Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Student in Sweden sanctioned for plagiarism

According to the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan from May 24, 2016, a student has been sanctioned by the University of Lund for plaigarism in a Master's thesis. Apparently, the thesis consisted almost entirely of text copied from other theses. Not only was the theory portion plagiarized, but interviews were also apparently falsified. The sanction meted out by the Disciplinary Board (disciplinnämnd) was suspension from the university for three months.

A suspension sanction is quite severe in Sweden, as this means that credit points are not earned during suspension. Students cannot continue to receive student loans if they do not earn enough credit points each semester and thus often must interrupt their studies.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

UK Report on Ghostwriting

​​The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK (QAA) has just released a public report about ghostwriting: "Plagiarism in Higher Education - Custom essay writing services: an exploration and next steps for the UK higher education sector." It gives an excellent overview of the problem of bespoke essays or contract cheating and also discusses the bleak legal outlook on the problem. They also discuss the legal situation in a few other countries. New Zealand appears to have had regulations about this in their Education Act from 1989, making it illegal to provide or advertise ghostwriting services.

The report summarizes what needs to be done (p. 16) as
Education. Deterrence. Detection.
That is, students and educators need to be informed about good scientific practice, assessments have to be desiged so as to deter academic misconduct, and universities must act to detect (and sanction) such misconduct when it occurs.

I highly recommend reading this report, including the case studies that document the advertising text used by five essay mills, with price information. It is a sobering read.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Netherlands to fight academic misconduct on a national level

The Times Higher Education online is reporting that the Netherlands are starting an ambitious project to deal with academic misconduct and the reproducability crisis. One major thrust of the project is a 5 million € grant called "Fostering Responsible Research Practices" that will include a nationwide survey. An additional 3 million € will be invested for encouraging replication studies.

The survey is intended to ask every scientist if they have ever committed research misconduct or "sloppy science", according to the THE. Prof. Lex Bouter, professor of Methodology and Integrity from the VU Amsterdam and one of the driving forces behind the initiative, according to the THE, is also co-chair of the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI 2017) which will take place May 28-31 in Amsterdam next year. [Disclosure: I am a member of the European advisory committee for this conference.]

Daniele Fanelli published a paper in PLOSone in 2009, "How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data" that 
[...] found that, on average, about 2% of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once – a serious form of misconduct my [sic] any standard [...] – and up to one third admitted a variety of other questionable research practices including “dropping data points based on a gut feeling”, and “changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source”.
Two percent may not seem to be much, but these are self-reporting surveys and people tend to underreport dishonest behavior. And since science builds on the work of other researchers, depending on their honesty, one dishonest researcher can easily poison the work of two dozen others who spend time reading and understanding their papers or attempting to replicate their research.

I assume that one result of a nationwide survey will also be raised awareness about the problem of academic misconduct. Germany could certainly use a survey like this as well....

Monday, April 25, 2016

Seven more retractions for Danish computer scientist

Back in 2012, the German plagiarism documentation platform VroniPlag Wiki published a documentation about extensive plagiarism in a computer science dissertation submitted in 2007 to the Danish University of Aalborg at Esbjerg. This sparked some media attention (and was reported in this blog in May 2012) and eventually an investigation of the Danish national academic integrity body UVVU (Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty) was initiated. That body ruled on December 2, 2014: (English translation)
The Committee finds that the Defendant has acted in a scientifically dishonest
manner in the form of plagiarism [...]
I managed to obtain many of the documents produced by means of a freedom of information act inquiry. The UVVU mounted an exhaustive inquiry, and also informed the university currently employing the author as a professor of their decision. Interestingly, he is still listed at the university as of today, and has current publications listed.

The thesis borrowed heavily from journal articles and conference papers published either alone or in collaboration with others that turned out to include much text overlap with publications of other researchers. And after the thesis was defended, many more papers were published, again with others, that again contained extensive text overlap both with papers by other authors and with text from the dissertation. The true sources were about identifying criminal networks, the copied papers were on the topic of identifying terrorist networks.
The source is on the right, the edited copy on the left
VroniPlag Wiki lists more than 20 papers to date that are affected by substantial text similarities. The publisher at Springer and IEEE were informed, and this blog discussed some of the papers in June 2012.  In January 2013 eight papers were retracted by the IEEE.

Springer published 10 of these papers, but was quite indecisive as to how to deal with the situation. In a journal, a retraction can be published in the next available issue. However for conference proceedings, there is often no "next" volume in which to note the retraction. Of course, since the papers are all online, they can at least be retracted there. In January 2014 I found that Springer had published a retraction of one of the papers, but then retracted the retraction just a few days later, publishing an erratum instead.

