism documentation community VroniPlag Wiki in 2011 was the doctorate of a German politician, Jürgen Goldschmidt, the mayor of a town in the Lausitz. In addition to extensive amounts of text overlap, there was a quite strange use of primary sources used in the thesis (documented in German under Befunde). Some examples:
  • "Tagesschau vom 02.12.2004" (p. 42)
  • "Super Illu 17/2005" (p. 45)
  • "WDR vom 24.03.2007" (p. 51)
  • "Pressemitteilung der Bundesregierung, 2008" (p. 67)
  • "Studie im Auftrag des vdw Niedersachsen/Bremen 2002" (p. 71)
Tagesschau is the nightly news, the Super Illu is a tabloid magazine, not generally an academic source for population data. Interestingly, the tabloid itself gives their source for the data: the national statistics board, Statistisches Bundesamt.
CC-BY-SA VroniPlag Wiki
In January 2013, the TU announced that they were not retracting the doctorate, but requesting that Goldschmidt submit a new, properly referenced version of the thesis. This was rather odd, as authors who reuse texts of others, including the Wikipedia, without referencing them can generally not be assumed to have kept track of which texts they took from where. Goldschmidt was given six months to submit an updated version of the thesis. In August 2013 the press secretary assured me that the new version was submitted and was being examined. During 2014 I bugged the TU a few times, asking if they were making any progress and offering assistance, as VroniPlag Wiki had additional material that was not yet documented. They declined, but were working on it.

The press secretary of the TU Berlin put out a press announcement today:
Jürgen Goldschmidt hatte an der Fakultät VI Planen Bauen Umwelt der TU Berlin die Dissertation „Management des Stadtumbaus unter Berücksichtigung der städtebaulichen Rahmenbedingungen“ im Dezember 2009 verteidigt. Im April 2010 bekam er die Urkunde überreicht, mit der der akademische Grad „Doktor der Ingenieurwissenschaften“ verliehen wird. Im Sommer 2011 wurden Plagiatsvorwürfe öffentlich.
Daraufhin gab es ein Verwaltungsverfahren zur Prüfung der Vorwürfe. Herr Goldschmidt erfüllte die von der Universität erteilte Auflage nicht, sodass in Konsequenz ihm der Doktortitel entzogen worden wäre.
Am 7. Mai 2015 hat Jürgen Goldschmidt seinen Doktorgrad inklusive seiner Urkunde an die TU Berlin zurückgegeben.
[Jürgen Goldschmidt defended the dissertation "..." to Faculty VI Planning Construction Environment of the TU Berlin in November 2009. He was given the certificate in April of 2010 that gave him the degree of "Doctor of Engineering". In the summer of 2011 accusations of plagiarism were made public.
As a result of this, an administrative process was initiated to examine the accusations. Mr. Goldschmidt did not fulfill the conditions that were imposed by the university, thus the doctoral degree would have been rescinded. On May 7, 2015 Jürgen Goldschmidt returned his degree and the certificate to the TU Berlin. -- translation dww]
This is a new method of resolving a case of plagiarism: faced with extensive evidence that would lead to the degree being rescinded, the person in question returns the degree. It is perhaps legally questionable if a degree that is conferred by a faculty can be returned by the conferee. But that is perhaps moot, as the university has now brought a case to a close that has been open for over 3 1/2 years.

Additionally, it was discovered that the second case that was reported to the TU Berlin, Aos, has been similarly resolved as of April 2015.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Current publications

Two links for those who read German:
  • I wrote an article for Forschung & Lehre together with my colleague Gerhard Dannemann about the universities in Germany rather dragging their feet when being informed of plagiarism cases in doctorates : Viel Licht und noch mehr Schatten.
  • The philosopher Theodor Ebert wrote a review of my book "False Feathers" for the FAZ: Fälschen ohne Folgen. In the print version the article was entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht, macht sich schuldig

