Monday, April 20, 2015

Current publications

Two links for those who read German:
  • I wrote an article for Forschung & Lehre together with my colleague Gerhard Dannemann about the universities in Germany rather dragging their feet when being informed of plagiarism cases in doctorates : Viel Licht und noch mehr Schatten.
  • The philosopher Theodor Ebert wrote a review of my book "False Feathers" for the FAZ: Fälschen ohne Folgen. In the print version the article was entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht, macht sich schuldig

Saturday, April 4, 2015

More on Brazilian science

I have been sent some interesting links recently about problems in Brazilian academia. 
  • Mauricio Tuffani, a journalist with Folha de S. Paulo, a Brazilian daily newspaper, has been publishing on some troubling situations in Brazilian academia. I just  blogged about an article he wrote about the government recommending mock conferences. He has written about academics inflating their CVs with conference papers given at a Chinese conference now appearing as peer-reviewed journal articles (one even already published in December 2015 [that is, 8 months in the future]) and the triennial report ranking graduate study institutions includes thousands of articles published by Brazilian academics in 201 predatory journals from 11 publishers. He lists the journals here. After he revealed that the Pakistani publisher of a predatory journal that also practices future publishing was not, in fact, a professor, the name disappeared from the web page. He reports on the deafening silence that can be heard from Brazilian academia here.
  • Retraction watch reports on retractions of a number of chemistry papers from a Brazilian journal.
  • The editor of the journal of the  Instituto Israelita de Ensino e Pesquisa Albert Einstein [Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2014 Oct-Dec;12(4):vii-viii. doi: 10.1590/S1679-45082014ED3296.] writes in an editorial entitled Scientific Misconduct - Our first (known) case:
    A recent paper by Lins and Carvalho (2) analyzed scientific misconduct in Brazil. They found a clear increase in both published articles in the medical literature and cases of scientific misconduct, including irreproducible results, “scientific salami slicing” (one article fragmented into 10 or more papers) and duplicate publications. In Lins and Carvalho’s opinion, the increased number of Brazilian scientific productions in medical literature was not accompanied by an increase in quality of articles – just the opposite. The authors discuss the focus of Brazilian institutional review boards in patient safety, within institutions themselves and the Brazilian National Review Board. Neither group performs a systematic surveillance for research integrity, and no specific offices exist to investigate and deal with scientific misconduct.
    (2) Lins L, Carvalho FM. Scientific integrity in Brazil. J Bioeth Inq. 2014;11(3):283-7.

Brazilian Government recommends mock conference

I have been made aware of the following article by Mauricio Tuffani in online version of the Brazilian daily newpaper Folha de S. Paulo: "Eventos científicos "caça-níqueis" preocupam cientistas brasileiros" (Scientific event cares about Brazilian scientists). The article is discussing (as far as I can puzzle out with Google Translate) the WASET multiconference to be held in Rio de Janiero in February 2016. Not one, not ten, but 116 simultaneous scientific meetings are planned to be held in a hotel there. Registration is already open, with rates of up to 450 € for speakers (250 € for listeners only), with a special deal of only 100 € more for an additional paper. 

The conference is organized by a publisher, WASET, that is on Jeffrey Beale's list of predatory publishers. A number of universities world-wide warn their academics from submitting to these conferences. Not the Brazilian government, though, according to Folha de S. Paulo: CAPES, the Higher Education Personnel Training Coordination body of the Brazilian Ministry of Education includes these conferences on their online platform Qualis. This is a list of periodicals and conferences that researchers are recommended for choosing to publish their research, as promotion and tenure depends, as it does so many places, on the number of published articles and conference presentations, not the quality. 

The conference advertises about how well-indexed their conferences are. For example, they say that they are indexed with the "International Science Index".  Since one of the largest citation databases in the world, the Web of Science, is known as the ISI index (Institute of Information Science), careless academics could easily jump to the conclusion that this conference is indexed at ISI.

Folha de S. Paulo was unable to get researchers to speak about this on the record, except for an ecologist from Sorocaba. His name is listed as being a member of the scientific committee of one of the 116 events, the "14th International Conference of Geophysics and Environmental Engineering". He was very surprised to hear that he was named here, he did not know the conference and stated that he will take steps to have his name removed from the conference web site.

Folha de S. Paulo asked WASET for comment, but there was no response. The journal notes that the company is listed as being in Riverside, California, USA, but the phone contact is in the United Arab Emirates and they say that the ISSN records for the publication list them as being from Turkey. I was not able to find an ISSN number given on the web pages of this multiconference, so I wasn't able to verify that it is indeed listed in Turkey and in the Qualis database.