During an idle search in April 2016, one of the VroniPlag Wiki researchers was surprised to see that Springer had quietly retracted seven of the ten papers. Of course, Springer wants the general public to invest $ 30 to read the retractions:

I was able to obtain four of the seven retractions because they were published in proceedings that my library has access to. The notices read as follows:
The publisher regrets to announce that the following chapter entitled [...] has been retracted. This chapter contains a large amount of reused and uncited material that was not published within quotation marks.
Looks to me as if Springer has come up with a new euphemism for that nasty P-word.

I find it troubling that Springer needed so many years to act on the information given to them about the problematic publications. And even though Springer is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE),  they did not follow the advice given in the COPE flowcharts for dealing with such situations. This includes as a final step "inform the person who originally raised the concern."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Confusing Pakistani Plagiarism Case

The Pakistani Express Tribune reported on March 28, 2016 that the former chair of the Pakistani HEC (Higher Education Council) in Pakistan has tendered his apology for having plagiarized a paper he co-authored with a colleague. According to the Express Tribune, an investigation committee found in 2014 that a third of the paper was taken from a European Union (EU) report.

The paper, given as ‘Study of Pakistan’s Election System – Intelligent E-Election’ in the Journal of Independent Studies and Research (Vol. 1, No 2, July 2003, pp 2 – 7), will be "withdrawn" from the author's CV, according to the Express Tribune.

There are two journals that are "JISR" journals, one on management and one on computer science. According to the online table of contents of the management issue, although seven papers were accepted, only four are linked to online. One is indeed by the former HEC chair, but on a different topic. The computing issue (Vol. 1, No 2, July 2003) includes a paper by his co-author on a different topic.  I checked the management journal on the Internet Archive and found the July 2003 issue archived in 2012 with no mention of the paper, but it can be found linked from the table of contents of the computing issue, also archived in 2012. So the paper was removed from the journal instead of being retracted.

If I google the title, however, I land at an arXiv paper by that same name and by those authors, submitted on 27 May 2004, with no mention that the paper has been published elsewhere or that it has been withdrawn. The acknowledgment of the paper is interesting:
By the grace of Allah, this independent study stands complete. However, calling it independent is not quite correct. I owe the success of this effort to my institute and my Independent study supervisor, Dr. J[...] R. L[...], without whose guidance this accomplishment would have been impossible.
So is this a colleague or a student who is the first author of the paper?

Digging a bit deeper turns up this 2013 report in Dawn stating that using Turnitin on the paper reported 78 % plagiarism. I have grave reservations about using numbers that a plagiarism detection system reports, as they are often skewed. The article notes:
According to the HEC rules, anyone found involved in plagiarism before 2007 cannot be punished but all the benefits availed because of the plagiarised thesis or research paper would be withdrawn, [an anonymous HEC official] added. The officer pointed out that the research paper was written in 2003 when there was no policy about plagiarism. “Dr [L.] just supervised that research paper so action can only be taken against [M.N.],” he said.
 L. is quoted in a 2014 article in the Express Tribune:  
[L.] added that he did not contribute to the piece and only provided the data the [N.] needed. [L.] also said that the case did not fall under the HEC plagiarism policy as it was published in a magazine, adding "I never benefited from it and the co-author included my name without my knowledge."
According to the Tribune, the article was on his CV in 2014, but there is no trace of the paper in his online CV today. In an article he published in 2014 ("I am not a plagiarist") L. writes
In 2003, I helped a faculty member, [M.N.], in collecting data for a report that he was writing on electronic voting. He subsequently published the report, in 2004, without my knowledge, in a non-recognised journal, of which he was the editor and used my name as co-author. Since it was typical that authors write names of advisers in their papers, and since I was his adviser in his other work, he put my name on the paper as an acknowledgment. No one, including me, could have verified the originality of anyone’s work then, since no anti-plagiarism softwares were available at that time. The paper eventually got listed in my CV — an innocent oversight as there was no vested interest involved because the journal was not of a notable stature even by Pakistani standards.
He goes on to state that what the Express Tribune has written is misleading and quotes another academic as calling this a conspiracy, because L. has been vociferous in denouncing Pakistani fake degrees and fake universities (which he, by the way, has). And says that it isn't a problem anyway, as there was no Pakistani policy on plagiarism before 2007.

I'm confused.

L. has apologized for plagiarism in a paper he didn't write that is no longer available at the journal named but where his co-author was editor and it still ended up listed on his CV by mistake? And now it has been removed from the journal page (and is not mentioned in the CV) but it is still on arXiv? Because it was put there before the Pakistani policy on plagiarism came into effect?

This has nothing to do with there being no software around to find plagiarism (not "verify the originality") -- you only put things in your CV that you wrote, and if you wrote an article, you know that you didn't copy it from somewhere else, so there is no need for any sort of software.