Saturday, April 4, 2015

More on Brazilian science

I have been sent some interesting links recently about problems in Brazilian academia. 
  • Mauricio Tuffani, a journalist with Folha de S. Paulo, a Brazilian daily newspaper, has been publishing on some troubling situations in Brazilian academia. I just  blogged about an article he wrote about the government recommending mock conferences. He has written about academics inflating their CVs with conference papers given at a Chinese conference now appearing as peer-reviewed journal articles (one even already published in December 2015 [that is, 8 months in the future]) and the triennial report ranking graduate study institutions includes thousands of articles published by Brazilian academics in 201 predatory journals from 11 publishers. He lists the journals here. After he revealed that the Pakistani publisher of a predatory journal that also practices future publishing was not, in fact, a professor, the name disappeared from the web page. He reports on the deafening silence that can be heard from Brazilian academia here.
  • Retraction watch reports on retractions of a number of chemistry papers from a Brazilian journal.
  • The editor of the journal of the  Instituto Israelita de Ensino e Pesquisa Albert Einstein [Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2014 Oct-Dec;12(4):vii-viii. doi: 10.1590/S1679-45082014ED3296.] writes in an editorial entitled Scientific Misconduct - Our first (known) case:
    A recent paper by Lins and Carvalho (2) analyzed scientific misconduct in Brazil. They found a clear increase in both published articles in the medical literature and cases of scientific misconduct, including irreproducible results, “scientific salami slicing” (one article fragmented into 10 or more papers) and duplicate publications. In Lins and Carvalho’s opinion, the increased number of Brazilian scientific productions in medical literature was not accompanied by an increase in quality of articles – just the opposite. The authors discuss the focus of Brazilian institutional review boards in patient safety, within institutions themselves and the Brazilian National Review Board. Neither group performs a systematic surveillance for research integrity, and no specific offices exist to investigate and deal with scientific misconduct.
    (2) Lins L, Carvalho FM. Scientific integrity in Brazil. J Bioeth Inq. 2014;11(3):283-7.

Brazilian Government recommends mock conference

I have been made aware of the following article by Mauricio Tuffani in online version of the Brazilian daily newpaper Folha de S. Paulo: "Eventos científicos "caça-níqueis" preocupam cientistas brasileiros" (Scientific event cares about Brazilian scientists). The article is discussing (as far as I can puzzle out with Google Translate) the WASET multiconference to be held in Rio de Janiero in February 2016. Not one, not ten, but 116 simultaneous scientific meetings are planned to be held in a hotel there. Registration is already open, with rates of up to 450 € for speakers (250 € for listeners only), with a special deal of only 100 € more for an additional paper. 

The conference is organized by a publisher, WASET, that is on Jeffrey Beale's list of predatory publishers. A number of universities world-wide warn their academics from submitting to these conferences. Not the Brazilian government, though, according to Folha de S. Paulo: CAPES, the Higher Education Personnel Training Coordination body of the Brazilian Ministry of Education includes these conferences on their online platform Qualis. This is a list of periodicals and conferences that researchers are recommended for choosing to publish their research, as promotion and tenure depends, as it does so many places, on the number of published articles and conference presentations, not the quality. 

The conference advertises about how well-indexed their conferences are. For example, they say that they are indexed with the "International Science Index".  Since one of the largest citation databases in the world, the Web of Science, is known as the ISI index (Institute of Information Science), careless academics could easily jump to the conclusion that this conference is indexed at ISI.

Folha de S. Paulo was unable to get researchers to speak about this on the record, except for an ecologist from Sorocaba. His name is listed as being a member of the scientific committee of one of the 116 events, the "14th International Conference of Geophysics and Environmental Engineering". He was very surprised to hear that he was named here, he did not know the conference and stated that he will take steps to have his name removed from the conference web site.

Folha de S. Paulo asked WASET for comment, but there was no response. The journal notes that the company is listed as being in Riverside, California, USA, but the phone contact is in the United Arab Emirates and they say that the ISSN records for the publication list them as being from Turkey. I was not able to find an ISSN number given on the web pages of this multiconference, so I wasn't able to verify that it is indeed listed in Turkey and in the Qualis database.

