Tackling plagiarism in doctoral research

Universities in Germany have an unenviable task ahead of them. Despite a proud tradition of doctoral research, they have in recent years faced a mounting barrage of accusations of plagiarism. Most of the complaints have centred on politicians, who are in the public limelight. But if prominent politicians have plagiarised large parts of their doctoral theses, then of course the reputation of the whole system is at stake. And other cases are now coming to light, thanks to online plagiarism detection forums like VroniPlag.

So a lot rides on the question of how plagiarism accusations are dealt with. At its latest meeting, the conference of university rectors decided to advise its members that all cases of misconduct in doctoral research – plagiarism, data falsification,  unethical conduct – should in future be dealt with in private hearings, led by the university’s Ombudsperson.

At first, this sounds reasonable. Public debate over allegations is likely to taint the reputation and career of the accused, even if it ends by finding no misconduct. But there is a problem. All the cases detected so far have been investigated solely because the complainant decided to go public. Efforts to tackle the problem inside the system came to nothing. Inevitably, then, plenty of people are asking whether the university rectors are simply trying to sweep the problem under the carpet.

It’s tempting to see this as a specifically German problem, and nothing to do with the rest of us. Except that several other cases have come to light in other countries – and we can presumably expect more now that digitised doctoral theses are routinely published in institutional repositories.

Even one proven case of misconduct is enough to do incalculable reputational damage – to the individual, the university and the sector. Somehow, institutions need to develop procedures that combine protection of the innocent with enough transparency to assure the research community – and wider public – that malpractice is not being tolerated.

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