It doesn't matter if the journal is "non-recognized": Software filtering systems will find them and they will be available to others. If a PDF can be obtained online for a paper that has been retracted and there is no retraction watermark on the page, other scientists will be misled into thinking that the paper has not been withdrawn. People don't compare papers they are quoting with the CVs of the authors, as far as I know. And just deleting articles that have been found to be the results of academic misconduct may remove the offending article from the reach of software, but if anyone has quoted this article, there should be a proxy page that informs the reader what's up. 

Thanks to @gwarynski_ for the Express Tribune link, although it ended up being far too much research necessary to try and understand what happened! 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

New Approaches to Academic Misconduct in Denmark and Sweden?

There have been a number of high-profile cases of academic misconduct in the past few years, both in Denmark and in Sweden. The Swedish government has just issued a directive requesting that an independent examiner look at the necessity of changing the rules for investigating cases of academic misconduct in research. They request that a proposition be made for a timely and legally secure process for dealing with accusations of academic misconduct. ("En särskild utredare ska undersöka behovet av en ny hantering av ärenden som rör utredning av oredlighet i forskning och lämna förslag som säkerställer en tydlig och rättssäker hantering av misstänkt oredlighet.").

This comes on the heels of news (Retraction Watch reports) about a Swedish researcher who has been dismissed from the Karolinska Institut on multiple charges of academic misconduct

Denmark is a bit further along in the same process. They have had quite a number of scandals, so the UVVU (the Danish organization that looks at accusations of academic misconduct) has already prepared their own suggestions. They have a page with a number of links, and a relative thorough collection of the current practices in seventeen countries:Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland,  Sweden,  USA. Unfortunately, the report appears to only be in Danish. 

ScienceNordic has a nice overview of the the major scandals in Denmark and Sweden, including many links, in English.

The problems arise when lawyers are called into scientific disputes and judges decide what is and what is not good science. I think we need a sort of "Godwin's law" in science. If you involve a lawyer, you lose the argument. We need to focus more on peers discussing the science, although there do need to be sanctions for those found to have committed academic misconduct.

The Danish report lists the wide spectrum of possible sanctions found in the various countries (p. 20-21):
  • Issuing a correction
  • Reprimand
  • Supervision of future research
  • Suspension from scientific work
  • Retractions
  • Disciplinary sanctions such as being put on probation for future academic work
  • Rescinding of academic titles
  • Rescinding of the right to advise PhD students 
  • Withdrawal of internal resources
  • Repayment of research funding
  • No permission to apply for research funding, usually for a set number of years. 
The report makes it clear that there does need to be a system for appealing such a judgement and in particular the whistleblowers need to be protected.  It will be interesting to see what the Danish government decides to do and whether the Swedish report will be much different from the Danish one.

Update: fixed Goodwin -> Godwin

Thursday, March 10, 2016

German Defense Minister to keep doctoral degree

The Medical University in Hanover held a press conference on March 9, 2016 that was broadcast live on German television. They announced that the dissertation submitted in 1990 by the current German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen does indeed contain plagiarism (as documented by VroniPlag Wiki), but that they do not see an intention to deceive and thus they are not rescinding the doctorate. They see most of the plagiarism in the introduction, not in the results portion of the thesis. The president of the university stated that there are "errors, but not academic misconduct." The VroniPlag Wiki documents plagiarism on 27 out of 62 pages (43.5 % of the pages in the thesis affected), not only in the introduction, but also in section 3 (Thematic Background and Pathophysiological Fundamentals) as well as in the discussion.

RP online quotes law professor Gerhard Dannemann, one of the VroniPlag Wiki activists, as stating that this decision is irritating because plagiarism is academic misconduct, as has been decided time and again in the German courts when persons who had their doctorates revoked for plagiarism took their universities to court.

The Berlin daily newspaper Tagespiegel notes the close connections between von der Leyen and the MHH. Her husband is an adjunct professor at the MHH and director of the Hannover Clinical Trial Center GmbH that is affiliated with the medical school. She herself is a founder of the school's alumni association.

Since this case was published, VroniPlag Wiki has documented extensive text overlap in five additional dissertations (Acb, Bca, Lcg, Wfe in medicine, Cak in dentistry) and a habilitation (Mjm) from the MH Hanover. It will be interesting to see how these cases that affect people who are not politicians play out. In particular one would hope that these cases would also be dealt with in a timely manner and the results announced to the academic world.