Looking closer at the web site of WASET [I won't link here for obvious reasons] it is quite easy to see how this operation works. There are multiconferences being held ever week in a choice of international locations: Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Auckland, Taipei, Bali, Dubai, Singapore, London. Conferences are planned up to and including 2027. Inspecting the link for Rio in February there are, indeed, conferences in 23 categories with varying numbers of individual conferences that all sound similar: International Conference on ..... (fill in the blank). All will take place at the same hotel, which only, according to their web page, has 35 meeting rooms.

The text on the conference pages is boilerplate, identical except for a few subject areas changed to fit the title of the conference. There is one month given as the time for the peer review by three reviewers. Some of the conference committees are identical for different conferences, sometimes they are different. Not all of the institutions the persons are affiliated with are decodable. The conference photos for the conferences are all the same. If you put this URL into Google's image search, you find it listed as a photo for conferences in Paris, Quebec, London, New York, and San Francisco. One attendee uses it in a university newspaper and identifies herself in the picture, noting that the conference was held in Osaka.

It is high time that universities and research institutions stop using quantitative measures for academic decisions. Predatory publishers and mock conference organizers have perverted the ideas of academic exchange and communication that existed previously and flooded the market with lookalikes. The German research council, DFG, took a step in the right direction in 2010 when they began to base funding decisions not on quantity, but on quality of the research. A researcher can only submit his or her best five publications in applying for grant money, and can only list two publications per year in grant reporting. They also refuse to accept any publication listed as "in press", as some researchers were being quite creative and referring to "in press publications" that hadn't yet been submitted.

Now how do we get the word out to the rest of the world and dry up the funding that is feeding this mock science machine?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

News about VroniPlag Wiki cases

A few notes on current and past VroniPlag Wiki cases:
  • Margarita Mathiopoulos (VPW case Mm, extensive documentation to be found at MMDoku) submitted her dissertation in political science in 1986 to the University of Bonn. In 1989 an intensive public discussion (started by Spiegel) arose about plagiarism in the thesis, but the university decided after an investigation not to rescind the doctorate. In 2011, VroniPlag Wiki looked into the dissertation again and found much more plagiarism. The university re-opened the investigation and rescinded the doctorate in 2012. Mathiopoulos took the university to court and lost. No appeals were permitted, but she appealed against there not being a chance of an appeal. According to Spiegel Online, she has won that case, so now an appeal is permitted to determine if the VroniPlag Wiki documentation contains new material. If that is the case, the university can indeed withdraw the doctorate after the second examination. If the documentation is considered to be more of the same that was evaluated the first time, then the university will be bound by its decision at that time. Since the appeals are still running, Mathiopoulos can continue to use her doctoral degree and remains appointed as an honorary professor at the University of Potsdam and the Technical University of Braunschweig.
  • Sophie Koch (VPW case Ssk) submitted a dissertation in pedagogy to the University of Düsseldorf in 2011. This is the same department to which former German education minister Annette Schavan had submitted her dissertation in 1980. Suspicions of plagiarism were raised in the VroniPlag Wiki forum in 2012, and the documentation began. And stagnated. There were plenty of other cases around. Eventually, though, it was decided to make the case known, and the university was informed. Surprisingly, the university library notes that the doctoral degree was already rescinded in February. This means that someone else had already informed the university and they they had been investigating it for some time.
    So who is Sophie Koch? If you read German, the blog Erbloggtes has an amusing account. The so-called "popular press" has been having a field day, as Sophie Koch is a popular and well-known TV personality with her own show on a German commercial television channel giving advice to single mothers and teenagers. The number of mistakes in the reporting, even by the so-called serious press, is highly amusing. 
  • It is sad, however, to see that the press only seems to report on celebrities or particularly problematic cases (100 % of the pages plagiarized). Cases in which a dissertation in law that was rejected from a German university for plagiarism was then submitted with a few modifications to the Austrian University of Innsbruck and accepted there (VPW case Rm) or a 61-page dissertation in medicine at the University of Bonn that includes 11 pages verbatim and without reference from the Wikipedia and even more from various textbooks and papers (VPW case Go) get little press coverage, if at all. There are currently 143 cases documented on the site, 75 alone in medicine and dental medicine. There is plagiarism from papers by the doctoral advisor, there are habilitations that share much text with dissertations prepared under the tutelage of the same post-doc and it is impossible to tell who copied from whom or if they wrote it together and "forgot" to mention it. Some lift bits and pieces from other theses at the same university, some prepare a collage of papers from other universities, some use the Wikipedia without reference rather copiously. We have seen someone recycle his own doctorate in medicine for part of his second doctorate, this time in theology (VPW case Jpm). What we can determine is that the system is failing to detect and sanction plagiarism at all levels. The big question is: how do we do something about it?

