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It is now 2016, the University of Düsseldorf has since rescinded the thesis of Ms.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.


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