In my opinion the MH Hanover has chosen what they think is a pragmatic solution. They split an academic publication into two parts, an important and a non-important part. Many biomedical researchers fall into the same trap: If the data is falsified or fabricated, they are quick to find fault, but do not find plagiarism to be a problem. This is, however, in direct contradiction to German court decisions that only see a dissertation as submitted as a whole. There is no "scientific core" that is okay, although the rest is tainted. The NSF in the USA is very clear on this topic:
„(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, carrying out, or
(2) Reporting results from activities funded by NSF; or retaliation of any kind against a person who reported or provided information about suspected or alleged misconduct and who has not acted in bad faith.“
This is how I see it: When entire pages are taken word-for-word without appropriate citation (for example the VroniPlag Wiki case Go with more than half of the pages containing plagiarism, among them 11 pages taken from the Wikipedia without reference) and passed off as one's own work, it is plagiarism and thus academic misconduct. It is also plagiarism (and thus academic misconduct) when throughout a text words or ideas are presented as the author's own when they are actually taken from another person. There is not a question of intent to deceive inherent in a definition of plagiarism, that can only have an effect on potential sanctions.

The MH Hanover deliberated and tried to find a way to have it both ways: The thesis contains plagiarism, but it is not serious enough to warrant rescinding a doctorate. I suspect this will provoke much discussion with current and future students who do not understand why they are given a failing grade for much less plagiarism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Fake Academic Degrees in Russia

This is a guest post by one of the members of the Russian plagiarism documentation group Dissernet

Fake Academic Degrees in Russia 

By Andrei Rostovtsev  

The practice of awarding fake academic degrees to politicians, businessmen, doctors in clinics, professors in universities, and teachers in schools, that is, to all those who wish to use their new academic titles to step onto a faster career route, is widely accepted in Russia. The academic titles are awarded throughout the country. This business is based on the production of falsified dissertations. In early 2013 a group of five scientists and journalists established a social network called “Dissernet”. The Dissernet is a volunteer-effort free association aimed at making fraud and trickery in the awarding of academic titles transparent and well-known to the public. By 2016, Dissernet activists have identified more than 5000 plagiarized and falsified dissertations. In falsified dissertations not only is the text copied, but also the numerical data in it are assigned to a different year or region (in economics, law, and sociology), or to a different disease and treatment (in medicine), see discussion below. Over 1000 cases of such dissertations are documented on the website of the Dissernet (www.dissernet.org). Statistical data collected by the Dissernet yield a number of conclusions discussed below.

First of all, there is an important difference between the ways scientific writings are plagiarized in Russia and in the Western counties. In the West, the plagiarism is often associated with an intentional incorporation of other people’s texts or ideas in one’s own scientific research. That is probably why the ‘western style’ can involve many intricate small-scale mosaic plagiarisms intentionally placed in the original text. Yet in Russia, most often Dissernet deals with authors who have never done research and might have never even seen their dissertation texts at all. Such ‘dissertations’ are usually nothing else but a mere compilation of other people’s texts glued one paragraph after another in a haphazard way, something Weber-Wulff calls “shake & paste” [1].

In extreme cases the new text is just an older dissertation with a title page changed to reflect the new candidate. Sometimes the new candidate changes the subject of his or her ‘research’ too—usually by contextually substituting some terms throughout the whole text. For example, one notorious ‘scholar’ transformed a dissertation about the confectionary industry into a dissertation about the beef-and-dairy industry by substituting ‘dark chocolate’ with ‘homegrown beef,’ ‘white chocolate’ with ‘imported beef,’ and ‘nut chocolate’ with ‘bone-in beef ’ (see http://www.dissernet.org/expertise/igoshin.htm and http://cook.livejournal.com/202638.html, in Russian). In the meantime, all the data, tables, pictures, and spelling remained unchanged. Sometimes such authors also ‘update’ the dating of the statistics they refer to, thus making their ‘research’ seem to have been done more recently.

Detection of thousands of fraudulent dissertations by the Dissernet is mainly the result of a unique technology used. In Russia, along with the dissertation a so-called avtoreferat must be made publically available before the Ph.D. defense. The avtoreferat consists of a shortened dissertation content (usually 20–30 pages) and the main research results. Importantly, the texts of the avtoreferats are indexed by public search engines (such as Google or Yandex). The dissertation itself is not usually indexed, however. But if the dissertation contains large fragments of plagiarized text, as described above, its avtoreferat would also have text coinciding with earlier works. The specific Dissernet software is able to pick up the avtoreferats one by one and takes advantage of the search engines indices to look for textual coincidences within the whole publicly available corpus of Russian digitized texts, including texts of other avtoreferats. This program runs 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Thus a few hundred thousand dissertations have been automatically checked. Furthermore, Dissernet takes advantage of the common practice of a chain-like fraudulent dissertation production. As soon as a rampant plagiarism is detected in one dissertation, it is very likely to be detected as well in other dissertations defended by the same dissertation council or with the same supervisor. This happens because the producers of fake dissertations in Russia work in a conveyor-belt mode using very limited sets of scientific texts as sources. By focusing on practically totally plagiarized texts, the Dissernet deals only with a small tip of scientific fraud in Russia. But even so, in problematic fields such as economics and law, about 3 % of dissertations contain large-scale plagiarism. In pedagogy this fraction is a bit higher, but still below 6 %.

