Viewpoint: The spectre of plagiarism haunting Europe

By Debora Weber-Wulff
Professor of Media and Computing, University of Applied Sciences, Berlin

image captionBucharest university says it cannot withdraw the PM's PhD without education ministry approval

A spectre is haunting Europe, and this time it is the spectre of plagiarism and scientific misconduct. Some high-profile politicians have had to resign in the last 18 months - but the revelations are also shaking respected European universities.

Many European countries, especially Germany, have long considered it unnecessary to give plagiarism more than a cursory look. One trusts in the self-cleansing powers of science, end of story.

Last February, a reviewer of German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's doctoral dissertation discovered and documented some plagiarised passages.

When the papers pounced on this, zu Guttenberg denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations "absurd". If he had messed up the odd footnote, he said he would fix it for the second edition.

Within days, a group of people formed around a wiki they called GuttenPlag Wiki and proved him to be quite wrong. He had to resign just two weeks later.

That was not the end of it. Soon it was suspected that a major ex-politician's daughter was guilty of plagiarism in her dissertation, and a new wiki was set up, VroniPlag Wiki, to document this case. Quite soon plagiarism was discovered in yet another dissertation, and it has not stopped. Currently there are 27 documented cases on the site.

Elsewhere in Europe similar problems have emerged. A Romanian education minister lasted just a week in office before having to step down, accused of plagiarising academic papers.

Meanwhile, the leading scientific journal Nature has accused the Romanian prime minister of plagiarising part of his PhD. He denies wrongdoing and has been backed by a Research Ethics Council, but the accusations have now been upheld by two academic panels in Romania, including one at the University of Bucharest, which awarded the PhD in 2003.

The Hungarian president has already lost his doctorate and resigned on account of plagiarism, and the Russian Minister of Culture is facing accusations that 16 passages of his doctoral dissertation were copied from other sources. He denies the allegations.

This is no laughing matter. Doctorates are highly esteemed, particularly in countries such as Germany or Austria, where it is customary to address people by their titles - and a Herr or Frau Doktor is somehow a cut above the rest. Some politicians seem to want to cash in on the automatic respect and the assumption of competency that goes with the title, but without investing the time or effort that is necessary.

image captionThe ex-German defence minister, now working at a US think tank, has published a book on the scandal

Just looking at the CVs of some of the authors who have been exposed as plagiarists, one wonders how it would be possible for them to do research, hang out at libraries, wait forever for inter-library loans, and get everything written up, as a mere sideline to their already very demanding lives as active politicians.

Some have argued: "Who cares, they won't be teaching at university, so let them have their fun."

However, it seems that the plague of plagiarism has also reached the level of the professorships in Germany. Those who are supposed to be teaching students have also been caught using copy and paste. Last month it was revealed that more than a third of a new book for law students on how to write papers properly was plagiarised, including liberal smatterings from Wikipedia.

Fittingly, even the chapter on plagiarism was plagiarised. And just to show how contagious the disease is, the authors also cite zu Guttenberg's dissertation - albeit incorrectly.

The book was swiftly removed from the shelves and the authors vowed to find the culprits - one must wonder what the role of the people listed as authors is, if they did not actually write the book themselves. How can university teachers who produce texts which closely parallel other texts, but make no reference to them, teach their students about good scientific practice? (The dissertations of two of the authors, post-docs at the University of Munster, are the most recent additions to the VroniPlag Wiki.)

image captionVroniPlag wiki uses coloured bands to show distribution of plagiarised content

In the US and the UK, universities have honour boards and ethics councils and there is a wide discussion of ethical practices. There are procedures in place for dealing with plagiarism. In Germany, though, professors wanting to address plagiarism are pretty much left to their own devices. They don't have much in the way of tools or formal procedures.

There is so-called plagiarism detection software available that does find some plagiarism, especially word-for-word copies. These programmes do not find everything by a long shot, but German universities are currently rushing to purchase them.

The problem is deep-rooted and systemic. Professors in Germany tend to work alone, with their subordinate research groups. Most will not criticise other professors, and they do not discuss problems, full stop. There is no official vetting or oversight.

For decades in Germany there has been a creeping toleration of scientific misconduct, a looking away when lines were crossed. Anyone who spoke out was quickly silenced. Honest scholars have felt frustrated at seeing others getting away with cutting corners.

Some teachers at the University of Cottbus are furious that a PhD dissertation containing massive text parallels on 40% of its pages has been officially declared to suffer only from "technical weaknesses".

But people are speaking up, and plagiarism is being discussed in every university, even if many are unsure what to do.

Better education about plagiarism and good scientific practice is essential.

Dissertations need to be published online with open access to permit easy checking, and a random sample of theses defended in the past five years needs to be reviewed in order to identify weak points. However, there is currently no funding for such measures, so it's unclear whether German universities will really get serious about plagiarism, or keep muddling on.

Evidence suggests this is not an exclusively German plague, so similar measures may be required in other European countries too, possibly all, to ensure that higher degrees awarded in Europe's universities continue to attract the respect they deserve.

Debora Weber-Wulff is active in the VroniPlag Wiki, and blogs in English about scientific misconduct at Copy, Shake and Paste.