Looking closer at the web site of WASET [I won't link here for obvious reasons] it is quite easy to see how this operation works. There are multiconferences being held ever week in a choice of international locations: Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Auckland, Taipei, Bali, Dubai, Singapore, London. Conferences are planned up to and including 2027. Inspecting the link for Rio in February there are, indeed, conferences in 23 categories with varying numbers of individual conferences that all sound similar: International Conference on ..... (fill in the blank). All will take place at the same hotel, which only, according to their web page, has 35 meeting rooms.

The text on the conference pages is boilerplate, identical except for a few subject areas changed to fit the title of the conference. There is one month given as the time for the peer review by three reviewers. Some of the conference committees are identical for different conferences, sometimes they are different. Not all of the institutions the persons are affiliated with are decodable. The conference photos for the conferences are all the same. If you put this URL into Google's image search, you find it listed as a photo for conferences in Paris, Quebec, London, New York, and San Francisco. One attendee uses it in a university newspaper and identifies herself in the picture, noting that the conference was held in Osaka.

It is high time that universities and research institutions stop using quantitative measures for academic decisions. Predatory publishers and mock conference organizers have perverted the ideas of academic exchange and communication that existed previously and flooded the market with lookalikes. The German research council, DFG, took a step in the right direction in 2010 when they began to base funding decisions not on quantity, but on quality of the research. A researcher can only submit his or her best five publications in applying for grant money, and can only list two publications per year in grant reporting. They also refuse to accept any publication listed as "in press", as some researchers were being quite creative and referring to "in press publications" that hadn't yet been submitted.

Now how do we get the word out to the rest of the world and dry up the funding that is feeding this mock science machine?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

News about VroniPlag Wiki cases

A few notes on current and past VroniPlag Wiki cases:
  • Margarita Mathiopoulos (VPW case Mm, extensive documentation to be found at MMDoku) submitted her dissertation in political science in 1986 to the University of Bonn. In 1989 an intensive public discussion (started by Spiegel) arose about plagiarism in the thesis, but the university decided after an investigation not to rescind the doctorate. In 2011, VroniPlag Wiki looked into the dissertation again and found much more plagiarism. The university re-opened the investigation and rescinded the doctorate in 2012. Mathiopoulos took the university to court and lost. No appeals were permitted, but she appealed against there not being a chance of an appeal. According to Spiegel Online, she has won that case, so now an appeal is permitted to determine if the VroniPlag Wiki documentation contains new material. If that is the case, the university can indeed withdraw the doctorate after the second examination. If the documentation is considered to be more of the same that was evaluated the first time, then the university will be bound by its decision at that time. Since the appeals are still running, Mathiopoulos can continue to use her doctoral degree and remains appointed as an honorary professor at the University of Potsdam and the Technical University of Braunschweig.
  • Sophie Koch (VPW case Ssk) submitted a dissertation in pedagogy to the University of Düsseldorf in 2011. This is the same department to which former German education minister Annette Schavan had submitted her dissertation in 1980. Suspicions of plagiarism were raised in the VroniPlag Wiki forum in 2012, and the documentation began. And stagnated. There were plenty of other cases around. Eventually, though, it was decided to make the case known, and the university was informed. Surprisingly, the university library notes that the doctoral degree was already rescinded in February. This means that someone else had already informed the university and they they had been investigating it for some time.
    So who is Sophie Koch? If you read German, the blog Erbloggtes has an amusing account. The so-called "popular press" has been having a field day, as Sophie Koch is a popular and well-known TV personality with her own show on a German commercial television channel giving advice to single mothers and teenagers. The number of mistakes in the reporting, even by the so-called serious press, is highly amusing. 
  • It is sad, however, to see that the press only seems to report on celebrities or particularly problematic cases (100 % of the pages plagiarized). Cases in which a dissertation in law that was rejected from a German university for plagiarism was then submitted with a few modifications to the Austrian University of Innsbruck and accepted there (VPW case Rm) or a 61-page dissertation in medicine at the University of Bonn that includes 11 pages verbatim and without reference from the Wikipedia and even more from various textbooks and papers (VPW case Go) get little press coverage, if at all. There are currently 143 cases documented on the site, 75 alone in medicine and dental medicine. There is plagiarism from papers by the doctoral advisor, there are habilitations that share much text with dissertations prepared under the tutelage of the same post-doc and it is impossible to tell who copied from whom or if they wrote it together and "forgot" to mention it. Some lift bits and pieces from other theses at the same university, some prepare a collage of papers from other universities, some use the Wikipedia without reference rather copiously. We have seen someone recycle his own doctorate in medicine for part of his second doctorate, this time in theology (VPW case Jpm). What we can determine is that the system is failing to detect and sanction plagiarism at all levels. The big question is: how do we do something about it?