Such large-scale dissertation fraud in Russia is a result of corruption that has paralyzed the whole system of awarding academic degrees: from dissertation councils established by the leading universities, where the PhDs are awarded, through the Higher Attestation Commission—the agency which coordinates and validates the awarding of academic degrees—and finally, what is also very important, to editorial boards of scientific journals, where scientific papers of the prospective doctoral candidates have to be published prior the defense. It is obvious that if no real research is done, then no relevant scientific papers could be published by such research. Clear affiliations of Russian scientific journals with the fake dissertation industry run by universities (more exactly, certain dissertation councils) have also been traced by the Dissernet. Those three cornerstones (dissertation councils, the Higher Attestation Commission, and journal editorial boards) are the necessary working parts of the mechanism running the conveyor belts of the academic fraud in Russia. Very often the same persons serve in these three cornerstone bodies at the same time.
Figure 1. Statistics on false dissertations broken down by scientific fields. (Dissernet data)
Figure 1 shows statistics of fraudulent candidate (Ph.D.) degrees awarded in different scientific fields based on the present Dissernet data (n=5215). As one can see, the most problematic areas are economics, pedagogy, and law. These same areas are the most problematic ones in the everyday (non-academic) life of Russians as well. In my view, this correlation is not accidental. The academic community naturally erects a barrier in the way of fake sciences and mythifications, which could otherwise define a climate for the life of whole society. In the areas, where the academic community is strong enough to resist the fraudulent practice of awarding fake academic degrees, the entire non-academic society is not driven by the false ideas. In addition, according to SCOPUS, the proportion of fake dissertations in each scientific field is inversely proportional to Russia’s international input in these disciplines [2].

Figure 2. Geographic location of the major universities producing fake dissertations.
Relative contributions into the total productivity for Moscow
and St.-Petersburg are given in percentages.
Figure 2 presents the geographic locations of universities that award the fake degrees according the present Dissernet statistics. Obviously, Moscow and Saint Petersburg play the most important role as they are among the largest cities. Other cities and towns fall behind. The scale of falsifications in the Caucasus region is relatively large but on the whole, their share in national statistics isn’t that high. This means the phenomenon of scientific fraud in Russia is not a marginal one. It is not localized somewhere on the outskirts of the country. Today it plays a role of an institution that is well integrated into the contemporary Russian state. Why do we qualify this phenomenon as institutional rather than a subject to free market?

Several recent laws and decrees protect owners of falsified academic degrees. The most important one (see http://www.rg.ru/2013/10/01/stepen-site-dok.html and http://www.saveras.ru/archives/6450) makes it impossible to strip a person of an academic degree if its defense took place before 2011. The authorities are quite reluctant to revoke the fake academic degrees, even if the defense has happened after 2011. The reactions from those accused of plagiarism by Dissernet varies from ignoring it, through calling it nonsense and accusations that it is politically motivated, to accusing Dissernet members of unprofessionalism and arguing that only appropriate dissertation councils have the right to assess the quality of dissertations (E. Denisova-Schmidt, personal communication). This point of view is broadly supported by state-owned mass media. Still, as of today, the Dissernet has managed to convince dissertation councils to revoke about one hundred fake academic degrees.

Last but not least, Dissernet investigations are relevant not only for an assessment of the Russian fraudulent academic world. Most importantly, the Dissernet provides a unique view on the deterioration of some institution’s reputations in Russia. In order to illustrate this point, several reference groups may be considered: members of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS), directors of Moscow’s primary and secondary schools, chancellors of Russian universities, regional governors, and members of the State Duma. Members of each group are selected if they have been awarded an academic degree during the last 15 years. Dissernet did not detect any falsified dissertation by the RAS members. Of 141 dissertations defended by directors of Moscow’s primary and secondary schools, 23 satisfied the Dissernet criteria for largely plagiarized texts. This amounts to 16 %—a rate which is more than three times higher than the probability of finding large-scale plagiarism in a random pedagogical dissertation.

