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.

Daft things that happen in higher education – Number 1

We’ve just had to cancel a doctoral viva, and start again on the laborious process of finding a time that suits the student, external examiner and internal examiner. Nothing to do with the student or the examiners. But I work for an employer who insists that all staff must show a passport to prove that they are eligible to work in the UK.

We even have to present our passport if we have worked for the university for over a decade (as I had when the university told me to prove that I was who I said I was). Or, in the case of an external examiner, if you come from another UK university to do us a big favour. And my university isn’t unique.

I do not believe the official line about this being a Border Agency requirement. Even the battiest UKIP hardliner doesn’t believe that illegal immigrants will swarm into Britain to conduct doctoral examinations.

I have recently examined doctorates in two other universities, both large and distinguished, who did not ask to see my passport. They simply sent a letter of guidance on external examining, which included a sentence explaining that if I was not entitled to work in the UK, then I should let them know.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being an academic, and I don’t buy into the nonsense about administrators who contribute nothing but extra trouble. But this is a daft practice, and it is unnecessary. It makes us look silly and it wastes time. It’s not the only mildly irritating or baffling thing to go on in our much-loved sector, so expect another blog on this topic very shortly.