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Professorial Ghostwriter

I had an interesting phone call this morning. The caller had experienced something the other day that was quite bothering him. Did I know what he could do?

He was on a train, and recognized the two gentlemen sitting across from him. One was a professor who is rather well-known in his field and sits on the board of an important company. He began to speak with his friend as if the two of them were alone in front of the fireplace in the privacy of his home.

It seems the professor moonlights as a ghostwriter for a Switzerland-based company, writing theses and dissertations not for the money involved, but for the thrill of it. He assured his friend that he faithfully reports his income, the pittance that they pay their writers, to the tax office. He even wrote a doctoral dissertation for a colleague who had done all of his experimental work, but was too busy to sit down and write the thesis.

"And I always make sure to include a reference to one of my own papers in every paper I write," he beamed, apparently rather pleased with himself. His friend was only concerned with the legality of what he was doing, not the moral issue: Is it okay for a professor (who is supposed to be teaching students good scientific practices) to be a ghostwriter as well?

Indeed, it is legal to be a ghostwriter. The person who is cheating is the one who submits ghostwritten work as their own. And there really is no recourse here, as I told my caller. One can't call the dean of the professor's school, there is no evidence at hand. I am not aware of any universities in Germany that expressly forbid their professors to participate in ghostwriting. But it is indeed ethically highly problematic to be on both sides of the fence, as it were. Pretty much the only thing we can do is to discuss openly and widely what scientific misconduct is and how and why we avoid it.

Any ideas, readers? What would you have done, if you had overheard this conversation?

If you read German, here's an article about one of these services that boasts writers with doctorates and even professors.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Phantom Degree

The French Minister of Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, turns out only to have an English degree and not one in English and Business, as Mediapart (paywall), Le Monde, and  Le Figaro report.

According to Fioraso, somehow "Who's Who in France" mixed up her degrees, and made a double degree in English and in Business out of an English degree with an "option" on Business (screenshot of the entry). She is taking steps to correct this information, she says. Who's Who in France advertises that they verify the degrees from the grand écoles, which does make sense as the Wikipedia entries are free to read, so it would be quite interesting to see how this information came to be in their databases. One must pay 6 € in order to view the entry, however, so I'll stick with the screenshot above.

The government was quick to assure the general public that the minister was chosen for all the great things she has done and not on the basis of a specific degree. Yes, we've heard that before in Germany, in connection with plagiarism cases.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Austrian term papers clog plagiarism detection system

The Austrian online newspaper reports on a bit of problem with their new high school term paper submission system for the school leaving certificates matura. Pupils in Austria are now expected to submit a 40,000 to 60,000 character long term paper (vorwissenschaftliche Arbeit) by the middle of their last year of school. The paper will be graded by teachers and the students must give a presentation on their work.

Of course, since Austria is well aware that there is a plagiarism problem, at least as far as pupils and students are concerned [not so much for doctoral dissertations, but that is another blog post], the term papers must be checked for plagiarism by a so-called plagiarism detection system.

The due date 2015 is Friday, February 13. Surprise, many students have waited until the last minute, and the system is throwing errors that appear to point to the system being swamped. Apparently, they did not also reckon with such large files as are being uploaded. The server operator noted that they were expecting the files to be around 1 MB, instead they were getting 60 MB large files.

Not to fear - there is a Plan B in action: the pupils can submit a printed version at their schools in order to keep the deadline. Or, as one teacher noted in a comment, submit at 5 a.m. The server runs well at that time of the night.

