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] 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

More plagiarism in South Korea

The Korea Herald reported on November 24, 2015 that around 200 professors from 50 universities will be charged with plagiarism. It seems that they published books that they didn't write with just the cover pages changed to include their own names. As most have admitted to the deed (which would be hard to deny, as the original books are published and thus available for comparison), they will soon be charged and fined, which may result in some losing their jobs.

It seems the "academic" publishers were in on the scheme, and even the original authors kept quiet as they did not want to sour their relationships to publishers, as they need publications for their own continued employment. The Korea Observer notes that publishers have even used the tactic to reduce stocks of unsold books, as students will tend to purchase a book "written" by their professor.

The Melville House Publishing company blog lists a number of other academic misconduct issues currently plaguing South Korea.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mathiopoulos loses court case about rescinded doctorate

As Spiegel Online reports this afternoon, Margarita Mathiopoulos lost her second case against the University of Bonn in an attempt to regain her revoked doctoral degree. She received the degree in 1986, and soon after the newsweekly Spiegel published an article about plagiarism in the thesis. The university decided in 1991 that there was no proof that this misconduct was deliberate, and did not rescind the thesis. A thorough documentation of the case, including many supporting documents, can be found at the MMDoku Wiki.

In the aftermath of the Guttenberg plagiarism scandal in Germany in 2011, the VroniPlag Wiki academic community had a closer look at the thesis and found much more material that was plagiarized, both in sources that were known in 1991 and in additional sources that were identified. The University of Bonn was informed, and they opened a new investigation that ended with the thesis being revoked in April 2012.

Mathiopoulos, who is currently still an honorary professor at the Universities of Braunschweig and Potsdam, took the University of Bonn to court. In December 2012 the administrative court in Cologne decided that the university acted correctly. That court decided that no appeal was permitted. Mathiopoulos sued first against that, and won the right to an appeal. That appeal was argued today in Münster in the Higher Administrative Court, however, this court also decided that the university was within its rights to rescind the thesis. It did, however, permit an appeal to the Federal Administrative Court, and Mathiopoulos has announced that she will be appealing, according to Spiegel Online. Since to date the German courts have upheld almost all rescinded doctorates (when someone was successful, it was on the basis of procedural problems that can and usually are easily corrected), it will be interesting to see what the Federal Court has to say.

In another case at the Higher Administrative Court in Münster today that involved the University of Bonn, it was found that the university was within its rights to revoke the doctoral degree of the director of a company that was found to bribe professors into helping people obtain doctorates, even though the thesis itself has not been found problematic. This case, too, can be appealed.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This and That

Sorry about the long silence. It's not just been my day job and my research. Someone who was unhappy with one of my blog posts had some lawyers get active. I have had to remove a post (can't say which one or it will cost me even more). I am quite disturbed that scientific discussions are more and more overshadowed by legal threats. Enough on that for now, a reader sent me a fine list of interesting links to international articles about plagiarism a while back, so here's a few!
  • The Korean Times reports on "Public officials accused of plagiarism on papers". The most disturbing part of the article is the first two sentences:
    "Plagiarism is everywhere in Korea where novelists, scholars and politicians habitually copy other people's work, making people insensible to this unethical practice. Public officials are no exception." Habitually. Like it's normal. 
  • There's a big row in Korea at the moment about a retraction of a paper about black holes, the Korean Times reports. It seems that a very young PhD published a paper in 2015 together with his advisor [1] that turns out to be textually and mathematically extremely close to a 2002 conference paper by the advisor alone [2]. There is a blog entry at ScholarlyOA about the case and one at RetractionWatch. A retraction notice was published this past week.
    As an amusing aside, the 2002 paper is followed in the conference proceedings by the following figure that is probably some sort of black hole insider's joke:
     
  • The Moscow Times reports that a Russian Official Has Doctorate Revoked After Plagiarism Charges. The Russian academic group Dissernet had documented plagiarism in the law thesis of a politician, who requested that his dissertation be revoked. He has announced that he wants to re-submit the thesis, with the "borrowing" fixed. I've seen announcements like this in a number of instances, and it puzzles me. Is it believable that people who stoop to plagiarism keep exact records of which bits they stole from what source? I think not. The published documentations are not machine-generated exact tracings of all of the plagiarisms, but only of some of what has been found to date. There can be (much) more.
  • On the topic of re-submitted theses, Neue Züricher Zeitung and Tagesanzeiger have both reported on a VroniPlag Wiki documentation of plagiarism in a Swiss habilitation. The university in question responded, when sent the documentation, that this was a documentation of the first version of the habilitation (which appeared in print) and that has been superseded by a second version. So they consider the case closed. The second version is not (yet) published, so there is no chance to see whether all of the documented text parallels are now properly quoted.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just a notice

