Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Universities

Germany has been having to deal with plagiarism problems in doctoral dissertations on a large scale the past two years. In particular, with all the discussion about plagiarism, the universities are being informed about many more cases than usual. And if my own email and snail mail is any judge, they tend to be of the sort: X is a nasty idiot, I bet s/he plagiarized.

There are two ways to react to this:
  • University of Düsseldorf, Faculty of Arts and Letters:
    This is the school that just recently had to deal with plagiarism in the dissertation of former German Education Minister. One can assume that they have understood the problem, as they published a report on 15 August 2013 on the current situation with two cases of a dissertation revoked. One has taken the university to court, one accepted the result. They don't expect the amount of cases to go down, mostly because of the media attention. But, as the author, Prof. Rohrbacher, states: Wissenschaft in der Verantwortung, it is the responsibility of science to deal with these cases. Objective, unemotional, to the point. As it should be.
  • Technical University of Dresden
    As reported in the blog plagiatsgutachten, an anonymous blog has documented problems in a dissertation from this university. There are many fragments documented, but as far as I can see, it mostly documents missing citations and problematic references. One or two might have been negligible, but with 120 documented fragments, one would expect the university to at least take a look when informed of the situation.


    plagiatsgutachten quotes the answer that the blogger received from the Ombud for good scientific practice at the  TU Dresden:

    “Solange Sie Ihr Visier nicht heben und es vorziehen, als anonymer Heckenschütze zu fungieren, sind Sie niemand, der in der wissenschaftlichen Welt akzeptiert wird und der sich moralisch über die Beschuldigte stellen kann. Ich brauche Ihren Namen, Ihre Adresse, Ihren Beruf, Ihre Dienststelle und eine Erklärung der Beweggründe, die Sie dazu führten, die Dissertation von Frau D[...] zu untersuchen.
    Vorher werde ich nichts unternehmen.

    Prof. Dr. Achim Mehlhorn
    Ombudsmann der TU Dresden”

    Let's see if I can preserve the tone of this letter while translating it:
    "As long as you keep your visor down and prefer to act as an anonymous sniper, you are no one who is acceptable in the world of science and who is morally able to stand above the person accused. I need your name, your address, your workplace and an explanation of the reasons that led you to investigate the dissertation of Ms. D[...]. Until I have that information, I will not undertake anything."

    It does look like Prof. Mehlhorn got a bit carried away with all the data the NSA is collecting about us. I don't see that it makes a difference if a sanitation engineer documented the problems in a dissertation, or a retired professor of Latin. But one does get the impression that they are a bit touchy in Dresden. They have been working (one hopes) on the VroniPlag Wiki case of Rh, an example of plagiarism in mathematics known for over a year now. I do have the word from the rector of the university, however, that a decision is expected for September. Rh appears to be currently working as a professor in South America, that makes it all the more important that this case be resolved.
A substantiated accusation - one that contains some documentation - should be investigated, in my opinion, regardless of whether the person doing the documentation is known or not. The volume of the other sort of accusation should serve as an alarm signal that something is very, very wrong in the way people use doctorates in Germany.

[thanks to plagiatsgutachten for alerting me to this]

Monday, August 19, 2013

Now with ISSN number!

Just a short note this evening: As can be seen in the little box on the right, the blog "Copy, Shake, and Paste" has been assigned an ISSN number, 2197-4608! I applied for one a long way back and was refused, as they don't give out ISSN numbers to digital-only publications. However, the German National Library has now decided that science blogs do actually qualify for a number, and asked me if I still wanted one.


So now it's up there, and I will start offering guest blogging privileges.  Your article needs to report on a case of plagiarism or scientific misconduct somewhere, should be referenced with links to other new reports on the case, and needs to be serious, i.e. no personal attacks like the garbage that pours into my mailbox on a daily basis. Oh, and the article needs to be in English, that's the point of this blog, bringing cases of scientific misconduct out to a wider community.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Berkley vs. Berkeley - Tales of a Diploma Mill

Everyone knows that Berkley is an excellent university in the United States. Or was that Berkeley? Whatever, if someone is sporting a degree that looks impressive, it must be from that place.

Except when it is not.

It has come to light, as the Swiss daily paper Tages-Anzeiger noted on 9 August 2013, that the IT-boss at the University Hospital in Zürich has stepped down because of a missing 'e'. The University of California, Berkeley, is indeed one of the top universities in the US. But it did not grant a doctoral degree to Jürgen Müller. Müller had been working on his doctorate at the University of Passau in Germany when his financing ran out.

