Out through the back door

After Guttenberg, Schavan, and similar incidents: Are German universities doing enough to prevent plagiarism?
Concha Mayo via Unsplash

There was only one person appointed as a professor by the International School of Management (ISM) Cologne this summer, Dr Ulrich Lichtenthaler. A side note: were it not for the economists’ astounding reputation. In 2013, Lichtenthaler lost his teaching qualification after it became public that he had not always observed good academic practices, to put it mildly. He was forced to withdraw over a dozen of his publications due to plagiarism and statistical inconsistencies. Now, five years later, he is teaching students once again.

The announcement raises many questions and seems to counteract everything German universities are doing to fight plagiarism, especially after the case of Annette Schavan. That case, which broke in 2012, involved none less than the Federal Minister for Education and Research being suspected of copying major sections of her dissertation from a 1980 work. A commission at the University of Düsseldorf, where Schavan received her PhD, investigated the case, looked at the dissertation, and determined that she had intentionally committed fraud. Schavan’s doctoral degree was revoked in February of 2013. There was a major outcry as leading academics and politicians leaped to Schavan’s defence and attacked the university. Her misconduct took a back seat to the circus, and ultimately it was the academy that suffered. Schavan stepped down as Federal Minister, and her suit to restore her doctoral degree was struck down by the courts.

How important is this issue for universities?

Universities have done quite a lot since then, however, and they started before the case began. At least, that’s what they say. Critics say universities have not been doing very much at all. Efficient measures to prevent plagiarism are still lacking. Misconduct is still not being dealt with openly. So, six years after Schavan, what is working?

Prof. Debora Weber-Wulff takes a deep breath and puffs into the telephone receiver in disappointment. German universities, she says, lack a “culture of citation”. She does not approve of what universities have done since Schavan’s case made national headlines. The Berlin professor and media technology specialist has been working to clean up academia for many years. Weber-Wulff, 61, hunts down plagiarism and co-founded the VroniPlag Wiki platform. She reviews academic works, researches and discovers suspected cases, and submits indictments. She is annoyed because she believes universities continue to brush off plagiarism as a minor matter.

Instead of a culture of citation, it seems that a “culture of bad academic practice has taken root” here in Germany, she says. “Students imitate what they see. Unfortunately, since there are some people in the upper echelons who like to take shortcuts, students imitate this as well. They learn, for instance, that you can publish a paper multiple times.” Or they learn that, like Lichtenthaler, you can still be a professor after multiple incidents of misconduct.

Prof. Stephan Rixen is well aware of this problem. The legal scholar from the University of Bayreuth is also the spokesman for the “German Research Ombudsmen” committee, established in 1999 by the Senate of the German Research Foundation. He advises universities and academics on questions related to good academic practice, and he has extensive insight into how German universities operate. Rixen feels the critique is exaggerated and advocates for a more nuanced view. The glass is half full, not half empty, he says, and there is a lot going on, “especially in the areas of prevention, training, and raising awareness.” Young scholars are more sensitised to issues surrounding misconduct, particularly in graduate schools.

Rixen specifically names the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf as one positive example. University leadership there worked to identify ways to prevent plagiarism more effectively; their goal was to determine what lessons could be drawn from Schavan’s case. They adjusted their PhD graduation regulations so that they were uniform across departments. PhD students now have to register and submit a concept. Two advisers are assigned to each dissertation from the start—the student’s primary adviser and another independent person to act as a mentor. The student concludes an advising agreement with the advisers. The student should meet their advisers at least once a year and must describe their progress on the dissertation in a mandatory progress report. Each PhD candidate must also complete at least one course to train them on good academic practice.

A reporting system provides a good overview

Dr Peter Westhoff, molecular biologist and Prorector for Research and Transfer at Heinrich-Heine University, is convinced these measures are having an impact. “They help us clearly indicate that the doctoral student is responsible for complying with the rules of good academic practice. However, they also clearly show that professors and advisers must be involved. They have an obligation to train and develop young academics,” he says. “When you meet regularly and talk to one another, you can tell whether things are going well and what needs to change.”

Administrators at Heinrich-Heine University have also been assigned responsibility for fostering good academic practices. In the future, statistics on cases of plagiarism will be recorded in an internal university reporting system to give administrators an overview of the situation. The register is not public. Debora Weber-Wulff feels the ideas being implemented in Düsseldorf are positive, although she says the changes do not go far enough. Progress at German universities is “tentative” at best, she says. Dissertations are just one aspect, although the problem itself is a university-wide issue. Differences between universities can also be enormous.