An interesting kind of retraction was recently brought to my attention. It seems that a professor of law had published an article in the bi-weekly Juristenzeitung on, of all things, copyright and academia. As the Passauer Neue Presse reports and the Legal Tribune online comments, this article about Open Access reproduced some passages from another legal scholar without attribution, and the university is investigating.

Sharp eyes found an intriguing entry on page 936 of the current issue of Juristenzeitung: For only $ 33 plus tax (unless your institution subscribes) you can download a copy of this short notice (translation mine, names left out to keep me from being sued):





Notice about the article "'Ein Knauf als Tür' ...." by U..... M.....:

This contribution contains verbatim material on pages 222-225 of the main text as well as in the footnotes on pages 223, 224, 226, 227, 231, and 232 that was taken from the article by A.... P. .... I regret deeply, that this presumption of copyright happened and accept the full responsibility for it. I would like make a formal apology to A... P...

U..... M......

(Editor's note: We were informed of the problem by the author and wish to join in the apology. The electronic version of the article is no longer online.)
Hmm, this is a de-publication at the publisher's site instead of publishing a retraction notice. The online table of contents jumps from page 221 to page 232, the article has vanished. Of course, the abstract is still on the Juris database and at Researchgate and probably a number of other places. Do lawyers not understand that an article, once published, is now publicly available, and thus should not just disappear, but a notice of what happened put in its place? It could even have been quoted, and of course still may be, as it is in the print issues.

Isn't there something also missing in the "notice"? An apology to the readers? Because they, much more so than the original writer of the text, are the ones who were misled. A documentation and discussion of the extent of the "verbatim material" can be found in the depths of the Internet.

Academic corruption

I attended the 7th Prague Forum - “Towards a Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education” sponsored by the Council of Europe on October 1-2, 2015.  I was invited to speak about “Plagiarism in Medical Dissertations in Germany” to the working group on plagiarism.

The Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Union) is a human rights organization that has 47 members and 3 affiliated members. In the 2013 session in Helsinki they called for a Pan-European platform to be established "to study the possibility of developing a framework instrument on the ethical principles of good conduct and professionalism for teachers. Such an instrument would as a consequence also higher the status of the teaching profession."

A guide to understanding European organizations. CC-BY Aris Katsaris, 2010
The initiative was launched at the Prague meeting. The meeting began, after the usual ceremonies that included the Minister of Education, Youth, and Sports of the Czech Republic, with a plenary session. Christian Manquet first presented the work of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). Then Ian Smith and Tom Hamilton from Scotland presented their work done to the present on ethics, transparency and integrity in education.

I was surprised by the use of the term "academic corruption" that seems to be the umbrella term for referring to a vast number of improper behaviors in the academic world. It encompasses not only plagiarism, ghostwriting, and falsifying data, but it also includes diploma mills, taking bribes or requests for sexual favors in an academic environment, and many other issues. By the end of the conference I was convinced that this is, indeed, the proper term, especially as plagiarism is often not just something one person does, but many factors from the environment enable the behavior and prevent detection and appropriate sanctions.

The second session was focused squarely on academic corruption and included Haldis Holst, from the Global Federation of Teacher's Unions, Education International; Boris Divjak from the anti-corruption resource center U4; Muriel Poisson from the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning; and the head of Transparency International in Russia, Elena Panfilova. The latter gave a powerful speech with much insight. For example, she noted that Europe is facing massive migration of people from parts of the world where people expect to have to bribe officials in order to get their children into a good school.  We have to explain to them that this is not how our society works [Or does it? There are reports in Berlin of security guards at the asylum application office taking bribes for good places in line...]. Panfilova noted wryly that there is much plagiarism in the theses of Russian officials, suggesting that one check the Russian Dissernet pages before shaking the hand of one and calling him or her "Dr."