Müller then heard about the University of Berkley, and for only $ 3000 in fees he was soon the proud owner of a sheepskin declaring him to be a "Doctor of Science", according to the Tages-Anzeiger.

I am not linking to the site of this degree mill, but it is simple to find with Google. The web page is an eyesore that should light up a million warning lights that this is not a serious institution. Some sins?
  • I can't decide if the amateur picture of the smiling, international graduates or the red, blinking button "Honorary degrees" is worst. 
  • Soon after the page loads it is clear that the self-starting video of the avatar "Kacy" who wants to sell me a degree is by far the most evil element of the page. Good luck finding the stop button quickly.
  • A picture of Albert Einstein on a bicycle next to a quotation is balanced on the other side of the page by a "quotation" stating that one can earn 2 million more dollars in a lifetime with a college degree. 
  • The price list is on the first page. Only $ 3505, what a deal!
  • There is a button for information about ordering a class ring (!) that leads to a page with generic class rings pictured and a non-working link to a company that will gladly sell you any ring you want.
  • The motto appears to be "Earn a World Class, formal University Degree from one of the most recognized and approved institutions in existence... all in possibly as few as 6-8 weeks based upon what you already know!"
  • There is no street address or even state given, just a telephone number and a web-based contact form. 
  • The domain is registered to one Dr. Dennis J. Globosky in Chicago, Illinois. The Los Angeles Times noted in 2005 that he is a former New Mexico state trouper who only has a high-school degree. The address listed is across the street from the DePaul University Loop Campus, there is no university listed at this address - and from the outside, nothing is visible.  
  • Down on the bottom of every page is a yellow band stating "The owners/operators of this site may not conduct business with residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, USA". The owner is a resident of Erie, PA, and he had settled out of court in a case brought by the state Attorney General's office, but did not keep up on paying his fines, so the Attorney General has assessed him penalties for contempt of court. But it looks like he is still in business. 
Why would anyone in their right mind think that this is a serious institution of higher learning? 

The Tages-Anzeiger article ends with an interesting note. It seems that in March of 2013 a whistleblower tried to contact Müller's boss about his purchased degree. Müller, as IT boss, apparently had this person on a blacklist, so that emails from him did not bounce, but were just silently destroyed.

I suppose the University Hospital in Zürich is glad that he has resigned. The question is, where will he pop up again where people don't know the difference one letter can make?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Off to a great start

I sit on the committee that evaluates the applications for our Master's program and awards points that determine who will be offered a position. We met today to slog through 57 applications for 20 places. We offer applicants the opportunity to write us a letter, telling us what motivates them to study with us. They don't have to, but there are 6 points or about 15 % of the possible points riding on this, so you can make up weak grades with a great letter.

We had 18 students choose to write letters. As a colleague began reading letter six, he realized that he was reading the same sentences he had just read in letter five! We had not given that one full points as it was rather puffed up and was not well personalized, but here was the same stuff about striving for a position in top management (a strange thing, as our program is not for management but for media computing) and ended with a flowery sentiment about knowing that our Fakultät (strange, we have Fachbereiche) only had a set number of places and how they were sure that they could contribute to the program.

We dug out letter five, each grabbed a laptop and started googling. He won - in about 4.5 seconds he turned up a web page on how to write a motivational letter. And there were all the bits and pieces, slightly reworded here and there.

We were pissed.

Here we are sitting in a hot, hot room spending an entire day doing all this work, and they can't be bothered to write a page themselves about why they want to study with us. We contacted the admissions department, we were only allowed to give them 0 points for this part of the application process. I would just as soon reject them with a letter stating why and publish their names somewhere, there is no excuse for behavior like this, especially when the site itself says:
Nicht kopieren!

Lasst euch von den Beispielen in diesem Text inspirieren, aber kopiert sie nicht. Wir haben Rückmeldungen von Hochschulen bekommen, dass bis zu 20% der Bewerber Formulierungen aus diesem Text nutzen. Das lässt euch nicht gut aussehen. Textet also selbst - es ist in eurem eigenen Interesse.

Don't copy!

You can get inspired by this text, but don't copy it. We have heard from schools that up to 20 % of the applicants use sentences from this text. You don't look good that way. Write yourself - it is in your own interest.
Right. This shows that they are not even capable of following directions. Do I want them in our program? No way.