A survey conducted by OpenD at randomly selected German universities seems to support this assumption. Only some administrators are taking an offensive approach to the topic of misconduct, like Prof. Georg Krausch, President of the Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz. He writes that his university had already developed several measures to “put the focus on prevention and on conveying an academic ethos” before the Schavan case came to light. Students should learn about the rules that govern academic work and academic practices early on, “ideally starting in elementary school.”

Just like Weber-Wulff, Krausch feels teachers act as role models. The “Academic Integrity” project is designed to sensitise IGU employees themselves to misconduct. It also provides training formats for instructors, guidelines for handling fraud, and continued training to teach good academic practices. “Awareness of others’ intellectual property rights and the obligation to consistently question your own and others results and procedures is something that has to be practised, promoted, and demonstrated,” says Krausch. This takes “a positive climate of teaching and learning.” He says that increased controlling is not the answer, and “does not serve” the goal of creating this kind of atmosphere.

However, the OpenD survey shows that not every environment is this open. The topic of plagiarism elicits a powerful and striking defensive reflex among universities. They may delay answering inquiries about plagiarism or rush to interpret them as accusations. When asked whether the University of Duisburg-Essen had made changes to how it handles plagiarism following the Schavan case, a PR spokesman blurted out: “What does that have to do with us?”

It is precisely this attitude that Debora Weber-Wulff finds problematic. Universities, she says, tend to avoid conflict and are afraid of attracting public attention. They are afraid of suits or of damage to their reputations. Because of this, they prefer to cover up problems instead of bringing them to light and working through them. She speaks from experience with the topic: When VroniPlag Wiki finds an incident of plagiarism, she contacts universities and provides them with full documentation of the issue. “But universities take forever to process the cases,” she says.

A lack of information infrastructure

Here is one example: In January 2017, Weber-Wulff reported a case of plagiarism discovered and documented by VroniPlag Wiki to the LMU Munich, as well as two additional cases in September 2017. All three students received their doctoral degrees from LMU’s medical department. Some of these dissertations even included uncited passages lifted directly from Wikipedia. Weber-Wulff says she has not heard anything more about the status of the investigation since then. In response to an inquiry, LMU said proceedings were still ongoing. Two of the cases would “be closed soon,” while the third required “further investigations,” the university said. Meanwhile, all three dissertations are still freely available from the LMU library catalogue, without any reference to the ongoing proceedings.

Weber-Wulff believes many universities see their reputations as more important than good academic practice. “What the universities don’t seem to understand is that missing a case of plagiarism is not a disgrace. The disgrace is in covering up the plagiarism,” she says. Too often, she feels, universities take the back door when they should be investigating misconduct.

Take Hannover Medical School, for example. VroniPlag Wiki reported six cases of plagiarism to the school. In response to her later inquiry, Debora Weber-Wulff says the university told her it had issued reprimands. University regulations, however, said nothing about such reprimands. “This is a giant problem, because the dissertation is published and remains accessible, although academics cannot tell from the text that it is plagiarised,” she says. This disrupts academic communication. University administrators believe protecting the school is what is most important. “Of course, no one knows if the university issues a reprimand, the students retain their doctoral degrees, and no one knows anything about the misconduct.”

Ombudsman Stephan Rixen also feels there is room for improvement in clarifying alleged cases of fraud. “I am all for ensuring plagiarism is investigated quickly. But speed must not come at the cost of diligence,” he says. “Likewise, it must not come at the cost of people who are only suspected of misconduct.” Therefore, “the trustworthiness of the academy, the personal rights of those involved, and the public’s legitimate interest in information must be weighed” in each case. The limits set by data protection laws must also be observed.

This leaves the question of what a culture of citation like the one Debora Weber-Wulff wants to see at universities would actually look like. She knows that there is “no single recipe” for good academic practice. However, she believes that this culture must come from the top down, starting with university administration. They must make it clear that “we do not steal texts”. Events to discuss the issue are essential; universities must talk openly and honestly about the topic in an “atmosphere free from fear”. Good academic practice must be demonstrated and exemplified. Seminars on good academic practices should be mandatory, not voluntary, to increase course enrolments.

“I want to see a shock wave sweep over the university landscape,” says Weber-Wulff. She also says politicians could be doing more. In response to the idea of setting up more information centres, for instance, universities often say they do not have enough money, space, or personnel to do so. Because of this, Weber-Wulff is likely to remain the “country’s unofficial information centre”, as she puts it, for quite some time to come. Many years ago, she says, she once suggested setting up a federal information centre for good academic practice to Education Minister Annette Schavan. Her answer? First of all, that it was a problem for the individual states. Second, Ms Schavan said she preferred to trust in “the academy’s ability to purify itself”.

To learn more about this issue, see:

The Plagiarism portal of the HTW Berlin – University of Applied Sciences

The German Research Ombudsmen of the German Research Association

“A Guide to Ethical Writing”, Office of Research Integrity, USA