Other issues touched on:
  • One needs to differentiate not just public from private education, but particularly for-profit from non-profit entities.
  • Financial transparency is vital for discovering ghost teachers on payrolls who get paid without teaching, ghost schools that do not exist, and ghost students or inflated student numbers given in existing schools in order to obtain additional funding.
  • The first step is to publicly acknowledge that there is corruption as well as violence against women in education.
On this last point I joked at dinner that this rather reminds me of the one of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, the governments must start admitting that they have a problem and are currently powerless to control what is going wrong, so they must come together and talk about how to make amends for the past and resolve to do better in the future. The more I think about it, though, the more appropriate it seems. In many countries, academic corruption is the pink elephant in the room that no one is speaking about

As a short-list of actions it was suggested that:
  • the new online platform ETINED - Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education organize information;
  • example teacher codes-of-ethics be developed;
  • educational courses be organized;
  • working complaint channels be established;
  • "critical friends" who are able to explain that you have a problem or can ask difficult questions without getting an angry and defensive response be cultivated; and
  • the corrupt politicians be brought to justice.
Okay, that's a mighty tall order.

In the afternoon working group on plagiarism Irene Glendinning presented the results of her investigations into plagiarism policies across the EU member states, IPPHEAE. As was perhaps to be expected, there is a very wide difference of opinion on what plagiarism is, what should be done about it, and what is actually being done about it. There is an individual report for each of the EU countries investigated, as well as a summary report. She also presented her adapted Academic Integrity Maturity Model that is a tool for comparing institutions or countries, showing how mature their procedures are for dealing with academic misconduct.

I spoke about medical dissertations in Germany and the plagiarism that VroniPlag Wiki has documented in over 80 cases, giving a few brazen examples. I spoke of the patterns of plagiarism discovered that can lead to uncovering academic corruption, for example chains of plagiarism found in theses by the same advisor. In one example, at the University of Münster in Germany, there is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a thesis that could possibly also be plagiarized, except that no one felt like continuing the documentation. Just the day before my talk, the university announced that it is suggesting to the disciplinary board that the professor in question have all of the perks he has been awarded discontinued and that he be reduced to minimum pay scale. That's about as far as a university can go in Germany, and to date this is only a suggestion, the final decision has not yet been reached.

Other patterns include intra-institutional plagiarism in which a thesis is spliced together from doctoral work done at other institutions, and extra-institutional plagiarism that relies on the Wikipedia (yes, really) or textbooks or fun stuff found on the web. For example, this is from a dissertation that still has Wikipedia links embedded in the PDF:
Dental dissertation Al, University of Münster, page 13
The first commentator summed it up rather nicely: Horrifying! It became clear that software and seminars for PhDs will not solve this problem. The theses documented are not just isolated singularities, but the result of underlying, systemic problems. Thus, radical solutions will be necessary. But first the medical community in Germany has to admit that they have a problem.

There was a great discussion round after the presentations, we could have continued for at least another hour or so. The rapporteur for the group summarized the generally agreed-on points: we need to start early; involve students; set general standards; encourage professional development, but not cast rules; change funding rules from counting things to general funding for all researchers; promote the understanding that we are dealing with a public research record and not personal data; learn to respect others; understand that plagiarism is only part of the problem; encourage nations to set guidelines for quality assurance, for example as part of accreditation procedures; and strive for a holistic approach to the problem.

The second day started off with a round table that first presented the results of the working groups. The working group on professional standards was concerned with how to change the mindsets of all stakeholders in the process. Promoting professionalism instead of focusing on misconduct would be ideal, but when one is dealing with a country that has slipped badly down the slope of tolerating academic misconduct, some nasty sanctions may need to be levied.

The working group on recognition of qualifications looked both at the automatic co-recognition of degrees in the Benelux countries and the problems Sweden has been having with identifying diploma mills. There are issues both with faked diplomas, which are real ones with forged names on them, and fake diplomas, which are issued by a non-accredited body. They find it frustrating that students spend more time evaluating items they want to purchase than the schools they will attend.

