The Grave Consequences of Plagiarism

Germany’s Minister for Science (sic!) and Education, Annette Schavan, is the second minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet (after former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg) who had to resign yesterday after having lost her doctor’s degree because of plagiarism. Düsseldorf University concluded paraphrasing secondary literature without naming the source in roughly 60 passages of the 351 pages of her dissertation [1]. Schavan’s case seems to be different from zu Guttenberg’s, a typical impostor. Schavan has written several scholarly books after her dissertation and carries meanwhile five honorary doctorates.

Apparently, plagiarism seems to be endemic among German politicians. Besides zu Guttenberg (CSU) and Schavan (CDU), European Parliament members Georgios Chatzimarkakis and Silviana Koch-Mehrin, and Member of Parliament (Bundestag) Bijan Djir-Sarai (all FDP), Member of Baden Württemberg’s Parliament Matthias Profrock (CDU), Margarita Mathiopoulos (FDP), Uwe Brinkmann (SPD), and daughter of former Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber (CSU), Veronica Sass, all had lost their doctorates already in 2011 after plagiarism had been discovered on between 25-71%  pages of their respective dissertations. An important message is that plagiarism does not become time-barred. Annette Schavan’s thesis had been accepted by University of Düsseldorf in 1980 when she was just 25 years old.

But plagiarism is widespread and not limited to Masters’ or PhD  theses or original articles, be it in the Humanities or Science and Medicine [2]. In integrated Master’s or Bachelor’s studies, such as those conducted at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Tromsø University, only little time can be assigned to a short project and brief report on the results including sort of review of the literature (if supervisors do not even endorse students to just write a literature review [3]). Not creation of scientific knowledge is the explicit aim but getting some experience in scientific method and reporting results, even though insignificant. Course work, which is generally not meant to be publishable. One learning goal must be, though, originality in writing.

I have noticed, since supervising respective projects at our dental school, that most students are not made aware of the largely limited scope of their work which anyway demands quite an effort by both student and supervisor.

Students at our institute apparently need more training in how to write a scientific paper, how to quote pertinent references and how to present the data. And, it has to be unmistakably made clear that any plagiarism shall be sanctioned.

Notes

[1] “Paraphrasing secondary literature without naming the source” reminds of the infamous Alan Dershowitz – Norman Finkelstein affair, when the latter had pointed first to scandalous plagiarism by the former who, as but one example in his best-selling botch The Case for Israel had copied and pasted entire passages (including ellipses and errors) from a similar hoax, Joan Peter’s From Time Immemorial, without quoting the original source (in this example Mark Twain). But revealing this shameless plagiarism had mainly one grave consequence, Finkelstein’s denial of tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University due to massive external pressure by Harvard Professor Dershowitz.

[2] A recent case at IKO, see here, involved a scholarly book by former employee Dr. A. Dumitrescu which has meanwhile been withdrawn by Springer Publishing for widespread violation of copyrights as I had been informed in early January in an email.

[3] One has to keep in mind that encouraging undergraduates to write a literature review may lead almost inevitably to plagiarism, be it unconscious or intentional. I have recently come across of complaints by a colleague that this malpractice would in fact be tolerated by course leaders. On the other hand, systematic reviews, which usually represent original research, are way to difficult to write by inexperienced undergraduates and few if any of the possible supervisors here at IKO have ever conducted one, thus instantly dropping out of being helpful in a respective student’s enterprise in any way.

10 February @ 3:25 pm.

Last modified February 10, 2013.

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