Saturday, March 31, 2012

Whose fault is plagiarism?

The controversy about the plagiarised Ph.D of the President of Hungary, Pal Schmitt, is making for "interesting" reading. In 1992 he received a Ph.D for a 200 page thesis that contains 17 pages directly translated from a German book. The rest seems to largely be a translation of work by a Bulgarian sports writer. A committee from the university reviewed the case and wrote a 1100+ page report (!) and concluded that he should keep his degree. The supervisors and examiners were to blame! However, following widespread criticism, the university just announced that they would revoke the degree.

Following the resignation of the German Defence minister for another plagiarised doctorate it seems that the academic backgrounds of prominent politicians are getting more scrutiny. This raises an interesting question. Which of the following is more likely to be true?
  • there has been a lot of plagiarism in the social sciences and humanities but it is only being detected in the case of these politicians because of the increased scrutiny
  • leading politicians are often ambitious individuals who "cut corners" and so are more prone to commit plagiarism
Unfortunately, the leadership of Australian universities is not immune from this problem. A decade ago the Vice Chancellor of Monash University, David Robinson, was forced to resign because of plagiarism.


  1. So how do these things get found out so long after the fact? Does the opposition hire an expert to review probably the only copy of the thesis in existence, looking for plagiarism?

    Kinda makes you want to have a go yourself.

  2. Another question about plagiarism: what do you do if you find a research paper that plagiarises yours, and ask the editor-in-chief of the journal in which it was published to have it withdrawn, only to find that the editor-in-chief happens to be one of the authors of the plagiarising paper!!?

    This happened to my supervisor very recently, with the Journal of Microfluidics and Nanofluidics.

  3. >>Whose fault is plagiarism?
    I have been thinking over this for a couple of days, and I've yet to come up with a counterexample to my immediate reaction — the plagiarist is always at fault for their actions. I don't think that this is being disputed, and that the question instead seeks to find those who share responsibility for the act, or at least the resulting work being published (or was rhetorical, in which case this post is rather redundant and you, dear reader, need not read any farther!).

    Whether the supervisors or examiners shoulder responsibility really depends on which of three circumstances is applicable to them — they were either conspiring, incompetent or thoroughly decieved. In the case of the first, they are as much to blame as the plagiarist himself. However, I do not think it likely that this is the case; presumably if they were being compensated enough to risk their academic careers, they'd write the PhD for him as their original work, that way it would likely never be uncovered. This seems the least likely of the three scenarios to me.

    The other two depend entirely on the status of the plagiarised materials — obviously one cannot examine every single article in every single language, and a modicum of common sense must be employed. If the materials were prominent, or there were suspicious phrases that went unchecked, then the supervisors and examiners are guilty of either incompetence or negligence; either way, they will have shown themselves as unsuitable for their role.

    If all reasonable precautions are taken, then the the supervisors and examiners were legitimately deceived, like the rest of the scientific community. Should this be the case, I believe they deserve no responsibility in the matter — as James Randi would say, everyone can be deceived, and these people just learnt this the hard way.

    Since there was eleven-hundred pages worth of investigation, I'd assume that each of these scenarios were examined, and the fact that the supervisors and examiners were blamed indicates that they were found to be incompetent (I've a feeling there's be a lot more information if they had been found to conspire). Regardless of the conclusion, the fact that the University decided to pardon the one who actively plagiarised demonstrates its decision-making is both questionable and morally bankrupt. The fact that his entire thesis was plagiarised indicates that he did not complete a PhD and thus doesn't deserve to have one awarded him.