The internet platform was then officially launched, ETINED

The conference closed with a talk given by Bertrand de Speville. He is the former solicitor general of Hong Kong, who cleaned up the corruption in the Hong Kong police force. He had some wise words for those dealing with corruption:
  • Fight tough, but fight fair and for as long as it takes
  • Prepare for pain
  • Have the will to win
  • Cast values into law
  • Have a fight plan that includes educating people, enlisting support, enforcement of the rules and prevention means
  • Put the plan in action by involving a community
  • Collect the resources you need
  • Stick with it
Fighting corruption means first encouraging people to trust you and to come forward with stories of corruption. Ultimately, you want to change the community's attitude to the corruption charges. There are no quick fixes, however. He closed by noting that just because you are in a corrupt system, it is never a justification to be corrupt yourself.

It was quite educational listening to the discussions between these highly educated and professional people who are dead serious about getting a handle on academic corruption. I do hope that they are able to get things moving in at least some of the member states.

Update 2015-10-10: The first version of this article included an illustration with a non-medical dissertation. It has now been replaced by one from a dissertation about retinas awarded to a candidate in dentistry.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

VroniPlag Wiki case #152: Another German Politician

On Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, case #152 on the Vroni Plag Wiki site was posted, a doctorate in medicine from 1990. Normally, journalists yawn if they even hear of something like this, as German medical doctorates are more or less a joke. Even the Wissenschaftsrat tried to explain this in 2004 to the medical schools:
Schon seit langem wird - auch von Medizinern - die medizinische Promotion hinsichtlich akademischer und wissenschaftlicher Wertigkeit stark angezweifelt. Aufgrund der in der Bevölkerung weit verbreiteten Gleichsetzung der Begriffe Arzt und Doktor hat sich eine Art akademisches Gewohnheitsrecht entwickelt, demzufolge die Verleihung des Doktorgrades weitgehend unabhängig von der Qualität der Promotionsleistungen erfolgt. Die berufliche und gesellschaftliche Anerkennung als Arzt ist in Deutschland mit dem Doktortitel verbunden. Daraus erklärt sich auch die im Vergleich zu anderen Fächern hohe Promotionsrate (etwa 80 %). Nicht selten wird der Lerneffekt bei Doktorarbeiten angezweifelt. Insbesondere dienen sie durch ihre schlechte Betreuung häufig nicht der wissenschaftlichen Grundausbildung.103 Der wissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinn dieser „pro-forma“-Forschung ist daher fragwürdig. 

103
Dieter Schmid: Die Doktorarbeit im Visier – Titel zwischen Traum und Trauma, in: Via Medici 4, 2003, S. 16-20.
[Wissenschaftsrat, Empfehlungen zu forschungs- und lehrförderlichen Strukturen in der Universitätsmedizin, 2004, S. 75]
(Translation by DWW: The academic and scientific credibility of medical doctorates has been called into question for quite some time, even by medical practitioners themselves. Because the general public widely equates the terms physician and doctor, a sort of academic custom has developed by means of which the the doctoral degree is conferred independent of the quality of the research achievements. The occupational and social appreciation of physicians in Germany is linked to the doctoral degree. This explains the high rate of degrees conferred (80 %) when compared to other fields. It is not seldom that the learning effect of the doctoral theses are doubted.  In particular, because of poor mentoring they often do not even serve to teach scientific basics. The scientific contribution of this "pro-forma" research is thus questionable. )
The medical schools have made the occasional attempt to demonstrate that they are doing something, but by and large it has been business as usual.

VroniPlag Wiki case #152 is, however, a special medical thesis. It was submitted by the current Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen. One of her predecessors in office, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, ended up having to step down four years ago after his doctoral dissertation in law was found to be extensively plagiarized.

The press has thus jumped on the case, and is now remembering the academic grumblings about the low quality of medical doctorates. The bloggers are having a field day (Archivalia I - II, Causa Schavan, Erbloggtes I - II - III, all in German, all long). Even Spiegel has both the plagiarism documentation and a discussion of the quality of medical doctorate quality as the lead article in issue 41/2015*. The Medical University of Hannover has already announced that they have opened an official investigation into the case.

I was at the 7th Prague Forum of the Council of Europe “Towards a Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education” this past week, speaking on plagiarism in medical dissertations in Germany. I added a slide on case #152, as so many people were asking me about it. More on the Prague Forum in a coming post, as they have set up ETINED as a site for helping combat academic corruption.


* although they demonstrate in the article that they don't understand Creative Commons licenses. CC-BY-SA means that you name the source and put the result, if you reuse or modify it, also under such a license. They changed the color of a bar and reformatted it to fit, and then slapped a "Der Spiegel" copyright on the picture.