Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Plagiarize Much?

Interesting juxtaposition of the Harvard cheating scandal and a plagiarism scandal, one among many, it seems, in Europe.  Debora Weber-Wulff writes in the BBC Viewpoint series about "The Spectre of Plagiarism Haunting Europe."  The piece comes on the heels of the German Minister of Education and Science resigning (or being asked to resign) in the wake of his dissertation being found to include a lot of plagiarism.  Evidently, it's fairly common for European politicians, say up and coming in ministries or departments of this and that, to do doctorates along the way.  Or if not common, at least not shockingly uncommon.

Weber-Wulff points out that

Just looking at the CVs of some of the authors who have been exposed as plagiarists, one wonders how it would be possible for them to do research, hang out at libraries, wait forever for inter-library loans, and get everything written up, as a mere sideline to their already very demanding lives as active politicians.
That is to say, these aren't folks like most PhD candidates, who are working towards a PhD near the beginnings of a hoped for career; they're more mid-career, using the PhD as a sort of stepping stone. 

I have to say, something about this smells fishy.

I have to say, I haven't looked at the dissertations in question, or done the research, but from what Weber-Wulff writes, it sounds like this is far more than just a few missed quotation marks, and more substantial parts of arguments being lifted.

I think about my field, about my dissertation, and I imagine that if I'd try to lift a substantial chunk of someone's published argument without acknowledging it appropriately, my dissertation director and first reader would have seen it easily, and I would have heard about it in no uncertain terms.  (Assuming that it was an early draft, maybe they would have just corrected me and chided me and such, but I can't imagine them not taking it seriously.)  They certainly wouldn't have signed the paper that says that I could have a PhD, too. 

But somehow, the dissertation directors of these politicians did sign those papers.  (Well, I'm assuming they sign papers there, too.)  Did they not notice significant plagiarism?  (Are they not up on the other stuff written about their area of study?  Did they not actually bother reading the dissertations?)  Or did they just not care?

If these are mid-career politicians, then they're people with connections, and not, like most PhD candidates in this country at least (and I think Europe's way different, more on that later), who are pretty much full time working towards their degree (most often with some kind of part time or fellowship sort of work on the side to pay rent and eat and such).

That leads me to wonder about graduate programs accepting these folks.  It's not a big leap for me to imagine that a political functionary, with connections in some party or whatever, deciding to pick up a grad degree would be welcome at a lot of grad programs.  If there's money changing hands, then the political functionary is probably paying rather than being paid; and if there's no money, well then at least there's the potential benefit of having a political functionary with some connection to a school or department.  So I can see where a university might welcome a political functionary, and might easily make that welcome known to its faculty.

What I'm wondering, then, is if in addition to looking carefully at the politicians, someone should be looking at the degree-granting institutions and at the dissertation directors/readers.

What's the payoff for them to have signed off or granted degrees to plagiarists?

(My vague understanding is that graduate work in most European countries is much more research based than in the US, that PhD students don't take classes, but start in PhD programs already pretty much focused in and ready to research because their bachelors' degrees are more focused on their subject area and include far less general education and such.)


  1. francine1:01 AM

    May I weigh in as someone in the system in Germany?

    Firstly, I can only speak of the situation in Germany, and not 'Europe' as a whole. Each country has a different system, although the "Bologna process" is working towards transferability between European countries.

    Most PhD candidates (in Germany) do not do coursework during their PhD, and go into the PhD after their masters, not a bachelor degree -- not all, there are some approaches looking towards the US to incorporate coursework to what they claim will shorten the PhD phase (in my opinion, without examining the system at all), and some attempts to instigate 'fast-track' systems (where you skip the masters). You can quite easily be an external PhD candidate, so not teaching or in a scholarship programme. If you can somehow finance the years, have the necessary grade in your masters and find some professor who is willing to have you as their candidate, you are all set (and professors gain capital--both institutional and financial--based on the numbers of candidates).

    The title 'Dr.' is not only acquired by those with a view to enter academia. Some fields, obviously medicine, but also for instance law, have a number of candidates looking towards the prestige that comes with this title. You will find Dr.s in all sorts of places looking to use this capital to climb all sorts of ladders. Not just in academia.

    These two factors, amongst with several others, mean that professors might have quite a number of PhD candidates. Some they will see on a regular basis, some they might see 2 times a year. And the latter won't be 'seen' by any academics in academic contexts besides this.

    This means there are some people who are trying to 'cash in' (metaphor may be less than metaphorical, I cannot comment on that) on the capital of the title. There is no excuse for this, and there are petitions and groups as well as individuals who are outraged and working to reveal all discrepancies and plagiarism cases: Each rescinded title might create a media backwash that will initially work to tarnish those (rightfully) awarded. However, it will be good in the long run, I think, removing such wrongly awarded titles and removing the idea that the PhD is something easy to do.

    Note: The frequency of plagiarism PhDs in particular parties (the CDU and FDP might call themselves differently, but they are two of the more conservative parties in Germany). The Greens (who are a substantial party in Germany) have suggested removing the Dr. title from personal identification documents to work against the idea that this is a form of cultural capital.

    Note 2: The minister is/was female.

    Note 3: I personally hope that the supervision system is worked over -- a lengthy and difficult process, after all you are dealing with (mostly) tenured professors who might be reluctant to change. I do not think that the PhD in Germany needs to only be open to those for whom academia is a long-term goal (as this would only push the competitiveness back to the short post-masters phase, instead of the post-PhD/post-second book phase). But it does need to correlate with a *genuine* interest in pushing fields forward, in research and deep thinking, rather than a simple matter of cultural capital.

  2. Anonymous1:11 AM

    Their undergraduate education may seem more "focused", but in the UK routinely does NOT include any actual training it writing/composition/research papers. Students are expected to just sort of evolve into people who know how to write academic work. So that probably doesn't help.

  3. Francine, Thanks for your comment; that helps my understanding a lot.

    Anon, Good point, too. Of course, that's the way it seems to work often in US schools when it comes to writing research in a major field.

  4. Shane in Utah7:46 AM

    I imagine that if I'd try to lift a substantial chunk of someone's published argument without acknowledging it appropriately, my dissertation director and first reader would have seen it easily, and I would have heard about it in no uncertain terms.

    This assumes a lot of things that I'm not sure hold up. Perhaps your dissertation committee consisted of four experts on Shakespeare (who somehow managed to read EVERYTHING published on Shakespeare in any given year). But in my case, my dissertation focused on a relatively obscure area (South African literature). My advisor was the only person in my department who specialized in any part of that literature, but not the specific writers and texts I was working on. The other members of my committee worked on other areas of postcolonial literature, or had expertise in the theories I was using, but had no specific knowledge of the scholarship in my area. So it's conceivable that I could have plagiarized whole sections of my dissertation, and none of the committee members would have caught it, no matter how diligent they tried to be.

  5. Good point, Shane. Perhaps my experience was warped by being in early modern English studies? Or maybe just having a dissertation director who seemed to have read everything and remembered it in detail?