Figure 3. Breakdown of fake dissertations by occupation: a reputation crisis.
This implies a silent mechanism at work selecting and supporting those who are prone to falsifications. The next group is chancellors of Russian universities, which has shown an even higher fraction of 21 %. Of that, one third of such universities are in Moscow. The proportion of politicians representing regional governors and members of the State Duma is even higher, reaching 41 % for the latter. In short, Dissernet performs a sort of a litmus test, identifying those dissertations prone to fraud and trickery, depending on the circumstances, and demonstrates the reputation crisis in Russia. This is illustrated in Figure 3. Why are the authorities, which are charged with larger responsibilities, subject to this stronger negative selection? This question will have to be answered by sociologists rather than Dissernet.

Despite aggressive state politics directed at the Dissernet, this public initiative has gained a good reputation and respect in Russian society in general, as evidenced by several awards and the fact that the name itself has become a meme.

[1] Weber-Wulff, D. (2014). False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism. Heidelberg, Berlin: Springer. 
[2] Rostovtsev, A. (2015). Some Observations on the Subject of Dissertation Fraud in Russia. HERB: Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, 3(5), 17–18. Available at https://herb.hse.ru/data/2015/09/22/1075563638/HERB_05_view.pdf

Monday, February 15, 2016

Dutch rector accused of plagiarism

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported (in-depth report is here) on February 8, 2016 that the Turkish rector of the Islamic University of Rotterdam, Ahmed Akgündüz, has been accused of plagiarism. The first accusations seem to stem from 1991. His dissertation on religious foundations according to Islamic law appears to strongly mirror an Iraqi publication from 1977. de Volkskrant states that they have translations of both texts that clearly demonstrate the similarity. Another author has stated that books that Akgündüz has published on the Kurdish writer Said Nursi lift paragraphs and pages word for word.

A few weeks ago a committee was set up to investigate the allegations. The head of the committee was the Deputy Chairman of the board of the Islamic University of Rotterdam. Within two days the committee produced a seven-page document that declared that no plagiarism could be seen. A professor is quoted as being surprised that the speed of the investigation, as such a complex material would normally take months to examine.

Akgündüz defends himself, saying that this is just an ideological attack on him. Since he used that same sources, he finds it logical that the same footnotes would be in the same order and the same conclusions reached. 

[The articles are behind a paywall, with luck at decoding the Dutch you can get free access in order to read them or use Google translate to read.]

Thursday, February 11, 2016

An Evening at the Academy

In the spring of 2013, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities set up an interdisciplinary working group called "Zitat und Paraphrase" (Quotation and Paraphrase). There was a good bit of controversy at the time, as the group was set up at about the same time that the then German Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, was dealing with a documentation of plagiarism in her dissertation. She was one in a long line of prominent and non-prominent people who used doctorates that were granted partially on the basis of a published thesis that contained much text parallel with one or more other published works. Many academic managers published long and vituperative attacks against the University of Düsseldorf, who was examining the evidence in order to decide if a sanction was warranted. These managers often wrote without having actually examined the evidence themselves, but they had formed an iron-clad opinion and they were defending it with whatever means available. This working group seemed to be one more attempt to whitewash the problems Schavan was having.

It is now 2016, the University of Düsseldorf has since rescinded the thesis of Ms. Schavan, she lost the court case she filed against the university and is now the German ambassador to the Vatican, and the working group needed to bring their sessions to some sort of close. They had invited many speakers, among them me in 2014 (see my blog report on that session), and have now published a volume "Zitat, Paraphrase, Plagiat: Wissenschaft zwischen guter Praxis und Fehlverhalten" (C. Lahusen & C. Markschies (Ed.), 2015, Campus Verlag) with papers by both members of the working group and external guests.

I was also invited to submit a written version of my talk, but since I was in essence telling them what I published in the Handbook of Academic Integrity, I didn't want to repeat myself in print and didn't want to contribute to a common misconception: I don't think that software can do a good job of identifying plagiarism. It can find some text parallels, if the sources are known. But they fail, often miserably, to identify even some blatant plagiarism. The common misconception is that the work of VroniPlag Wiki or the documentation done on the dissertation of Ms. Schavan is somehow done by software. They most certainly were not! There are many small tools that can be used to uncover plagiarism, but the tools have to be used by someone who understands what they are doing. One can't just put a piece of wood on a workbench filled with chiseling tools and expect an intricate piece of art to result. Without the carpenter, as it were, nothing happens. Learning to find and document plagiarism is not hard, but you have to be willing to actually read a text, not throw it at a piece of software and wait for a meaningless number to result.

