Friday, August 29, 2014

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Springer has withdrawn the books from their home page, but the books are still easily obtainable through other booksellers.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.



Saturday, June 21, 2014

6IIPC - Conference

I previously reported about the pre-conference of the Sixth International Integrity and Plagairism Conference in Newcastle upon Tyne, I will now discuss some of the talks that I was able to attend.
There were four keynotes at the conference:
  • Toni Sant from Wikimedia UK spoke about student online research, aka using the Wikipedia. I was astounded at how many educators in the room were not very familiar with various aspects of how the Wikipedia is researched and written. Toni suggested that teachers have their students write articles for the Wikipedia – I strongly objected to that in the discussion, as the subsequent deletion of articles that are not encyclopaedic will frustrate the students.
  • Tricia Bertram Gallant, the academic integrity officer at UCSD, gave a fanstastic talk about integrity for the "Real World." She pointed out that people cheat, period. We have to quit pretending that we are only interested in academic integrity, that is, integrity that is only valid in school. Instead, we need to reframe our thinking and focus on building integrity for the real world and not just for school. Our students cheat and plagiarize because they are human, we need to help them obtain skills in acting in an ethical manner in any situation, not just academic ones.
  • Samantha Grant presented parts of her documentary about Jason Blair, a New York Times Journalist fired for plagiarism, called A Fragile Trust.  She and Teddi Fishman from the International Center for Academic Integrity then discussed questions that arose from the film. Samantha is now producing a game for journalists called Decisions on Deadline that presents ethical dilemmas for students to solve. The Society of Professional Journalists even has a hotline that journalists can call when they need to speak to someone anonymously.
  • Dan Ariely gave us the honest truth about dishonesty via video conference: We lie. We don't steal if given the opportunity, but if we think we can get away with something, we lie through the teeth, according to the many studies he has conductd. He suggests that we as educators need to teach our students about temptation and how to deal with it. 
In between the keynotes there were nine paper sessions of five papers or workshops each. Unfortunately, the program had some glitches, such as both papers about finding plagiarism in Arabic being scheduled in parallel with each other or three workshops in the area of embedding institutional policy and practice offered at the same time.
One talk was especially amusing: Rui Silva-Sousa from Portugal spoke about whistleblowers on plagiarism and the moral grey area. That is, he was speaking about GuttenPlag Wiki or VroniPlag Wiki, among others. He notes that there is currently a moral panic with respect to plagiarism. The general population perceives an increase of plagiarism among politicians on the basis of media coverage. This legitimizes the culture of control and people will now more than ever report wrongdoing, especially for egoistic reasons, on the part of people who are now in the public eye. He tried to explain the motivation of the researchers documenting plagiarism, and decided they are somewhere between weird mobbers and serious scientists. They must be acting on ethical egoism and through their making the cases public, can cause excessively harsh results in the life of the person who plagiarized. He felt that knowing the names of the whistleblowers would make it easier to judge the morality of their work. 
I noted in the discussion that he was completely ignoring the person whose work was plagiarized, and that a thesis was plagiarized irregardless of who speaks up about this fact. During a discussion over lunch we cleared up some misconceptions, the usual ones such as VroniPlag Wiki not only documenting politicians, and such. He admitted to not having looked at the sites that closely. I do wish that people would observe carefully before coming up with wild theories.
Mike Reddy, who teaches Games Development at the University of South Wales, gave a session on putting the "play" into plagiarism. We were to develop a game concerning some aspect of academic integrity within the hour. Our group didn't do too bad, we came up with a game we called "Freeloader", similar to Spoof, for 5–6 players (the size of a typical student project group).  Each person has three coins and behind their backs chooses how many coins to hide in their fist and put out into the middle, representing their contribution to the project. Each person starts out with three peanuts/candies/whatever. Each person guesses how many coins in total are now in the middle, no two guesses can be the same. All fists are opened and the coins counted – if you guess right, you get a candy from everyone else in the group. If you run out of candies, you get a dog's chance (one last round). If there are only two people left, the amount of candies you have to surrender upon being wrong is increased by one each round, so that there a winner is found quickly who will get the top grade (i.e. a stash of candies).
Phil Newton from the university of Swansea gave a workshop about paper mills and custom-writing companies. He showed live demonstrations of things that are available for sale. In a nutshell: If we are asking for it (such as research diaries or multiple revisions), there is someone out there willing to sell it, and the less time there is left to complete it, the more expensive it is. We got into groups and tried to come up with ideas that focus more on the learning and less in producing items that can be easily ghosted. The ideas ranged from only giving examinations, using peers to police, flipped classrooms, thinking positively, using progression portfolios, decreasing the price of doing the right thing, and increasing the fear factor: if we catch you, it will hurt. In all, we didn't come up with THE solution, but it was good to commiserate with others about the problem.

