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.