Anyway, as a final flourish, there was a panel discussion evening on January 28, 2016 at the Academy. There were around 90 persons in attendance, about evenly split between distinguished older persons (mostly gentlemen) and conservatively dressed younger women. Jürgen Kaube, a journalist with the FAZ, was assigned the task of moderating the evening. The guests were
  • Christoph Markschies, vice-president of the Academy and former president of the Humboldt-University in Berlin, Professor of Theology and the speaker of the working group;
  • Rainer Maria Kiesow, professor of law at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and a member of the working group; and
  • Susanne Schüssler, publisher of the Klaus Wagenbach Verlag.
One of the members of the working group summed it up quite nicely at the wine-and-pretzels afterwards: Some gentlemen do love the sound of their own voices, don't they?

Markschies opened the evening with an attempt to wittily skirt any problem zones. He made it clear that he has understood that the plagiarism cases documented are not just dissertations by celebrities and that current technical helpers are no panacea for the plagiarism problem. Of course the working group does not have a definition for correct quotation, that can be found in the Harvard style guide! And academic quality is more than just proper quotation. One does see that we have been lax in instructing about good scientific practice, and the application of sanctions is rather dysfunctional. He wondered aloud whether there should be some institution that focuses on such topics, and then handed the discussion over to the moderator.

Kaube wasted no time in slapping the main topic on the table: Wasn't the working group set up to help Schavan? Markschies beats around the bush, noting that the Academy can decide itself what topics it wishes to consider. It has the power to steep itself in any question it likes. Perhaps, he admits, they could have been a bit more transparent when setting up the group, that's all. Kiesow responds that one doesn't have to be a specialist in a particular field to see that quotation marks are missing. Judges can and do easily spot this. And then he launches into an apparent favorite topic, originality. This topic bubbled up on numerous occasions, although that was not the topic of the evening.

Kaube, apparently realizing that Schüssler had not been able to get a word in edgewise, asks for her opinion. She notes that her publishing house does not choose books to publish based on how nicely footnoted they are, on the contrary: They want something readable, at least for a smallish target group. She begins to speak of a case that her publishing house had to deal with (I reported in August 2014 briefly on the case). Here was a lovely book that was marred by too many too close "paraphrases" from the Wikipedia. Although her lawyers correctly stated that she had nothing to fear (as the copyright is distributed amongst all the shoulders of the people who edited the various articles), she still withdrew the book, as it offended her personal publishing pride. She noted dryly that the book is now published in French, so the closeness of the text to the German Wikipedia is much harder to see.

Kaube returned to the originality topic and asked what the problem is when someone just forgets to use quotation marks? He used a rather silly illustration, asking if Einstein's work was worth less would he have plagiarized a line or two here or there. [Note dww: Einstein has actually also been accused of plagiarism, and the published plagiarism documentations at VroniPlag Wiki are not about a line or two, but more like multiple complete pages taken without reference from, among other sources, the Wikipedia. (For example, Go)]

Kiesow avoided the question, turning instead to the issue of many modern dissertations not being read. Markschies jumped in with a meandering historical exposition that appeared to end with Martin Luther's dissertation being a plagiarism (or did he mean Martin Luther King?). There's a bit of back and forth about the topic of reputation, and then Kaube interrupted again. Has anyone ever quoted Schavan's thesis? He followed the question with a jab at the Medical School of Hanover, asking if they are still investigating plagiarism in the medical thesis of the current Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. He joked that there are only 38 pages in the thesis. [Note dww: Actually, there are 62 pages and I informed the MHH only in September 2015. The University of Bayreuth did manage to examine and rescind the thesis of then Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in only about a week, but that was under extremely intense pressure and during the semester break. As my colleague Gerhard Dannemann and I have shown in a publication in April 2015, most investigations take quite a long time.]

The discussion again veered off into a quality vs. quantity discussion, including the aspects of different cultures in different fields, different genres, and bibliometrics. Every now and then a comment about "those Internet-platforms" bubbled up, or about how dissertations are evaluated, but Kaube had thrown all pretext of moderating to the wind and was in the thick of the discussion. He did report on one of the non-celebrity cases in Münster: It had to do with ape eyes, and turned out to be a plagiarism of a plagiarism (Gt). I spoke to him afterwards to note that that source, too, was a plagiarism, and that the University of Münster has actually sanctioned the advisor of this plagiarism chain.

Markschies and Kiesow attempted various calculations at how long would be necessary to check all past dissertations or when we can expect to have better technical support. Markschies did make the point that educating people about good academic practice is probably useful.

The audience was now permitted to ask questions, and they focus squarely on questions of plagiarism and paraphrase. Various suggestions are made, and it is noted that it really does not matter who discovers or documents a plagiarism, if it is a plagiarism it must be dealt with. The last contribution from the audience stated that VroniPlag Wiki has investigated the thesis of the current Education Minister Johanna Wanka (to my knowledge, no one has looked that closely at it) and of course could not find plagiarism as it is on mathematics and one cannot plagiarize in mathematics and natural sciences. I spoke to the gentleman afterwards and told him that there are some fine specimens of mathematical, chemical, and engineering dissertations that contain plagiarism that are documented at VroniPlag Wiki.
Distribution of cases documented by VroniPlag Wiki by degree awarded [1]
The smoking gun tends to be when errors are faithfully transcribed, or the attempt to rename or renumber something goes awry.

