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A question of honour


Universities must learn lessons from the Guttenberg case. Ten theories on the right way to handle poor or plagiarised work.

A question of honour© P_Wei - iStockphoto.comThe Guttenberg case can teach important lessons for the academic system
Throughout its history, the academic world has seen plenty of cheating, and plenty of shame when the cheating is discovered. "The heights to which a man ascends when awarded a title are nothing compared to the depths to which he falls when it is revoked." This quote is from legal scholar Paul Laband (1838 to 1918). It is hard to tell how low those depths will ultimately be for German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as a result of his doctoral thesis. Meanwhile, the case can teach the academic system some important lessons.

1. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is causing an affront to academia

Of all qualifications, a doctorate is the most important. It proves the ability to perform independent research and opens the door to academia. Any suspicion that it might be possible to obtain this fraudulently without punishment places the credibility of the university on the line. It fuels anti-intellectual mistrust that the academic world is economical with the truth. "The PR impact of this case is already disastrous," says the President of the Deutsche Hochschulverband (German Association of University Professors and Lecturers), Bernhard Kempen. He sees it as creating the "completely false impression that universities are hotbeds of lies and deceit." The damage to the image of the University of Bayreuth is particularly severe. Guttenberg is one of the university's most prominent alumni. The university actively uses him in its promotion. In May, he is to present doctoral students with their doctorate certificate in an official ceremony. The university's once highly respected Legal Faculty now comes across as a diploma mill which awards the top mark "summa cum laude" according to the VIP status of its doctoral candidates. The reputation of Guttenberg's doctoral thesis supervisor, Peter Häberle, has also been damaged. He is one of the top names in German constitutional law. In the eyes of the public, he now seems a foolish and bumbling professor who can easily have the wool pulled over his eyes. With his announcement that he will no longer use the title in future, Guttenberg is subjecting the university to further ridicule. The doctorate that was once so important to him is now endangering his career. It has become superfluous. He is already making academic honours a public joke. The doctoral cap is becoming a dunce's cap.

2. The University of Bayreuth should punish Guttenberg for cheating

To save its honour and spare academia from allegations of not taking its own rules seriously, the University of Bayreuth must impose the severest punishment on Guttenberg: revocation of the title of Doctor due to deliberate cheating. It would speed up the process to revoke his doctorate merely due to failure to comply with standards, but this would be tantamount to complicity with Guttenberg. It would perfectly fit with the defence minister's self-exoneration strategy - he just got a bit muddled, that was all. It can easily happen with his many duties and obligations! That the author of the doctoral thesis deliberately and systematically committed plagiarism is implied not just by the sheer quantity of passages copied from other works, but particularly by the key passages where the author borrows the ideas of other academics, in the introduction and in the sections of his work where he draws interim conclusions. No professor would even begin to read a dissertation that starts with a 20-line quote. Which is why - or so it is strongly suspected - the doctoral candidate deliberately concealed the source of this passage of text.

3. Despite all the accusations, Guttenberg is an exception among doctoral students

The extent of Guttenberg's misconduct surprises even professors whose job it is to deal with cheating. "I've never seen such a serious case," says Hans-Heinrich Trute, Professor of Law at the University of Hamburg and ombudsman of the German Research Foundation for six years. Contrary to what many suspect, plagiarism on a large scale is in no way typical of the behaviour of German academics. There are no valid statistics on this. The only known cases are those where a doctorate was revoked. Projected over a year, there are perhaps two dozen revocations across all universities. The number of undiscovered incidents of cheating is certainly a lot higher. But even if the number of undiscovered cases is, say, ten times higher, this means that "only" one percent of Doctors obtained their academic title unethically. Media scientist Stefan Weber estimates the number of instances of plagiarism in final theses at precisely this value. The vast majority of doctoral students gain their title by the sweat of their brow - mostly with only a meagre grant or alongside their work as a professor's assistant. These honest doctoral students must also feel ridiculed by Guttenberg.

4. Students must learn honesty first

In many cases, copying is a bad habit that students bring with them from school (see article on next page). In a survey of social-science and humanities students at the University of Münster, around 60 percent admitted to transcribing from the Internet, and 20 percent to copying long passages. And indeed, there is a lack of education on this at the start of courses. In every student's first term, he or she should actually be taught correct academic procedures in a proseminar. This should address more than just "whether a footnote should be terminated with a full stop or not", says Berlin plagiarism expert Debora Weber-Wulff. She explains that many students would not understand what quotations are really about. However, this seems to change gradually as studies progress. The cheating primarily concerns assignments. For their final theses for the Diplom, Bachelor's or Master's degree, prospective academics behave more diligently. Or at least, this is what the experiences of professors, who now use anti-plagiarism software, suggest. When Hamburg legal scholars began systematically checking examination theses for plagiarism two years ago, they suspected they were about to open a can of worms. In fact, they only unmasked a few sinners. "Systematic cheating among students is not a mass phenomenon," says legal specialist Hans-Heinrich Trute.

