Uncovering scientific plagiarism
- Debora Weber-Wulff is a professor at Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft in Berlin. Both authors are active on the VroniPlag Wiki, WiseWoman on the German Wikipedia.
Have you ever found yourself sitting with some text, thinking: "Where have I read this before?" Wikipedians face this question every day, when they have to deal with plagiarized content. But plagiarism does not just affect the quality and credibility of articles; nor is it just an issue for university professors and school-teachers marking their students' assignments. It is found at all levels of university research, right up to the writing of scientific papers and doctoral theses.
Over the past year and a half, the German academic community has been rocked by continual plagiarism scandals. Two wiki-based groups have been instrumental in uncovering "text parallels" in doctoral theses by jurists, scientists, industry managers, and politicians. The latest plagiarism to have been exposed was a textbook warning about taking material from the German Wikipedia – while itself plagiarizing Wikipedia in at least 18 places.
On 16 February 2011 the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung
published the suspicions of a law professor from Bremen, Germany, that the doctoral thesis of the minister of defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, contained extensive plagiarism; zu Guttenberg called the accusations "absurd", insisting he would fix the odd erroneous footnote in a second edition.
This angered a number of scientists who had found blatant plagiarism just by googling pieces of text from the thesis. They tried documenting the plagiarism collaboratively using Google Docs, but the platform could not support the more than one hundred people who wanted to edit the document simultaneously. Some computer scientists in the group decided that a wiki would solve the problem, so they moved to the Wikia platform, founded by Jimmy Wales in 2004.
As one of the initiators, User:PlagDoc, describes in an essay recently co-authored with a journalist and published in German and in English, the choice of a wiki enabled an investigative crowdsourcing effort of tremendous proportions: GuttenPlag Wiki. When the dust settled, zu Guttenberg had his doctorate revoked (63% of the lines on 94% of the pages in the thesis submitted were plagiarised) and stepped down as a government minister, moving to the US to escape the heat. The GuttenPlag Wiki received the Grimme Online Award in the "Special" category in 2011; a representative of Wikia accepted the prize as a representative of a group of more than 20,000 occasional and daily editors on the site (press release).
It didn't stop there. In April 2011, large amounts of plagiarism were found in a PhD thesis by the daughter of a high-ranking former Bavarian politician. Those interested in investigating this decided to set up a new wiki for the documentation, VroniPlag Wiki (website). In quick succession, more and more plagiarised theses were documented on the same platform, because people did not want to have to set up a new wiki for each case. Although far fewer contributors are working on this wiki than on the Guttenplag Wiki, they have continually documented plagiarism since the site's inception.
The wiki has an anonymous drop-box where people suggest theses that should be scrutinised, but many tips come in by email, either to the anonymous email addresses set up for the purpose, or to the few people who are reachable by their real name. People come and go, often working intensively on a particular case. Some have stayed and been active on all of the new cases. The group has coalesced into a team of around ten administrators and a handful of sympathetic onlookers, along with the obligatory trolls. A workflow has been set up for collaboratively and transparently documenting plagiarism, announcing the name of the author only when it's clear that a document contains a significant number of text parallels.
Currently 26 cases are documented on the site. Of these, eight doctorates have been rescinded (with several lawsuits pending); three have been declared to be within the bounds of acceptability by the awarding universities, although those institutions have provided no explanations for the substantial numbers of text parallels. The extensive documentation has demonstrated that plagiarism is not just an occasional incident, but something that the German university system must now get serious about. Case 25, unusually not a thesis but a textbook for law students on scientific methods in the age of the Internet, was a striking case that would be humorous if it were not so serious: not only was the chapter on plagiarism plagiarized, it warned of the dire consequences of taking material from Wikipedia, while lifting a good 18 pieces themselves. The book was promptly withdrawn by the publisher after it was outed on VroniPlag Wiki.
Massive text parallels have been documented on VroniPlag Wiki in two dissertations from Poland and Denmark, suggesting that plagiarism in university research degrees is widespread. The Danish case is also interesting, as the plagiarist is a Pakistani citizen who published many papers as well as his dissertation on "terrorist" networks – partly by taking text blocks – often word-for-word – from older papers about criminal networks and just replacing the word "criminal" with "terrorist". Other cases not on VroniPlag Wiki have involved the Romanian minister of education, the Romanian prime minister, the Hungarian president, an official in Thailand, and a parliamentarian in South Korea. Documentation is also underway in Russia concerning the dissertation of their new education minister.
In Germany, many universities apparently seem unable to come to terms with the ethics of Internet-based research and publishing methods. The administrations have tended to react to revelations of plagiarism among their graduates in a way that might be labeled Kafka-esque; and there is no real in-university support for plagiarism education or detection, no training for tutors or teachers, no procedure for dealing with lower levels of plagiarism.
The work at these wikis shows how urgent it is to educate people about plagiarism and how to avoid it. Scientific online publishing would also contribute to reducing the amount of plagiarism: if it can be indexed by a search engine, it can more easily be found by software or a simple search on three to five terms from a paragraph.
GuttenPlag Wiki and VroniPlag Wiki are now taken seriously and have contributed to accelerating the otherwise glacial progress in this area in the (German) university system. The writing is on the wall now, with public reaction on-side, although there are significant pockets of resistance; for example, an open letter penned by eight high-ranking former heads of German universities and research organizations and published on 14 June in the Süddeutsche Zeitung requested that this "undignified spectacle" [of published evidence of plagiarism] cease immediately and that the universities be left to their own devices to carry on as before. Public discussion like this about scientific matters does not happen often in Germany.
The experiences of the past year and a half have shown that plagiarism is a widespread phenomenon – not only in Germany. It affects universities large and small, in many fields of study at all levels. Plagiarists may think they are being smart to be re-using electronically available materials for their own texts – but they forget that there are people well-versed with online research instruments and scientific texts who are no longer willing to let others achieve scientific merit by illegitimate means. Using wiki technology to collaboratively fight plagiarism, the latter have joined forces and have become major new players in the scientific community.