I had some interesting conversations afterwards, but then hurried home as I was hungry. Neither the pretzels satisfied my hunger, nor the discussions my curiosity as to how much effort was put into this working group with what tangible outcome, other than a book that in essence does not add anything original to the discussion of plagiarism now ongoing since five years in Germany, thanks to Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Chicklit Shitstorm

There is an interesting plagiarism case currently developing in Germany about plagiarism in the genre of self-publisher romance novels, also known as "ChickLit". A similar plagiarism discussion in the area of ChickLit arose in 2013 around the novels of Martina Gercke (I published commentary on this wild theory of the forgotten "placeholders" in German together with S. Schroder). It seems that the successful German romance and fantasy author Cathey Peel / Katja Piel has admitted to publishing two novels that she plagiarized, although she has now depublished that statement.

The first book, Alles begann mit dir, was published both in Kindle Direct Publishing and as a print-on-demand book just before Christmas). One of the readers noted anonymously on the review page at Amazon that the book sounded a lot like it was published as one of the Denise series of books. The Denise series comprised over 500 romance novels published bi-weekly in magazine format by the German Cora Verlag in the 80s and 90s.

Interestingly, there was nothing more than this vague, unsubstantiated claim that started a landslide. No specific source was given, no example other than to say that some aspects were inserted, such as the use of mobile phones.

Amazingly, Piel quickly removed the book from sale and deleted the page at Amazon. Piel posted an article on her Facebook marketing page (now deleted, but I have a copy) explaining that she had recently found the manuscript and thought she had written it many years ago, but it turns out that it was just an exercise in typing that she did when she got her first computer. She had just typed up a novel, that was all.

Well, the bullshit detectors started pinging—30 years ago people were using WordStar or Word 2.0 (doesn't that bring back painful memories?). And storing things on 5 1/4" floppies. Imagine recopying a typing exercise to all the new editors and formats and storage media! Comments started appearing below the Facebook entry, but most of them were of the "shit-happens-we-still-love-you" variety. It was a hard story to believe, but many fans did.

Some, however, began looking for a source. There are a number of potential novels that could be the basis for the book, but since the novel itself is no longer available, even if one could obtain a copy of the potential source, there is nothing to compare it to. And of course, these "romance novels" are all somehow the same with a girl falling in love, getting into trouble, and then there being a happy end.

Piel also quietly and quickly withdrew a second book, Das Amulett in mir. When fans discovered this and questioned her, she stated that it had not been selling well. Now the swarm began asking harder questions and commenting that copyright infringement is a crime. Some were looking at the rest of her books, speculating about potential sources. Piel deleted the Facebook entry, saying that the insults had gotten out of hand.

A few hours later she admitted in another Facebook posting that she had indeed plagiarized:
She offered to return the money earned to the publisher or the authors or to donate the money.  Now a shitstorm broke loose in earnest. Many authors were downright mad that Piel was bringing discredit down on self-publishers. Many readers felt cheated. A few loving fans tried to stand up for Piel, berating the critics for not having anything better to do with their lives than commenting negatively about the plagiarism. Some were pointing to copyright law and calling for the law to step in, although only the plagiarized author could actually bring suit. Other self-publishing authors were angry that Piel was making a living out of self-publishing, but had now admitted to having plagiarized (at least) two of her books. A few hours (and many comments) later, this posting, too, was deleted.  The self-publisher blogs indie publishing and Self-Publisher-Bibel have now weighed-in on the matter (in German). 

I find it interesting to compare this reaction to the reaction many people have about the work that VroniPlag Wiki does in documenting plagiarism in dissertations. One often hears the "anyone can make a mistake" melody when a documentation is first published, and fingers are pointed at the persons documenting the plagiarism, although the dissertations and the sources are all publicly available works. These "plagiarism hunters" are poking around in people's private lives, putting non-prominent people in the stocks, and should be making better use of their time. Until someone actually reads the documentations, it seems. Although they are publicly available on the web site, I often see that people have never actually studied what is found there, although they have a strong opinion about the case. Having a good look at the documentation makes it clear that this is a serious matter and not just a trifle.

It will be interesting to see if the sources do eventually show up. Although the Denise series is not available at the German National Library or the State Library, there are a number of women selling their collections online. Perhaps it will be possible to determine how extensively Piel's two books did plagiarize previously published material.

[Note: an earlier version of this post has been extensively rewritten]