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Professorial Ghostwriter

I had an interesting phone call this morning. The caller had experienced something the other day that was quite bothering him. Did I know what he could do?

He was on a train, and recognized the two gentlemen sitting across from him. One was a professor who is rather well-known in his field and sits on the board of an important company. He began to speak with his friend as if the two of them were alone in front of the fireplace in the privacy of his home.

It seems the professor moonlights as a ghostwriter for a Switzerland-based company, writing theses and dissertations not for the money involved, but for the thrill of it. He assured his friend that he faithfully reports his income, the pittance that they pay their writers, to the tax office. He even wrote a doctoral dissertation for a colleague who had done all of his experimental work, but was too busy to sit down and write the thesis.

"And I always make sure to include a reference to one of my own papers in every paper I write," he beamed, apparently rather pleased with himself. His friend was only concerned with the legality of what he was doing, not the moral issue: Is it okay for a professor (who is supposed to be teaching students good scientific practices) to be a ghostwriter as well?

Indeed, it is legal to be a ghostwriter. The person who is cheating is the one who submits ghostwritten work as their own. And there really is no recourse here, as I told my caller. One can't call the dean of the professor's school, there is no evidence at hand. I am not aware of any universities in Germany that expressly forbid their professors to participate in ghostwriting. But it is indeed ethically highly problematic to be on both sides of the fence, as it were. Pretty much the only thing we can do is to discuss openly and widely what scientific misconduct is and how and why we avoid it.

Any ideas, readers? What would you have done, if you had overheard this conversation?

If you read German, here's an article about one of these services that boasts writers with doctorates and even professors.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Phantom Degree

The French Minister of Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, turns out only to have an English degree and not one in English and Business, as Mediapart (paywall), Le Monde, and  Le Figaro report.

According to Fioraso, somehow "Who's Who in France" mixed up her degrees, and made a double degree in English and in Business out of an English degree with an "option" on Business (screenshot of the entry). She is taking steps to correct this information, she says. Who's Who in France advertises that they verify the degrees from the grand écoles, which does make sense as the Wikipedia entries are free to read, so it would be quite interesting to see how this information came to be in their databases. One must pay 6 € in order to view the entry, however, so I'll stick with the screenshot above.

The government was quick to assure the general public that the minister was chosen for all the great things she has done and not on the basis of a specific degree. Yes, we've heard that before in Germany, in connection with plagiarism cases.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Austrian term papers clog plagiarism detection system

The Austrian online newspaper derStandard.at reports on a bit of problem with their new high school term paper submission system for the school leaving certificates matura. Pupils in Austria are now expected to submit a 40,000 to 60,000 character long term paper (vorwissenschaftliche Arbeit) by the middle of their last year of school. The paper will be graded by teachers and the students must give a presentation on their work.

Of course, since Austria is well aware that there is a plagiarism problem, at least as far as pupils and students are concerned [not so much for doctoral dissertations, but that is another blog post], the term papers must be checked for plagiarism by a so-called plagiarism detection system.

The due date 2015 is Friday, February 13. Surprise, many students have waited until the last minute, and the system is throwing errors that appear to point to the system being swamped. Apparently, they did not also reckon with such large files as are being uploaded. The server operator noted that they were expecting the files to be around 1 MB, instead they were getting 60 MB large files.

Not to fear - there is a Plan B in action: the pupils can submit a printed version at their schools in order to keep the deadline. Or, as one teacher noted in a comment, submit at 5 a.m. The server runs well at that time of the night.

2013 there were almost 44,000 pupils granted their diplomas in Austria. Teachers will now, in addition to grading these papers, have to wade through the results of the plagiarism-detection software, although they also generate false positives as well as false negatives, thus not determining plagiarism but giving some ideas as to where perhaps there could be some plagiarism. Even assuming that a teacher only spends an average of 10 minutes per paper interpreting the results (and this is generous, as the reports are not easy to read and the numbers reported can be quite misleading), this means a minimum of 7-8000 extra hours of work nationwide, but probably tenfold that.

If the pupils are anything like the ones I see in the first semester, they love to take pictures they found on the Internet to spice up their texts - they are much more visually oriented than the older generations. The software will certainly not be able to identify pictures that are not used according to license, so the teachers will also need to use Google's image search or a system such as TinEye to look for the potential sources, increasing the amount of time needed for grading.

Maybe the idea of a term paper submitted centrally needs to be rethought? Of course, they have to learn how to do research and to write about a topic. But we need to be thinking about how to develop methods of assessment that are plagiarism-proof, instead of adding more broken software to a broken system.