Monday, September 1, 2014

Falsified Data: Admitted but not Retracted

Laborjournal, a useful and critical German-language magazine for the life sciences, is celebrating its 20th birthday. Alexander Lerchl, a professor for biology at the private Jacobs University in Bremen, wrote an editorial Was tun bei Fälschung? (What to do about falsification?) about a case of data falsification that was uncovered in 2008 at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.

There were ten journal articles published and widely quoted that demonstrated how harmful the use of mobile telephones was. The data pointed out clearly that DNA strands would break down in the presence of low frequency magnetic fields and high frequency electromagnetic ones. Except that the lab assistant, Elisabeth Kratochvil, had made up the data. Her boss, Hugo Rüdiger, didn't notice. The co-authors didn't notice. The reviewers found nothing odd about all these wonderfully small standard deviations. But Lerchl noticed.

A subsequent internal laboratory investigation in 2008 turned up the problems, documented in the lab books, and Kratochvil voluntarily quit her job, admitting that she has falsified the data. Research money had to be returned, and Rüdiger promised to retract the papers.

Except he didn't.

There is a long, detailed, and well-sourced version of the story to be found at Psiram, a wiki that is concerned with pseudoscience.

All that has happened, is that some of the journals have published "Expressions of concern". The papers have not been retracted at all, so they are still quoted and there are even (unsuccessful) attempts to replicate the studies. The journals are published by publishers such as Elsevier and Springer, and they keep finding reasons for not retracting, even though the rector of the Medical University of Vienna has kept requesting that this happen.

Lerchl has even tried to get the Austrian Academic Integrity Agency to take action, and has also tried to involve the EU -- to no avail. The papers remain on the public record.

Lerchl sees the problem in the institutions themselves, who have to deal with accusations of academic misconduct. They understandably drag their feet, as this is something that concerns a colleague. He feels that an independent body, similar to the ORI in the US, should be set up in Germany ("GORI"). And he proposes a "3P" model for dealing with academic misconduct:
  • Publicity: Instead of pretending that this is a private matter, the names and the cases need to be made public, as the public is (in general) footing the bill.
  • Post-Publication Review: Even after publication, a public review can take place, such as is possible at PubPeer or ResearchGate. And sites such as Retraction Watch, that discuss the reasons for retraction, should be considered part of this.
  • Punishment: Currently, those found guilty of academic misconduct are quietly and anonymously sanctioned. Often they are only prevented from applying for money for a specific number of years. Lerchl pleads for a crime of "academic fraud" that should come with sanctions that mean something. 
Much as having a crime called "academic fraud" sounds like a good thing, trying to get that defined in Germany (a very legalistic country) would take much time with little effort. But if the institutions, at least, decide that academic honesty is their most precious commodity and act accordingly instead of covering up the multiple "singularities" that are being discovered, they would at least be taking a step in the right direction. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Google censors link

Well, what does the morning's email bring? A letter from Google:

Notice of removal from Google Search

Due to a request under data protection law in Europe, we are no longer able to show one or more pages from your site in our search results in response to some search queries for names or other personal identifiers. Only results on European versions of Google are affected. No action is required from you.
These pages have not been blocked entirely from our search results, and will continue to appear for queries other than those specified by individuals in the European data protection law requests we have honored. Unfortunately, due to individual privacy concerns, we are not able to disclose which queries have been affected.
Please note that in many cases, the affected queries do not relate to the name of any person mentioned prominently on the page. For example, in some cases, the name may appear only in a comment section.
The following URLs have been affected by this action:
All right, that means that one of the following 36 persons who have either a dissertation, a habilitation or a textbook published under their own name have extensive text parallels with other works that are generally considered to be plagiarism, even if the university in question has not decided to withdraw the degrees:
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Veronika Saß, Matthias Pröfrock, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Georgios Chatzimarkakis, Bijan Djir-Sarai, Uwe Brinkmann, Margarita Mathiopoulos, Siegfried Haller, Jürgen Goldschmidt, Cornelia Eva Scott, Arne Heller, Martin Winkels, Daniel Volk, Ulf Teichgräber, Patrick Ernst Sensburg, Nalan Kayhan, Andreas Wolfgang Bonz, Michael Heun, Loukas A. Mistelis, Asso Omer Saiwani, Arne Herting, Nasrullah Memon, Bernhard Fischel, Bernd Holznagel, Pascal Schumacher, Thorsten Ricke, Jesu-Paul Manikonda, Rodrigo Herrera, Mareike Bonnekoh, Christian Huber, Ruth Angela Wernsmann, Qiang Fang, Dariusz Malan, Tristan Nguyen, or Alexandros Philippos Anastasiadis
It's called the Streisand effect, people.

