Wiki hates plagiarism

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, now ex vice president of the European Parliament, had never the reputation of being the most studious of her parliamentary group (CC-BY-SA, Muffinmampfer)

In Germany the media report about a wave of politicians losing their PhD degrees and public offices. Anonymous plagiarism fighters use wikis to unravel academic fraud.

It started in February with Guttenplag Wiki, founded by User:PlagDoc to examine the plagiarism a law professor had seen in the PhD thesis of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. On March 1st, Guttenberg resigned as German minister of defense.

User:Goalgetter then wanted to examine some other PhD thesises, but User:PlagDoc refused. So User:Goalgetter founded a new wiki, also at wikia.com, called VroniPlag. The object of interest was the thesis of Veronica Saß, the daughter of the former Bavarian prime minister Stoiber. The university of Konstanz now seized her degree. By the way, the hint to have a look at Saß’ thesis came from a Konstanz IP.

The next succes of VroniPlag was to bring down the political career of Silvana Koch-Mehrin, vice president of the European Parliament (of the liberal parliamentary group). She decided to remain a member of parliament, but withdrew as vice president and as member of the highest organ of her national party, the liberal FDP.

Another German liberal European MP on the list of VroniPlag is Jorgo Chatzimarkakis. Ironically, Chatzimarkakis on his own web site says that he wants to fight for intellectual property and against the stealing of knowledge. Matthias Pröfrock, a state representative for the Christian Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, chose not to use his degree until further examination of his former university of Tübingen.

User:Goalgetter described himself in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine as an independent entrepreneur with a lot of conservative clients who might disapprove his anti-plagiarism actions. Also plagiarism hunters linked to universities are afraid that they might suffer negative consequences should their activism become public. User:Goalgetter said that until February he did not have anything against Guttenberg or his Christian Social politics, he thought he was fresh and accurate and was deceived like most others.  Then minister Guttenberg was outed as a fraud but admitted nothing. “We are the physicians of society. We see the flaws in the sick system, we must unravel them to make society become a better one.”

But who will go to the prestigious Grimme Awards for VroniPlag and possibly accept an award? The VroniPlaggers are not unanimous, some suggested that Wikia-collaborator (and Wikipedian) Tim Barthel should attend. User:Goalsetter himself would like the group to go with baseball caps and sunglasses.

Doktorvater

'Fraud is not a footnote': protest in Berlin on Saturday, against 'the disgraceful behavior of the minister of defense, the chancellor and the parliament groups supporting the government' (fleeex, CC-BY-SA)

Last one and a half week, when Germany’s academic and politic world was occupied with a minister’s plagiarism, the public response made many of us feeling quite uncomfortable. People unfamiliar with the rules of scientific methods obviously find it difficult to understand what the fuzz is all about. I would like to write about one part in this drama, the unhappy thesis supervisor. In German, we call such a professor Doktorvater (‘father’ of the doctoral candidate).

A Doktorvater is not simply a school teacher you have because you were born by chance in this or other district. When a young scientist has made up his mind and wants to obtain a PhD degree, he is looking for a Doktorvater and presents himself as a doctoral candidate. He hopes to find the optimal support from this specific professor. The Doktorvater, on his side, decides to accept the young scientist because he trusts in him; he desires to pass his experience, knowledge and scientific ethics through to the next generation.

The band between doctoral candidate and Doktorvater is a very special one. Our modern universities have their origins in the European middle ages. Think about the feudal ties between a king and someone he has knighted. They expect consilium et auxilium from each other, advice and help. In this light one must understand the solemnity of the doctoral ceremony. With every scientific activity, I try to do honor to my Doktorvater in Utrecht.

On February 16th 2011, minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has first been accused of plagiarism in his PhD thesis of 2006. His Doktorvater, eminent professor of public law Peter Häberle, immediately renounced the possibility that zu Guttenberg has committed this utmost crime against academic integrity. Zu Guttenberg had been one of his best students, he said.

One might say that Häberle should have waited with such a statement. Maybe he accepted too many doctoral candidates, maybe he was bedazzled by the dashing and eloquent aristocrat. Nevertheless, Häberle was the first and primal victim in this case. His reaction was just too human; he instinctively protected his former student and could not believe in a breach of confidence to this extent.

Häberle, embarrassed in the most extreme way, remained silent and allowed contact only to a small group of friends. It was not earlier than today that he spoke to the press:

The failings discovered in the  PhD thesis of Mr. zu Guttenberg, unimaginable to me, are grave and not acceptable. They contradict to what I tried to live and convey as good scientific practice for decades.

He regrets his early, hasty statement that the thesis was no plagiarism.

And zu Guttenberg? We see no sign of shame. When he smilingly ‘apologized’ in public for the ‘unintended flaws’ in his thesis, he did not find it necessary to mention his Doktorvater at all.

Plagiarism and Wikipedia

After zu Guttenberg declared on Monday that he will use his PhD no longer, the case is still not closed. But the media echo has already shown what people think about plagiarism and Wikipedia.

