Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Plagiarism scandal at the University of St. Gallen

The Neue Züricher Zeitung (NZZ) started the ball rolling on October 9, 2022 (p. 23) with an article in the printed newspaper about plagiarism accusations concerning a business school professor at the prestigious University of St. Gallen (HSG). A Titularprofessor (that is, a person who has sucessfully submitted their habilitation—the second doctorate—, but without tenure and often without a salary) was accused of plagiarism in his dissertation that had been submitted to the TU Darmstadt in Germany. The NZZ had requested that Stefan Weber investigate the thesis, he later published some of his findings on his blog, Plagiatsgutachten. The TU Darmstadt has been deliberating since February 2022 about the case. 

The professor, currently in charge of an institute at the HSG, had faced similar charges about his habilitation submitted to the HSG. Students had found the text similarity and informed the university back in August 2021, but an investigative committee did not find academic misconduct. 

Early in December 2022 more issues turned up. The professor lists over 400 publications to his name, but as the St. Galler Tagblatt/Appenzeller Zeitung reported on December 5, 2022 (p. 21), quite a number of the publications that have the professor as first author are acutally theses by HSG students. The AZ contacted a number of these students for comments. One noted that he found it strange that the professor was so insistant on publishing his master's thesis, and was irritated that the professor's name was on it, although it was completely the student's own thesis. 

The AZ manged to obtain a dozen theses that they could compare with the professor's publications. Indeed, they were practically the same. 

According to the ethical codex of the HSG, this is not permissible. Students are not to be ghostwriters for professors. Interviewed professors from the HSG who did not want to be named, noted that this might be typical, as the number of publications is used as an indicator of researcher quality, but that it was a very questionable practice. The professor was unavailable for comment.

On December 7 the St. Galler Tagblatt interviewed some students on p. 18 and quoted the rector as saying the similarity between the dissertation and the habilitation of the professor was not as extensive as the lawyer who was representing the students had stated in August 2021. He also stated that the external examiners had found no plagiarism at all. 

And of course, by now all the rest of the media in Switzerland was banging on about the story.

On December 9, the St. Galler Tagblatt included not only a front-page article, but also a large report on p. 22 and two letters-to-the-editor on p. 33. They had interviewed Stefan Weber, and the rector of the HSG had published an article on its home page in the form of an interview. The rector noted that they had looked at the habiliation and even used Turnitin, but of course since it was a cumulative habiliation there was much similarity found to the original papers. 

On December 10 the rector was interviewed by the St. Galler Tagblatt and admitted that he had himself not even looked at the habilitation, and tried to excuse not having contacted the students who got the ball rolling because he didn't know who the students were. But he now wanted to speak to Weber. A lawyer for the students later noted that their names of the students where of course known, something the rector later had to concede was correct, as letters existed showing that the names were, indeed known. The lawyer noted that the case would have to be investigated even if the names were not known.

Things get really wild on December 12: Another professor at the HSG who had advised the first professor during his habilitation and had himself done his first and second doctorate in Darmstadt, wrote a threatening letter to students of the HSG. The letter, appearing to speak for the university, threatened the students. They must stop talking to the press or they will face civil and criminal lawsuits. Of course, this letter made it to the newspaper and it now appears to be an all-reporters-on-deck case. The St. Galler Tagblatt dug up an IT consultancy company that lists both professors as members of the board. Both have published papers together, including ones that were part of the habilitation at the HSG, meaning that the one professor should not have been the advisor for the habilitation of the other, as he can be considered to be biased. The NZZ dug up another company that appears to have diverted funds from the HSG into the company's account.   

The university held a public meeting on December 12 with students, staff, and administrators. The students are angry, because when their work is found to have plagiarism in it, they are harshly punished. The rector makes it clear that the university will not try to keep people from speaking to the press. He promised to make progress on clearing up all the issues as fast as possible, but warns that it won't be before Christmas. 

I can barely keep up with all the news. The NZZ published a summary of the situation today, December 14, including references to all sorts of scandals the HSG has had in the past years: copy&paste in reports about theses, fudged expenses, professors having to step down from company boards because of scandals there, market manipulations, and an instructor convicted for economic crimes. We'll see how this spins out!

1 comment:

  1. Things are happening fast and furious: According to the St. Gallener Tageblatt, both professors have been suspended (with full pay) and had their email and digital access credentials revoked. They are also banned from entering the university grounds. The university has managed to verify that one of the 400 publications is indeed taken from a student's thesis, the student is not even named as co-author, but thanked in a footnote.


Please note that I moderate comments. Any comments that I consider unscientific will not be published.