It was great to meet old friends and meet new people interested in plagiarism, although it was sad to have to miss so many sessions. The conference was co-sponsered by Turnitin and ICAI, so of course many of the talks dealt with Turnitin. It was rather shocking to see how many newish users were so sure that the so-called "similarity index" that Turnitin reports is the true value of "plagiarism" in a paper. Some schools even define Turnitin similarity index levels for determining the sanction to be meted out. However, people with more experience using the system often temper their words, they understand that the number does not mean anything, really, and that the software is just a tool. Even Turnitin has started to speak of itself as a text-matching software in some instances. I suggested to one of the Turnitin top brass that they ditch the number and focus on what their system does best: find matching text strings (and not plagiarism!). Turnitin has just recently been acquired by a venture capital company, so they have some money to invest in making the product better. I hope that the focus will be on the usability and the reports and not on suggesting that they find more plagiarism. The decision as to whether something is to be considered plagiarism or not must rest firmly with the instructor and the institution, not with a software package.

Jonathan Bailey has blogged extensively on Day One - Day Two - Day Three of the conference. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

6IIPC - Pre-conference

[I wanted to blog directly from the Sixth International Integrity and Plagiarism Conference in Newcastle, but Google cooked up a cool new idea to try and force me to give them my telephone number. Since I was logging in from a different location and a different computer (duh), I needed to give them my telephone number in order to get at my account. I could not reset the password until 3 days after I last logged in. I have one account for email (which I had just checked before) and one for blogging that I wanted to switch to. It took an email to Google to get me to a place where I could say: yes, that was me, which is what I would say if I was breaking in, too.]

Day 1: Starting out
The pre-conference workshop was about creating a plagiarism policy.

  • Randa Al-Chidiac, from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, Lebanon, is a librarian who spoke about instituting a plagiarism policy at a school that does not currently have one. She made it clear that it is vital to have upper management be committed to the project. A school needs to define for itself what is acceptable academic practice and what sorts of sanctions they plan on meting out. The process has to be understandable, transparent and fair. She suggests that the libraries take charge of the situation, as they are publishing the theses that are potentially found to contain plagiarism. They need to speak with faculty, and develop flow charts for faculty to follow. Only as a last step should technology be introduced.
  • Loc Pham Quoc, from the Hoa Sen University in Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam is the dean of the Faculty of Languages and Cultural Studies. The university was the first one in Vietnam to take action for promoting academic integrity, so they were able to get media interest aroused. He set up a club called FACE (For A Clean Education) and has involved the students (and their parents and potential employers) in many activities from public discussions to designing posters for promoting academic integrity to training 20 students as communicators that help their fellow students understand how to avoid plagiarism. He noted that plagiarism is NOT rooted in culture, as the dominant culture can change. Vietnam has had many cultures: Chinese, French, American. And now they are beginning to take action to promote a culture of good academic practices.
  • Wole Morenikeji, from the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria, spoke about the program instituted at his university. They appear to rely on plagiarism detection software and have rules about the “amount” of “similarity” that can be tolerated. This sparked quite a debate about the (mis-)use of these numbers generated from plagiarism detection software for the purpose of sanctioning.
  • After lunch two people from Turnitin spoke, and rather repeated what Randa Al-Chidiac said, so there is no need to repeat it here. Then there was a discussion panel that brought up some important points. Accreditation boards have actually made universities change rulings that they have previously made in academic integrity cases. And one vice-chancellor from Afrika noted that his university does not have Internet, because they do not have stable electricity. His students write their papers with their mobile phones, but the teachers have no Internet for checking them. He is currently installing solar panels in the hopes of soon being able to have 24/7 Internet available.
  • The first keynote was from Adrian Slater who was discussing collaboration and group work and plagiarism. He tried an exercise to get the room active, and people did participate, but since there was no time to really discuss the issues and there were so many questions to look at, the whole session remains a muddle in my mind.
  • After a nice reception a group broke out to go to a local bar that is on the sixth floor and completely in glass. We had a marvelous view of the Tyne and the town while having a beer and discussing paper mills and ghostwriting. There was not a lot in the way of solutions found, but it was good to commiserate and to hear that others are also grappling with this problem for which there is no software-based solution.