First, it is amazing that minister zu Guttenberg enjoys so much enduring support from a large majority of the Germans. According to a poll 73 % are content with his political work. This in spite of the critical comments of the media, left-wing or right-wing (with the exception of tabloid king BILD). Plagiarism, a deathly sin in the eyes of scientists and Wikipedians, does not bother the larger population. Concepts of copyrigt or even free knowledge are too complex to be understood fully (and why they are so important).

The extend of the shamelessness, visualized with the pages of the PhD thesis: pages with plagiarism (black), pages with plagiarism from more than one source (red), pages taken over probably from an unpublished Bundestag service paper (yellow), table of content and appendix (blue). Pages related to plagiarism: 270 out of ca. 400 (without table of content and appendix). (GuttenPlag Wiki, PD)

FAZ analyses the astonishing arguments submitted by his fans. Cheating happens everywhere, there are more important things, and chancellor Merkel said that she hired a minister of defense, not a research assistant. FAZ, usually called a centre-right newspaper, itself finds the proceeding of the PhD thesis of zu Guttenberg ‘unexampledly shameless.’

 

Second, when commentators discuss the issue plagiarism or this specific case, the name of Wikipedia appears frequently. Deutschlandradio believes that homework can be done much quicker ‘thanks to Wikipedia’ than in previous times. Eichstätt promovendus Christian Klenk calls it the ‘Google-Wikipedia-syndrome’: Wikipedia is not trustworthy because everything can be changed so easily, and Google hits are selected due to their popularity, not scientific value.

So Wikipedia is associated with plagiarism and other undesired behavior – although especially Wikipedians point out the importance of media literacy and scientific decency. The negative consequence of our success.

 

 

The borrowings of Freiherr von und zu Googleberg

 

The German minister of (self) defense (Bundeswehr-Fotos, CC-BY-SA)

Germany’s minister of defense, Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, is under actual fire: Of course the political opposition has already considered to call for his resignation, although the opposition leaders are relatively quiet. They suppose that the plagiarism case will go on without their help. His liberal minister colleagues refused to comment. The university of Bayreuth gives Dr. ctrl-c two weeks to explain the verbatim ‘borrowings’. According to GuttenPlag Wiki they are more than 80, from 15 different authors.

 

GuttenPlag Wiki brought forward a list of arguments whether zu Guttenberg could have used the services of a ghostwriter. The main argument is the enormously stupid way parts of other works were taken over, even the first sentences of the introduction (!) – which is starting with the American state dictum E pluribus unum (sounds like an ironic hint how the thesis was written).  The true author of the lines is Professor Barbara Zehnpfennig writing for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Freiherr von Copy zu Paste on Friday declared that he made ‘mistakes’ and that he will ‘temporarily’ not use his PhD degree until the university delivers judgement. He refused to resign as minister and repeated that the thesis was written by nobody else but him. The allegations are particularly unpleasant for zu Guttenberg now because he recently suspendend the Gorch Fock commander from office not waiting for the final conclusions of a commission of inquiry.

Some reactions:

Frankfurter Rundschau collected some jokes:

  • Minister of employment Ursula von der Leyen wants no longer to sit next to zu Guttenberg in the cabinet because he cribs all the time.
  • Question in the ministry of defense: ‘Where is the photocopier?’ Answer: ‘Oh sorry, the minister is in Afghanistan at the moment.’

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, one of zu Guttenberg’s victims, is cool enough to advertise now with the ‘summa cum laude’ of the university of Bayreuth. The university itself may no longer want to use zu Guttenberg’s testimony in a video clip. Zu Guttenberg answers two questions to young people: What to study? Law, ‘it pays off’. And where? No question, in Bayreuth of course.

A wiki way to unravel plagiarism

 

Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (picture: zu Guttenberg, Bundestag office, CC-BY-SA)

Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg is well-known to Wikipedians since the “Falscher Wilhelm” case of February 2009. When the Christian Social politician became federal minister in Germany, someone added an additional first name (Wilhelm) in zu Guttenberg’s Wikipedia article. Magazine Der SPIEGEL took over the ‘wrong Wilhelm’, and subsequently Wikipedia quoted from Der SPIEGEL to prove that Wilhelm was indeed another name of the minister.

 

Since Thursday (February 15th) zu Guttenberg, minister of defense since late 2009, is accused of plagiarism. His PhD thesis of 2006 seems to show striking similarities with newspapers articles and other texts. Famous plagiarism hunter and Wikipedian Debora Weber-Wulff complains about unreferenced one-by-one-copies in zu Guttenberg’s thesis.

Wikia hosts now a new wiki, the GuttenPlag Wiki. Volunteers collaborate to find and expose more and more parts of the thesis that were obviously not written by zu Guttenberg but taken over unreferenced.

Zu Guttenberg is the most popular politician in Germany. His Wikipedia article (in German)  has been viewed on Wednesday 44,900 times, compared to 1,600 views the previous day. A similar page view career made the article ‘Plagiat’, from 438 to 6,200 views.