2013 there were almost 44,000 pupils granted their diplomas in Austria. Teachers will now, in addition to grading these papers, have to wade through the results of the plagiarism-detection software, although they also generate false positives as well as false negatives, thus not determining plagiarism but giving some ideas as to where perhaps there could be some plagiarism. Even assuming that a teacher only spends an average of 10 minutes per paper interpreting the results (and this is generous, as the reports are not easy to read and the numbers reported can be quite misleading), this means a minimum of 7-8000 extra hours of work nationwide, but probably tenfold that.

If the pupils are anything like the ones I see in the first semester, they love to take pictures they found on the Internet to spice up their texts - they are much more visually oriented than the older generations. The software will certainly not be able to identify pictures that are not used according to license, so the teachers will also need to use Google's image search or a system such as TinEye to look for the potential sources, increasing the amount of time needed for grading.

Maybe the idea of a term paper submitted centrally needs to be rethought? Of course, they have to learn how to do research and to write about a topic. But we need to be thinking about how to develop methods of assessment that are plagiarism-proof, instead of adding more broken software to a broken system.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The disappearing links

I've noticed a change in what Google returns when you search on the names of persons who have been documented on the VroniPlag Wiki plagiarism documentation site as having extensive text parallels that could constitute plagiarism in their dissertations and habilitations. It used to be that when one searched for their names, the link to VroniPlag Wiki came at the top of the search.

Now there is a notice that some links have been removed because of personality rights questions, and links show up -- if at all -- past the first page of results. This is perhaps due to a recent court ruling.  The European High Court (EuGH, 13.05.2014 - C-131/12) ruled that people can have links about them personally "forgotten" by search engines. The pages naming them do not have to be removed, but they can insist that the search engines not point to such pages.

So it is not enough to just google a name to see if there are any problems associated with scientific publications about a person. One would now need to know where to look in order to find out if, for example, plagiarism in a doctorate has been documented or a paper withdrawn or issues with a publication documented.

This is unfortunate for scientific purposes, as it is vital that other scientists are made aware of dissertations, papers, and books that have been withdrawn for plagiarism or other academic misconduct. Otherwise they will try and replicate experiments that were forged, or build on top of wrong material. I have heard the excuse that a paper is plagiarized, but the contents are true. That is not always the case, sometimes in plagiarizing, something gets taken out of context and the meaning is changed.

Privacy is important, but scientific papers and dissertations are not part of one's private life. They are contributions to the body of science, and are thus public and open to criticism. That's what keeps us honest as scientists: if we goof up, our names are forever associated with our misdeeds.

Update: There has been some discussion about which cases are affected. The following cases (there may be more) show me the VroniPlag Wiki link either on the second page or not at all: Alm - Bm - Cl - Nig - Rh - Tt


Friday, January 30, 2015

A Patchwork Thesis

In 2008, a graduate of a German Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences, abbreviated FH) submitted a dissertation to the Tomáš-Baťa-Universität in Zlín, in the Czech Republic, a good 800 km from his place of residence. At that time he was in his mid-40s and had been working as a public official for the past 18 years.

One may wonder why a mid-career public official would go so far afield to obtain a dissertation, when there are excellent universities near his hometown. In Germany at that time, a Diplom from a Fachhochschule was not sufficient to be admitted for doctoral work. Often extra coursework would be required, or even a Diplom or Master's at a university had to be completed before beginning work on a doctorate.

Today, the Diplom is no longer offered, but instead Master's degrees from both universities and FHs are acceptable for beginning work on a doctorate at a university. Then as now, however, doctorates earned in other EU countries can be used back home, so there is quite some interest in obtaining degrees outside of Germany.

Zlín offers a four-year doctoral program in Management and Economics that charges 1,600 €/year in tuition that requires submission of a written dissertation that is generally published online in the Zlín Digital Library.  One of these dissertations, the one submitted by the German public servant, is a 100-page dissertation that is now documented as case #140 on the VroniPlag Wiki site.

The "barcode" representation for the manual VroniPlag Wiki documentation for the case looks quite like a bit like a patchwork quilt. This barcode is often misunderstood as being the result of a software-based plagiarism investigation. Nothing could be further from the truth: All discovery and documentation is done manually with the help of small software tools for various tasks, and all documentation is reviewed by a second researcher.