5. The Internet makes it easier to steal intellectual property - but also to track down cheats

Like all thieves, plagiarists also leave behind clues. These can be detected just like fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Modern computer programs chop up students' work into word snippets and then look for similarities with billions of documents from special databases and the Internet. The world market leader, Turnitin software from the USA, can check around 150,000 student texts per day. At the end, the program marks suspicious passages in colour and provides a match value. The whole process takes just a few minutes. An experienced user can identify the marked passages as actual breaches of the quotation rules in an equally short time. However, as plagiarism expert Weber-Wulff has demonstrated, even the best software can only detect brainless thieves who brazenly copy directly from the Internet. Those who paraphrase or translate often slip through the net. Obscure and old specialist literature also remains largely undiscovered. If the program does not find any transcribed text passages, this still does not, therefore, guarantee the honesty of the author. Most plagiarists, however, do indeed behave as brazenly as Guttenberg. Because they do not have enough time, they do not even try to cover their tracks. Someone who wants to cheat without being discovered does in fact need a good knowledge of the subject and its literature. This type of cheating takes almost as much effort as working ethically.

6. Deterrents work!

Increasing numbers of faculties - at the universities of Hamburg, Bielefeld, Bochum and Munich - are using anti-cheating programs and are satisfied with these. The obligation to submit every assignment digitally and a warning about "random plagiarism checks", as stipulated in the guidelines of the Munich psychologists, have a disciplinary effect in themselves. "Our strategy is to increase the risks," says Wolfgang Löwer, current research ombudsman and Professor of Law at the University of Bonn, who also uses this type of software. However, critics warn that, by implementing systematic random honesty checks, the university is promoting a culture of mistrust and snooping. The President of the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (Association of German Historians), Werner Plumpe, for example, regards the "automated checks" as jeopardising the "trust between professor and student". This need not necessarily be the case though. Doping controls in sport do not damage the relationship between trainers and players. They only reduce the risk of cheating. Anti-cheating software in academia has a similar effect.

7. Intensive support prevents cheating

An anonymous lie is easier than telling a bare-faced lie to someone's face. Cheating at an event with 150 students presents less of a hurdle than palming off a copied assignment on the professor in a small seminar. The better the support, therefore, and the more personal the contact between lecturers and students, the lower the risk of cheating. This applies especially to the relationship between professors and doctoral students. Normally, the two are bound by a research relationship. When a doctoral student begins his voyage into academic uncharted waters, he is usually required to repeatedly provide an account of this in consultations and doctoral seminars over the course of many years. It takes almost criminal energy to cheat in the context of such a close relationship - which often also extends into the private sphere. The assertions of Guttenberg's doctoral thesis supervisor, Peter Häberle, that he was in very close contact with the politician are therefore hard to comprehend.

8. Cheats should be punished - especially if they are professors

Universities have taken a number of steps over the last few years to enforce their own rules. All universities today have an ombudsman and special commissions to investigate academic misconduct. However, they are unwilling to impose severe punishments - particularly in the upper echelons of the academic hierarchy. Degree students or doctoral students who are proven to have stolen from someone else's work usually receive a bad mark. If the breach of rules is serious, the university may exmatriculate them or - as in North Rhine-Westphalia - impose a fine. However, professors are much more lenient on others of their own rank. Munich Professor of Law Volker Rieble refers to "Krähensyndrom" ("crow syndrome", i.e. a crow never pecks out the eyes of another crow). In his book "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat", he lists a whole range of cases of professors cheating, most of which led to no (major) consequences. Ombudsman Löwer also criticises the "unwillingness to sanction" colleagues. It should be the other way round: a professor knows exactly what is allowed and what is forbidden and he should set an example. If he breaches standards, he should be publicly punished - or excluded from the academic community.

9. The tide of doctorates needs to be stemmed

25,000 doctorates are awarded every year by German universities, more than the universities in almost any other country. Many students study for doctorates not out of academic curiosity but out of vanity or because they do not have anything else to do. In Anglo-Saxon countries, Mr. Smith is still Mr. Smith whatever his academic achievements. In Germany, he becomes a Dr., even on his passport. Universities should stop throwing academic titles around like confetti and reserve doctorates for those who are genuinely drawn to academia. This is true of medics above all, whose doctoral theses are often not worthy of the name. In other subjects too, many dissertations do little more than create work and take up time for all concerned. They hardly make any contribution to academic progress. To gain access to doctoral studies, the candidates should have to apply to the university as they do in Anglo-Saxon countries. This prevents cronyism. People who are not at a university should only be allowed to study for doctorates in a few exceptional cases. It is no coincidence that law faculties are particularly prone to research cheating - a lot of their doctorates are "external". One and a half years ago, it came out that dozens of doctoral students had paid ghost-writers to write their dissertations. Not one of these students was connected to a university.

10. Titles have no place in the German Bundestag

If the rule of awarding doctorates only to academics working in the academic profession was taken seriously, then many political parties, law chambers and businesses would have to do without their doctors. But they would cope. And their loss would be academia's gain. The Bundestag could set an example in the efforts to stem the preposterous tide of German academic titles. It is almost laughable how the Bundestag members with doctorates are summoned by their title before they step up to the lectern. It's not as if this helps them make a better speech.

From DIE ZEIT :: 24.02.2011