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. 

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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Where there is smoke, there is fire

The researchers at VroniPlag Wiki have grown tired of documenting plagiarism in medical dissertations, especially as some universities don't see a problem with theses such as ones that have nine pages (out of 61) completely copied from the Wikipedia without reference. They call it a cultural difference, they say that the focus is on the data. I have a different opinion on that. If an author was that careless and naive in one place (and it turned out that over half of the pages in that thesis have text overlap), how can we be sure that the data was carefully measured and recorded?

The most recent VroniPlag Wiki case is another example of "where there is smoke, there is fire," showing that just finding one instance of extensive plagiarism may indicate that there is more.

The LMU Munich has an open access thesis repository, so some German-language theses in different fields from that repository were compared with the German-language Wikipedia. The thesis at the top of the list was interesting, as it had a long sequence of characters identical to just one article in the Wikipedia, although it was not a large percent of the entire thesis. Googling phrases from the thesis quickly turned up many more sources (currently 24, three of them other Wikipedia pages) for text that was often used entirely verbatim and without reference. The documentation was published last week on VroniPlag Wiki and the university informed. 

Dissertation #151 (Xg) was submitted to the Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy at the LMU Munich in 2009 and is about the intercultural understanding of art. If you look closely at the bar code generated from the manual documentation you can see three large patches of bright red that indicate that more than 75% of the page has been taken from a source without proper attribution.
The Xg Barcode (Report in German)
  1. The first largish red band, pages 6471, was taken verbatim from the German-language Wikipedia article on art.
  2. The next large red band, pages 7593, was taken verbatim from a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 2006 about a Chinese painter.
  3. The largest rest band, pages 113157, was taken from a Diplom-Thesis (approx. a Master's thesis) that was submitted in 1999 to the University of Tübingen and published in 2004 on a pedagogical concept for intercultural education using art. 
VroniPlag Wiki has documented many such doctorates in the past, so this alone would hardly be newsworthy, were it not for a strange paragraph in the Promotionsordnung, the rules governing doctorates at this faculty at the LMU Munich, that have been in place since 2005:
§ 16 (Nichtvollzug der Promotion und Entzug des Doktorgrades)
"(1) Hat der Kandidat bei einer Promotionsleistung getäuscht und wird dies erst nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 bekannt, so kann nachträglich die Doktorprüfung für nicht bestanden erklärt werden.
(3) [...] Eine Entscheidung nach Abs. 1 und 2 ist nur innerhalb einer Frist von fünf Jahren nach Erteilung des Bescheids gemäß § 12 Abs. 3 möglich."
Translation: A doctorate can only be rescinded within five years of it being awarded.

That means that the LMU Munich has a statute of limitations on one type of academic misconduct. If it turns out that someone cheated, but it's been more than 5 years, they get lucky. They can keep their doctorate.

Xg's doctorate was awarded 6 years ago, so she can breathe easy. Of course, she might still be open to civil suits brought by the authors from which she copied on the basis of copyright law.

A law professor at the LMU Munich, Volker Rieble, published a treatise in German last year about acquiring a doctorate by sitting tight (Plagiatverjährung. Zur Ersitzung des Doktorgrades). He asks what is more important: Peace and quiet on the dissertation front with less time-consuming investigations of previously examined work, or the defense of academic standards? He pleads for the latter. The blog Erbloggtes had a long discussion about Rieble's article at the time, otherwise there has not (yet) been much reaction to his article. Things move slowly at German universities. But I think that it is time for some serious action about plagiarism at all levels: students, graduate students, researchers. Defining it away will not make it go away.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Norwegian journalist caught plagiarizing

The Norwegian daily newspaper Dagens Næringsliv has admitted to having published a story that was plagiarized from The New Yorker and included fabricated quotations (documentation of some excerpts here [norw./engl.]). They have removed the article in question from the Internet. Reports on the case have been published by DagbladetNRK, Journalisten, and other media. The story broke when a Norwegian journalist, Øistein Refseth, twittered about the similarities in the two stories.