You published something that contains unexplained text parallels. These text parallels have been documented publicly, in a review. Explain them in public. That's what we do in academia, we discuss and exchange arguments publicly.

Or as the yearly conference of German language and literature scholars put it in 1967, when they were protesting the decision of the University of Bonn to not rescind the doctorate of Pater Udo Nix which contained extensive plagiarism:
Die auf der Bochumer Tagung versammelten Hochschulgermanisten halten es für ihre Pflicht, sich von dieser an der Universität Bonn getroffenen Entscheidung nachdrücklich zu distanzieren. [. . . ] Wenn eine Rezension in einer unserer Fachzeitschriften gegen eine wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung den Vorwurf des Plagiats erhebt, hat es als selbstverständlich zu gelten, daß diejenigen, die ein solcher Vorwurf trifft, in angemessener Weise dazu Stellung nehmen. Versuchen die Betroffenen, die Angelegenheit durch bloßes Stillschweigen zu erledigen, und bleibt dieses Verhalten auch noch ungerügt, so muß man fragen, was unser Rezensionswesen eigentlich noch wert sei und bis zu welchem Grade die Regeln wissenschaftlichen Anstands denn außer acht gesetzt werden dürfen. [. . . ] Angesichts einer solchen Häufung von Entlehnungen, wie sie im Falle Nix festzustellen ist, kann weder die Erklärung befriedigen, daß vorsätzliche Täuschung nicht eindeutig nachweisbar und daher bloße Fahrlässigkeit zu unterstellen sei, noch die Behauptung, daß die plagiierten Stellen für die Beurteilung der wissenschaftlichen Leistung irrelevant blieben. Auch wenn sie zuträfen, höben beide Feststellungen den Tatbestand nicht auf, daß die oben genannte wesentliche Voraussetzung für die Verleihung des Doktorgrades irrigerweise als gegeben angenommen wurde. Es wäre schlechthin verderblich, wenn in solchen Fällen die gesetzlichen Vorschriften in einer Weise ausgelegt würden, welche eben diejenigen Grundlagen wissenschaftlicher Forschung und Publikation bedroht, deren Sicherung die gesetzlichen Vorschriften zu dienen haben.
[Moser, H. (1968). Notiz. In: Zeitschrift f. dt. Philologie, Vol. 87, No. 1, pp. 312–316]

The scholars of German Letters gathered at the conference in Bochum feel that it is their duty to distance themselves from the decision reached by the University of Bonn. [. . . ] When a review of an academic paper is published in one of our academic periodicals and contains the accusation of plagiarism, it is taken for granted that the person such accused must respond in an appropriate manner. If the person in question tries to solve the matter by remaining silent, and if this behavior is not condemned, then one must ask oneself of what worth our system of reviews actually is and to what degree the rules of good academic conduct may be set aside. [. . . ] In the face of the sheer amount of borrowed material that can be determined in the case of Nix, it is not satisfactory to declare that it is impossible to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the deception was not done with malice aforethought and thus only an accusation of negligence remains. It is also not satisfactory to assert that the plagiarized passages are irrelevant for the determination of the academic content. Even if this were so – it would not change in the least the fact that the above mentioned preconditions for granting a doctoral degree were erroneously assumed to have existed. It would be ruinous if in such cases the legalities were to be interpreted in such a manner as to threaten the exact same basic tenets of academic research and publication that they purport to uphold.[Selection and translation from my book False Feathers, p. 50]

Wikipedia by any other name

Back in May I reported on the the uproar surrounding the assertion that a book published by C. H. Beck in Germany, Grosse Seeschlachten -- Wendepunkte der Weltgeschichte von Salamis bis Skagerrak, contained plagiarism from the Wikipedia. The publisher withdrew the book, although "only" 5% of the book was affected, they stated. Well, there is actually quite a bit, and although the Wikipedia texts have been patchwritten (words inserted or deleted, words swapped with synonyms, phrases reordered) so they are not completely identical, it is clear that the text closely follows the Wikipedia.  Some of the fragments have been documented by a VroniPlag Wiki researcher, however they have not yet been double-checked [volunteers are welcome!]:
A representative of the publisher has agreed to participate in a discussion about the use of the Wikipedia by researchers on October 3, 2014 at the WikiCon in Cologne.

The next German publication with heavy borrowing from the Wikipedia was published by Springer Vieweg, Geschichte der Rechenautomaten, the history of computing in three volumes by a retired German computer science professor. Anyone who has given a lecture on the history of computing recognizes that many of the pictures are taken from the Wikipedia and other Internet pages, and many are not in the public domain. But it turns out that a good bit of the text is also from the Wikipedia.

