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.