We continued. Guess what motivation letter #12 was like? Yup. A THIRD copy of this self-same letter. S/he was given 0 points as well.

Out of 18 letters, 3 were obvious plagiarisms, or 16,6 %. For a Master's program!! Two plagiarists didn't make the cut, but one had so many other points s/he will be offered a slot. Let me tell you something, dude: I will be speaking about plagiarism at orientation. And I will be watching you.

I had heard that the States was having terrible trouble with people handing in plagiarized letters, or Mom and Dad writing them. I am completely at a loss to understand why anyone would do such a stupid thing, especially in a Germany that has been discussing plagiarism for over two years.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Another German Politician

The person or persons behind the pseudonym Robert Schmidt, previously known for documenting extensive plagiarism in the doctoral dissertation of Annette Schavan, has now turned his or her or their sights on the president of parliament, Norbert Lammert. Schmidt documents more of a different kind of irregularity in Lammert's thesis, submitted in 1974 to the University of Bochum, than in many of the other theses that have become public. It seems that Lammert did not actually read the literature that is given, but was basing what he wrote on secondary literature. This becomes evident when one sees him faithfully following the errors that are contained in secondary literature, including a reference that is not to be found under the title given.

There was a similar sort of plagiarism in the thesis of Mh, who has had his doctorate rescinded in the meantime. Amongst the 2200-odd references Mh gave were many errors copied 1:1 from the secondary literature. A caveat to students contemplating lifting references without checking them themselves: If you end up copying the errors, you might as well have put a big red sticker on your thesis that says "Plagiarism!". Mh, however, had much word-for-word and pawn sacrifice plagiarism as well that spanned an entire page.

Schmidt has, however, found material from 21 sources on 42 of the 116 page thesis, which is quite extensive. The documentation was made public by journalist Manuel Bewarder in the German daily Die Welt on July 29, 2013. There was the usual fluttering across the media world that has now seemed to die down to a grumbling protest about those damn plagiarism hunters and a renewed discussion of needing a statute of limitations on dissertations.

Yes, a statute of limitations. If you have managed to keep your plagiarism under wraps for 10 years, so the discussion goes, you should be home free and don't have to worry about losing that Herr Dr. or Frau Dr. on your door.  I realize that this sounds bizarre to my international readers, who know that the scientific record must be set straight whenever we determine that something is amiss. And if a dissertation turns up plagiarized, then the person handing it in never fulfilled the requirements for that doctorate, and it is thus revoked. This is similar to a driver's license or a building permit. If you sent your brother to take the driving test and get found out, the driver's license will be confiscated; if you fudged on the calculations for your building permit, they might just make you demolish the structure and start over right.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Lammert reacted calmly by calling the university and requesting them to investigate his dissertation. They were dumbfounded, the fax from Schmidt that announced the case to the university didn't seem to make it to the president's office. Lammert published a digital copy of his dissertation, a smart move.  Things will now take their course. I wrote to the University of Bochum about a case that I had informed them about back in April of 2012, a medical doctorate submitted by Ahg. Oh yes, they revoked his doctorate, but he's taken the university to court. That means he can still use that doctorate until the court tells him, as the courts have told everyone to date who has sought legal recourse about a rescinded doctorate, that the university is right. Good for us, we will get to read more sordid details about the case when the judgement is published, as Roland Schimmel noted in Legal Tribune Online back in February. 

One would hope that now the rest of the cases that are still pending at universities will finally get resolved. Must write another letter tonight.

Update 2013-08-15: It is not the pseudonym itself that is doing the documentation, that is just the name. It is the person or persons behind the pseudonym. I have changed the wording to better reflect this.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Schön's doctorate remains revoked

The German Federal Administrative Court (the highest court for such matters) decided yesterday on the appeal of Jan Hendrik Schön. Schön, a research shooting star physicist in the area of nanotechnology, was fired from Bell Labs in 2002 for falsifying data (see Nature: News, 26 September 2002).

The University of Konstanz in Germany revoked his doctorate in 2004 on the basis of having demonstrated that he was unfit to hold a doctorate. He sued, but lost both in the lower (VG Freiburg (Breisgau) 1. Kammer, 1 K 2248/09) and in the upper court (Verwaltungsgerichtshof Baden-Württemberg 9. Senat, 9 S 2667/10). 

The University of Konstanz has published a press release (in German) with a detailed recap of the long case.