Thursday, February 7, 2013

A doctoral student’s view on plagiarism affairs

Yesterday, a scholarly commission of a German university has decided to revoke the doctorate of the country’s education minister and a close confidante of the chancellor on the basis of plagiarism.1 What seems to be the latest instance of a series of similar affairs not only raises again questions about the integrity of involved, mostly high-ranking individuals of public or political interest, but also about the justness of stripping academic titles most often earned decades ago. Without being a legal expert, it seems convenient to me to turn this discussion into a rudimentary trial, presenting incriminating evidence and exonerating circumstances as judged by a protagonist and stakeholder theorist’s point of view.

Provided that the authors knew what they were obliged to do when writing scientific pieces in which they relied on the ideas of others (intent?), there is undeniably ethical ambivalence behind “…systematically and deliberately faking a mental performance throughout the entire dissertation…”.2 The driving force of misbehavior can comprehended to a certain extent; metaphorically think of a school kid who decides to take on the risk of cheating at an exam in hope of getting away with it and gaining the respect of his/her mates for being the best in class. Also the personal choice to jeopardize one’s sincerity and take on the burden of living with and even building a career upon a skeleton in the closet could be acceptable as long as nobody else is harmed and consequences are taken if it does come out.

From a broader and more stakeholder-oriented perspective, the quality and originality of single research efforts is certainly of interest for a wider range of involved individuals and institutions (failure to render assistance?). Ultimately, the reputation and trust in academic education and the community itself is at stake. In my opinion, the setting in which such major research projects are developed is essential in preventing misbehavior. By actively striving after adherence to scientific principles, the set of stakeholders should provide an enabling context including ethical values. However, it seems also evident that such a setting cannot be characterized by an ever-growing pressure on young scholars to perform along one single dimension, namely the quantity of peer-reviewed publications.

Last but not least, one needs to be aware of the fact that the act of crime is in most cases several decades ago (prescription?). At that time, research was carried out and dissertations were written under nowadays inconceivable circumstances - the World Wide Web and Google & Co. did not exist. But also the means to rigorously check for plagiarism were missing, so the inhibition level for copy/paste was presumably much lower. To draw a comparison between now and then seems pointless in that regard.

The bottom line is (sentence!) that it would be wrong if long-ago decisions of individuals to violate the principle of intellectual property in order to boost their ego leads to negative sentiments towards contemporary science and the involved stakeholders.

Marc Moser


1 Cottrell, C. 2013. "University Revokes German Official’s Doctorate", in The New York Times, viewed on 5 February,
2 Bleckmann cited in Cottrell (2013)

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