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.

Another dodgy publisher’s email

I have just received the following email. You may have seen somethiing similar – and it is possible that less experienced colleagues might think it is authentic.

We are contacting you because you are the corresponding author on a paper that was published in 2009. We are conducting a survey about the perceptions scientists have of information providers in scientific, technical and medical research fields.  As only a carefully selected sample of scientists and practitioners have been chosen for the study, your feedback is very valuable to us.
The survey is being conducted by a scientific, technical and medical publisher who will be revealed at the end of the survey. Under the terms of the Market Research Society Code of Conduct, it will not lead to any sales follow up and no individual (or organization) will be identified. Your results will be kept confidential and used only for research purposes.
The email was unsigned but came from the following address: scholarlyresearch@us.confirmit.com. It isn’t the first time that this bunch asked me to take part in their surveys. Last time, I asked the British Market Research Society whether they knew anything about them, and they said that they did not. I’ve heard rumours that Elsevier are behind this initiative, which might not be surprising given the publisher’s reputation among researchers, but if so it seems a clumsy way of responding.
The email closes with the saccharine line:

Thank you very much for your time, we really value your input.
Sincere or what?

Why getting that first job is becoming harder

Are universities raising the bar for new academic staff? I had coffee with a friend, who said she thought the expectations for first positions had become higher over the last five or so years. After thinking about this, I reckon that this change has been going on incrementally for a lot longer than that.

In any department that has research ambitions, appointment panels expect new lecturers to have not only a doctorate, but also publications. The panel will measure those publications against the national quality assessment criteria, and in most cases they will want to appoint only people whose publications are good enough to enter in the assessment. The panel will also want some evidence that the new lecturer can write grant applications – and ideally has already written at least one successful bid.

Is this new? Well, when I got my first university position in the 1980s, Warwick already expected new lecturers to have these things. But Warwick was then thought rather a vulgar, jumped-up place, which had barely survived a closure threat in 1981. Back when I submitted my own PhD in 1979 (also at Warwick), my supervisor still hadn’t finished his own doctorate, and neither, for that matter, had his supervisor.

Anyone working in the sector will point to assessments of research quality as the most obvious and significant factor. The very language reflects this: appointment panels almost invariably ask ‘Is Dr X reffable?’ – a neologism that may mean little to people outside UK universities, but is critical within them. So the quality assessments, still carried out in the UK by peer review, have helped raise the entry threshold.

But the REF is hardly the only factor. Another one is the improved standard of doctoral training, at least at the upper end of the system. In the UK, this change has been largely thanks to the research councils, who have set out much more explicit standards for doctoral programmes, which are designed to produce more rounded and skilled researchers. It has also been promoted by increased international contact, which in my experience has encouraged academics to think more about how they prepare their own doctoral students, and has also help students learn from experience in other countries.

As universities across the world have started to raise their eyes beyond national horizons, so they have started to compare themselves with each other. World league tables emphasise global research achievement, whether measured through the number of Nobel prizes or average citations per publication per professor. Every university in the global top 200 has a vice chancellor who wants them to aim for the top 100, and those in the top 50 want to get into the top 10. And they hire faculty who will help them rise.

Internationalisation has also widened the pool of talent. When UK universities advertise a position, they expect to attract candidates from overseas. Local knowledge can be an advantage in some disciplines (teacher education, social work training, Scottish law) but in most disciplines it is pretty much irrelevant. In my first post, I had competed against 200 other people – every one of them from Britain or Ireland. Someone applying today faces talented competitors from Beijing, Brazil or Belgium, whose training and assumptions will be different from those whose horizons are limited to the local setting.

Is this a bad thing? Cultural nationalists may think so, as they would prefer to have – say – Quebec universities staffed mainly by people from Quebec. More significant, from my view, there is a high risk of cream-skimming, with universities plucking talented people from around the world – and inevitably rich universities in rich countries take talent away from poorer nations.

On the whole, though, I see academic mobility as a healthy development. Personally, I rather enjoy working alongside people who do not share my immediate sense of priorities and assumptions, but who instead challenge them and make me feel intellectually uncomfortable. I also think that research quality assessment, like internationalisation, has helped to raise the overall standard of academic research (though we may now be witnessing diminishing returns).

So I don’t mind too much that things have got tougher. I’m not worried that universities are chasing the next generation of highly creative and skilled researchers – the problem is that many of them simply cannot get jobs at the moment. So the challenge for more senior academics is to pay more attention to helping new scholars achieve the standards required for that first post – which may, by the way, be in a university outside their own country.