I don't normally link to the FAZ, but they published an excellent article on the problem by Eleonor Benítez. She quotes the author as stating that these volumes are not scientific writing, but reference books. He defines a reference book as 80% data, while scientific writing contains didactical editing and thus contains more intellectual property. Data, he continues, are facts and not copyrightable. And anyway, there are only so many ways to state something in German.

Again, a VroniPlag Wiki researcher has documented just a few pages that have not yet been double-checked, but there are some very long passages that are identical:

Springer has withdrawn the books from their home page, but the books are still easily obtainable through other booksellers. I asked the executive editor if they were going to put out a press release about the issue, he said no. It seems it is hoped that this will quietly die down.

And now a third German book using Wikipedia without attribution has been identified. The Wagenbach Verlag recently published Aldo Manuzio. Vom Drucken und Verbreiten schöner Bücher, a scathing review in artmagazine pointing out the copying was published in July 2014.

A few questions arise:
  • Why do academic authors use the Wikipedia in their work without respecting the CC-BY-SA license? Okay, they probably find it embarrassing to have Wikipedia references all over the place. But isn't it worse to be found out after the book is in print?
  • Why don't the publishers have editors read the books critically before they are published? The prices are high enough, and that is supposed to be the justification for the price, that the publishers are somehow adding value to the process by ensuring a high-quality product. If the publishers are trying to save money by cutting out the editors, then perhaps we don't need publishers any more. 
  • Do the universities where the book authors work get rewarded financially by their ministries of education for these "publications"? Some are still listed on the publication lists of the authors, even though they have been withdrawn.  This is also often the case for retracted papers, they remain on the lists of publications for which one assumes the university and perhaps the researcher obtained a reward, even after retraction. 
  • I've asked the German Wikimedia e.V. if they cannot sue in the name of the collective authors for the Wikipedia articles. However, only the authors themselves would be able to sue over copyright misuse. I still think, though, that since the license is not being respected by the publishers (especially if pictures are being used), that a suit or two should be in order.
  • Above all: if researchers are publishing Wikipedia material under their own names, how can I explain to my students that it is not acceptable for them to do the same?
I'm sure there will be more to come. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Swedish scholar to be disciplined for plagiarism

Retraction Watch noted in March 2014 that a 2012 paper by a Swedish scholar from Linnaeus University in Växjö had been retracted for plagiarism. A recent commentator on the article noted that the university actually investigated the case and determined that he was guilty of plagiarism. They put out a press release stating that plagiarism is a serious matter and that the scholar has been suspended from the university, pending a decision on the part of the personnel department about the extent of sanctions to be meted out.

The right-wing online press in Sweden, which is gaining much momentum in the current election year, posted the name of the researcher in question, making sure to comment that he was a "leftist" researcher investigating problems of racism, as if that somehow had something to do with the cases (I'm not linking to the publication in question).

It is quite disconcerting to have an academic discussion about good scientific conduct and plagiarism dragged into a political fight. This has also happened in Germany, where the media only seem to report on cases of plagiarism if they involve politicians. Many universities in Germany and Austria drag their feet when investigating allegations of plagiarism, and answer, as one did today, stating that on the grounds of official secrecy and data privacy no information about administrative processes will be published. It is important that we speak about academic plagiarism cases in the open, but we must be focused on the plagiarism itself and not on other details about the person in question.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

News links

I have some plagiarism news links floating around that need recording:
  • The Moscow Times have an interesting article about Dissernet, the Russian group of researchers documenting plagiarism in dissertations of politicians and academics in Russia.
  • According to Le Figaro and Liberation, the vice-president of the University of Grenoble in France, Dominique Rigaux,  has been accused of plagiarism and has left her post. The documentation of the plagiarism was done by Michelle Bergadaà, a French-speaking plagiarism researcher from the Swiss University of Geneva. 
  • VroniPlag Wiki has currently documented plagiarism in 23 doctoral dissertations in medicine from the University of Münster and 14 from the renowned Charité institution in Berlin. There are a number of theses accepted in forensic medicine that borrow heavily from earlier theses submitted to the same committee and under the direction of the same advisor:

    Both the University of Münster and the Charité have stated that they have begun investigations. But since there are still numerous cases (not only in medicine) from both institutions that are still open one or two years later, this may take some time to clear up. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Causa Schavan: The Final Report

The final report by the dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Düsseldorf, Bruno Bleckmann, to the university's Academic Senate about the rescinding of the doctorate of Annette Schavan, the former German Minister of Education, has been leaked. The blog Causa Schavan has been publishing summaries of parts of this confidential document for the past ten days and has now put the entire final report online. It includes copies of letters and emails from leaders of top German academic associations, research organizations, and other bodies unknown outside of Germany but quite important for research financing that were addressed to the dean or the vice-dean.