The journalist who submitted the piece about people's anger when flying, Daniel G. Butenschøn, is a well-known writer in Norway and was the assistant director of SKUP  (Stiftelsen for en Kritisk og Undersøkende Presse, Foundation for Critical and Investigative Journalism). Butenschøn has now resigned from his position at SKUP and has quit his job at Dagens Næringsliv.

This is not the first time that he was found to have plagiarized, people have been combing through his past publications. It seems he was already on his second chance, having plagiarized a piece on Hong Kong as a free-lancer writing for Morgenbladet, for which he was reprimanded. 

The journalism site Journalisten has a number of articles that link the various press reports and a long list of previous plagiarism scandals in journalism in Norway.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

End of Semester Roundup

Here are some links about plagiarism and academic misconduct from around the world that have been languishing in my inbox:
  • A professor for African-American History at the Arizona State University in the US has been demoted from full professor to associate professor, according to the Phoenix New Times, after a second plagiarism scandal about his writing erupted. A  blog contains many more details about the plagiarism allegations. Retractionwatch also has an article about this case. The professor used, among others, sources many students find useful: Wikipedia.
  • Writing in a blog at the Daily Pakistan Asif A. Malik points out a wonderful piece by physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy from the Express Tribune from January 4, 2013. Hoodbhoy starts off with a thought experiment: "Imagine the following experiment aimed at improving Karachi’s police force: suppose that policemen are offered cash prizes for every criminal they kill in a police muqabala, given public recognition and told that promotions to higher posts hinge on their kill count." He spins the story out that, of course, the police would start shooting at anyone, just to increase their pay. That is, in essence, what is happening in academia, except that instead of a "kill count" there are the magic indicators "number of publications" and "citation index". Since 2002-2003 both the pay and promotion for professors in Pakistan depend on the number of papers published and the number of PhD and MSc students graduated. Surprise! These all increased!
    In 2012 Hoodbhoy wrote about the problem of telling the good from the bad, in the Express Tribune column in 2013 he noted that the apparent increase in quality proudly proclaimed by the Higher Education Council (HEC) "was only possible because many university teachers engaged in wholesale plagiarism, faked data and produced research that no one seems to have any use for. As academic ethics went into free fall, university administrators and the HEC turned a blind eye. The new policy — which required learning how to play the numbers game — had the effect of turning many professors into crooks and thieves."
  • The Times of India writes that a professor from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in Chandigarh has been found to have plagiarized from two US American sources. Rakesh Sehgal retracted a paper from the journal Tropical Parasitology, published by Wolters Kluwer Medknow. The retraction notice states only that the paper has been retracted, not why. In a previous article, the Times of India noted that according to Indian law, a jail sentence between 6 months and 3 years can be levied, and public servants can lose their jobs if found to have plagiarized. 
  • Richard de Boer published an atricle in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on July 4, 2015 called "Welkom in de wereld van nepwetenschap" (welcome to the world of junk science), but the article is unfortunately behind a paywall and in Dutch. I was able to obtain it and use Google translate. The article deals with mock conferences like WASET and junk journals like those published with the OMICS group, which was removed from the PubMed list in 2013. There are a number of interviews with people attending the conferences, positive and negative, and also with a former colleague of the WASET organizer. The article discusses both Jeffery Beall's publisher black list and the Directory of Open Access Journals white list, noting problems with each. What a shame such an in-depth article is unavailable to a wider audience.
  • Hatoon Kadi writes in her blog at Arab News the Memoirs of a Saudi Ph.D. student: The menace of plagiarism. She mis-believes, as many do, that "[t]here are certain programs that take a few seconds in determining the originality of any research material." No, software can only detect potential text overlap, it cannot determine plagiarism or originality, because all systems suffer from false positives (quotation not seen) and false negatives (source not stored in the database). She discusses the question of hiring a ghostwriter with friends and found to her dismay that many had no qualms about using work from others. She calls for strict laws to punish plagiarists. I don't think punishment works -- we need to educate people as to why referencing and quotation is important.
Now, back to grading exams.