The bar code uses five different colors:
  • white is for pages that have not yet been investigated, or for which nothing has yet been found;
  • bright red is for pages that contain text parallels on over 75 % of the lines of text on a page. The line counting is not automatic, but must be done and reviewed by two researchers;
  • dark red is for pages that have text parallels on between 50 and 75 % of the lines;
  • black is used for pages that have text parallels, but that make up 50 % or less of the page;
  • blue is used for pages that are excluded from consideration. These are normally the title pages, the table of contents, the literature list and any appendices.
For this dissertation, there are some additional blue bands: Towards the end of the thesis there is a list of abbreviations and one of figures and tables that are sandwiched in between pages of content.
[Msc 2008]
The two blue bands after the first few pages are quite interesting. The first one, extending from page 13 to page 21, is taken verbatim from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The second one, running from page 26 to page 33, is verbatim from a European commission document. Discounting these pages, as each one has a brief reference given when the copy begins, there is only a total of 65 pages of content in this dissertation.
The patchwork continues when looking at the individual pages, as there are also problems on many of those pages. For example, extensive swatches of text are taken verbatim from seven Wikipedia articles without reference. The pages 2325, which deal with some topics in German history, are lifted entirely from the Wikipedia with only minor adjustments. fragments are taken from a journal article that appeared in the Academy of Management Review. There are occasional references to the article given in the text, but it is not made clear that the pages 5663 are almost entirely from this article, and taken verbatim. Page 58 includes an interesting copy & paste error: the printed version of the article has a footnote from the previous page continued at the bottom of the left-hand column. In the dissertation, this text can be found sandwiched-in  between the text from the left-hand column and the text from the right-hand one. The sentences thus make no sense whatsoever.

On page 72, the Daimler-Benz sustainability report is copied with the "we" pronouns changed to "they" or "their" or "Daimler".

Pages 7779 are taken verbatim from a discussion paper for the European Sustainable Development Network Conference 2008. A copy & paste error on page 79 caused quotations marks from the original to be reproduced as | or —.

Whenever the writing shifts from proper English sentences to word-for-word literal translations from German, the thesis becomes quite unreadable. I quote from page 50:
Germany applies in 2001 above a surface of 357,020 sq. kms, the population around catches 82,330,000 million people (2000: 82,260,000). Of it 40,326,000 persons (49.1%) were gainfully employed in 2000. In 2001 there were 2.4% of the employed persons in the agriculture, forestry and fishery, 22.0 % in the producing trade without the building trade, 6.7 % in the building trade, 25.4 % in trade, guest's trade and traffic, 15.2% in the area of financing, renting and services for companies and 28.3% in the sector of public and private service providers (cf. "Germany in figures" in 2002). While trying to explain how many of these persons have been employed in small and middle companies or to define the boundary between them and large companies in Germany one pushes fast to his borders, because there are not enough actual statistical facts offered from the Statistical Federal Office16. Merely on data delivered by the Institute Of Middle Class Research17
[Note: The institution referred to in the last sentence is the Institut für Mittelstandsforschung in the original. It actually researches small and medium-sized enterprises, not the middle class.]

The University of Zlín publishes the reviews by the thesis examiners online, a commendable gesture. Two excerpts are documented in the Findings section on the VroniPlag Wiki:
  • Review 1 (17.11.2008): "Author considers that CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] is suitable way how to change current managerial thinking which describe from different point of views, e. g. historical progress in religious aspect."
  • Review 2 (17.11.2008): "The dissertation is written very cultivate, digest at the high academic level."
I beg to differ. I don't find this patchwork of other people's words to be either at a high academic level or acceptable scholarship. Above all, it is a mystery to me that people are not aware that when they publish their works in a digital library that they are available world-wide for discussion. Does no one read the theses critically before publication?

The University of Zlín has been informed of the situation and has been sent this report containing all the documentation produced manually by VroniPlag Wiki about the dissertation. The university promptly acknowledged the receipt of the documentation by email. Many other universities, sadly, don't manage to do even that.