Schavan submitted her thesis in 1980. In 2012 an anonymous blog, schavanplag, published an online documentation of substantial plagiarism in her thesis. In the aftermath of the doctorate of German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg being rescinded by the University of Bayreuth in 2011 and him stepping down as minister, Ms. Schavan had remarked that she was mortified by his plagiarism and was making no secret of her opinions. Another public plagiarism discussion erupted.

When the Faculty of Letters decided that there was sufficient suspicion to warrant opening an investigation, they found themselves the target of immense pressure, both public and (as can be seen in the final report) private from the many supporters of Ms. Schavan. Many misused their high offices to air their private opinions on the case that many found to be politically motivated.

The Faculty of Letters focused solely on the academic questions at hand and ignored the verbal abuse from the "titans of science" that only increased when the plagiarism documentation prepared by the vice-dean was leaked to the national press. The final report included the letter the vice-dean wrote detailing the precautions that he took so that the report would not be leaked.

The Faculty Board voted to rescind the doctorate. Ms. Schavan then stepped down as Minister of Education in order to take the university to court in the hopes of forcing them to revoke the rescinding of her doctorate on procedural grounds. The court, however, upheld the stance of the university. Ms. Schavan, now without a university degree, has since been sent as the German ambassador to the Holy See. 

If you read German, Dean Bleckmann's final report is a finely crafted and well-documented summary of the entire investigation and the wave of vituperation hurled at the dean and vice dean of the faculty in particular and the university in general. Bleckmann remarks ironically on p. 16 why he (a historian) has collected these documents:
Die zahlreichen verbalen Entgleisungen sind vielleicht dereinst für die historische Invektivenforschung von Interesse. (The extensive verbal harassment is perhaps of interest someday for historical research on invective.)
One reads of high-ranking German education luminaries and honorable retired professors offering up personal opinion and verbal abuse without bothering in the least to even study the materials available. In addition to the schavanplag blog and a legal expertise on the procedures to be followed that are publicly available, it turned out that (perhaps surprising for some) actual books and brochures were to be found detailing good academic practice at the time Ms. Schavan wrote her dissertation. The concept of delineating the beginning and end of the thoughts and/or words of others and giving a reference to the place the material to be found is shockingly not at all a recent convention. It also has nothing to do with available technology or the Internet or any other tangential topics, but is the means by which academics work: giving credit to the work of others, embedded within reasoning and findings of their own.

Bleckmann closes with an interesting observation (p. 22f):
Ich kann hinzufügen, dass auch an unserer Fakultät weitere Plagiatsverfahren anhängig sind, die entgegen der Ankündigung von Herrn Marquardt selbstverständlich auf der Grundlage der gleichen, durch das Gericht bestätigten Prinzipien durchgeführt werden. Die um die Wahrung aller wissenschaftlichen Regeln, Prinzipien und Leitsätze so ängstlich besorgten Wissenschaftsorganisationen haben an unseren weiteren derzeit anhängigen Prüfverfahren allerdings bis jetzt nicht das geringste Interesse gezeigt, so dass dieses wertvolle Korrektiv in Zukunft wohl leider entfallen wird. 
In short, as a translation of these two exquisite sentences into English would be quite difficult: There are other accusations of plagiarism currently being investigated at the Faculty of Letters in Düsseldorf, and they are being treated in exactly the same manner. However, to date none of the academic organizations that were so concerned with academic principles have shown any interest whatsoever in any of these cases.

The University of Düsseldorf stood up for academic freedom, a valuable and rare commodity in these times. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Belgrade Mayor plagiarizes doctorate

A new plagiarism scandal has erupted in Serbian politics. The scandal around the dissertation of the Minister of the Interior, Nebojša Stefanović, is still in full swing. Now the dissertation of the Mayor of Belgrade, Sinisa Mali, entitled “Creating Value Through the Process of Restructuring and Privatization – Theoretical Concepts and Experiences of Serbia” and submitted in 2013 to the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Organizational Sciences has been documented to be heavily plagiarized.

, Professor of finance at the European Business School in Wiesbaden, Germany, documented the plagiarism in English on the Serbian site Peščanik in early July.

has put together an interactive graphical representation of the thesis with every page of Mali's thesis linked to the iThenticate report on the plagiarism found on that page. Even considering all the caveats about the use of plagiarism detection software, quite a number of sources, including the Wikipedia, have been identified.
If the protection of ideas is no longer important in our society, then we will gamble our future away.