Open data, crowd-wisdom and ‘hunting plagiarists’ – how a group of activists is challenging the German academic system

Yesterday, the University of Cologne stripped off the title of one of their PhD graduates after a web-based plagiarism platform discovered significant amounts of allegedly plagiarised material in the Liberal Party Member of Parliament's dissertation. What started as a more organised and crowd-based project after the Minister of Defence resigned last year because of a plagiarised dissertation is slowly turning into a 'dissertation Wikileaks'. Except for a REUTERS article about a year ago, I couldn’t find any new English information on Vroni-Plag (named after the nickname of a former Bavarian Prime Minister’s daughter who also came under scrutiny of the project) and the potentially global implications it may have for PhD dissertations, academic accountability and issues of plagiarism and fraud.
[Update: WiseWoman @WeWuWiWo sent me a link to 'Copy, Shake, and Paste' which, among other issues on plagiarism, features some English posts on Vroni-Plag]

About 50% of the investigations focus on politicians and those have received wide-spread media attention. Although Vroni-Plag focuses on politicians (which immediately raised [Thanks WiseWoman & Debora Weber-Wulff for pointing out these figures]
There were also questions about political influencing, smear campaigns, and party politics (most of the checked dissertations were submitted by politicians of the ruling Christian Democratic/Liberal Party coalition); more importantly, the approach has raised quite a few broader questions that may also be applicable in other academic contexts:
  1. Many supervisors and universities haven’t been doing much about PhD plagiarism for a long time
  2. The prestige of the right title, faculty and supervisors often trumps academic merit
  3. Implications for broader debates on open data, transparency and digital accountability
Mainly to avoid charges of fraud, most of the culprits identified by Vroni-Plag claim lapses of judgement, working under pressure or lack of knowledge of citation rules for their ‘mistakes’ of plagiarising oftentimes substantial parts of their dissertation. Embarrassed supervisors often cite an ‘abuse of trust’ or working under pressure as to why after years of supposedly supervision they didn’t spot that the student plagiarised newspaper articles or standard literature of the subject area. In the end, although PhD dissertations have to be published in Germany, a ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ system evolved and since dissertations usually disappeared in a couple of libraries and the student didn’t pursue a career in academia this system worked relatively well. The Internet, crowd-based verification of large amounts of data such as a dissertation and an increasing pressure for universities to become more open about their scientific work have challenged the system.

Although German culture may differ from other contexts regarding the importance of being called a ‘doctor’, one of the reasons why politicians came into the spotlight is that it appears that quite a few just wanted the title on their CV and business card and universities were happy to comply.
All allegations about plagiarism aside, quite a few dissertations only have a questionable academic value added and were clearly not intended as a first stepping stone for academic careers. The traditional model where ‘the professor’ or, to use the literal translation, ‘the proprietor of the academic chair’ assembles a group of promising PhD students and advices them throughout the ‘rite of passage’ of the forefathers often found students without much supervision. Professors now have to be more careful and may even ask a research assistant to check parts of a dissertation online for plagiarism.
At the end of the day many questions remain: What would happen if a similar platform was to be adopted in other academic contexts? How ripe is/was plagiarism-especially in the pre-Internet age? Do institutions need to get involved more to protect their reputation and the reputation of their employees? How is it possible that a committee of experienced academics awards top grades for dissertations that contain a significantly plagiarised portion of text?

But despite the challenges (one of the founders was forced out of the project late last year), Vroni-Plag is an interesting case study of what can happen when data (i.e. an allegedly plagiarised dissertation) is globally available and a group of activist-academics comes together for crowd-based scrutiny. Even if judicial cases are pending, most universities have taken the findings from ‘the crowd’ seriously and revoked academic titles after internal investigations – not a small thing in a governance environment with old traditions and complicated procedures. In the end, Vroni-Plag is an interesting case study in creating new accountability in the ‘2.0 age’. As the number of PhD students in rising, there will hopefully also be discussions about the value of the degree especially if the aim is to have ‘those two letters [Dr.]’ in front of your name as the saying goes in Germany.
In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for similar initiatives in other countries and contexts and how they challenge the status quo of PhD studies and degrees.


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