Yet another plagiarism rant – and one about garden fascism

Tonight, the German cultural TV program aspekte showed a good report about the German plagiarism hunters including an interview with Debora Weber-Wulff, a German informatics professor and plagiarism hunter. Debora Weber-Wulff also writes the English language plagiarism blog Copy, Shake and Paste.

Talking of plagiarism blogs (and how sad is it that we need dedicated plagiarism blogs), here is another interesting plagiarism blog, this time in German: De Plagio.

Meanwhile, the good people of VroniPlag already have further German politicians in their sights, namely Margarita Mathiopoulos, another FDP politician and professor of international security at the University of Potsdam, Uwe Brinkmann, a local politician from Hamburg and finally a Social Democratic plagiarist, albeit a rightwing Social Democrat, Bijan Djir-Sarai, an Iranian refugee who came to Germany as a child and is yet another member of the liberal party FDP.

Margarita Mathiopoulos (What is it with Greek-German FDP politicians and plagiarism?) was already suspected of plagiarism back in the late 1980s (here is a Spiegel article about the case from 1989) and VroniPlag is now using current technology and crowdsourcing to examine her dissertation yet again.

The leftwing newspaper TAZ also has an article on the Uwe Brinkmann case.

Finally, here is an article about the Bijan Djir-Sarai case from the Neue Grevenbroicher Zeitung, Djir-Sarai’s hometown paper.

So far all suspected and proven political plagiarists have been right of center, namely members of the conservative parties CDU/CSU and the liberal party FDP (“liberal” in the European sense, the US equivalent would be “liberterian”). So far, members of the Social Democractic, Green and Left parties have not been caught plagiarizing. This has given rise to the claim – mostly from the affected parties – that the plagiarism hunters are specifically targeting right of center politicians.

So it’s notable that we now have the first plagiarism case involving a Social Democratic politician. Two, if you include Margarita Mathiopoulos who was affiliated with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s before joining the liberal party. Interestingly, both Brinkmann (and Mathiopoulos if you want to include her) belong/used to belong to the centrist/right wing of the SPD.

Why do the plagiarists seem to be concentrated on one side of the political spectrum? I am not sure, but I suspect that those on the right side of the political spectrum tend to be more likely to pursue a doctorate mainly for the career boost. And purely career oriented doctoral candidates are perhaps more likely to be unwilling (or unable, since they have demanding careers in addition to their studies) to put in the necessary work and therefore resort to shortcuts such as plagiarism.

By the way, there actually are still people who defend plagiarists. Today I chanced to talk to someone about the Althusmann case (see my write-up here) with whom I also talked shortly after the Guttenberg case broke. Back then, this person refused to believe that Guttenberg might be guilty (because he’s such a – quote – “wonderful person”), now he refuses to believe that Althusmann might be guilty. And anyway, he doesn’t see what the big fuss about a few footnotes is anyway and we should not judge those poor plagiarists, because judging is wrong. Coincidentally, this person is very conservative, very law and order oriented and considers a neighbour’s untidy garden is a personal affront to himself and has threatened to take legal action against said neighbour for not keeping the garden tidy. He also complained loudly that everybody gets to paint their house as they please, thus destroying the orderly appearance of the street. I muttered under my breath about “bloody German garden fascism”* and got ugly looks from everyone at the table, because upsetting someone’s party is worse than sueing your neighbours for not conforming to your stupid order fetish.

So not mowing your lawn is a worse offense in this person’s eyes than cheating on your doctoral dissertation. And while it is okay to judge people for not keeping their garden tidy, it is absolutely not okay to judge them for plagiarizing. Honestly, I wonder what sort of world this person lives in. It’s a scary place, that much is for sure.

On the other hand, he might also be in denial about his political heroes – and it’s pretty obvious that he votes on that side of the political spectrum – falling like dominoes.

*Garden fascism is the insistence that a garden must meet some arbitrarily set standards of orderliness and that failing to meet those standards is somehow a terrible crime. Hating garden work and daring to say so is another hanging offense in the eyes of the common garden fascist. Garden fascism does not care about beauty – in fact, the gardens of garden fascists are often stunningly ugly – it only cares about order. The condition is sadly widespread in Germany, particularly in rural and suburban areas.

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5 Responses to Yet another plagiarism rant – and one about garden fascism

  1. Peer says:

    “So not mowing your lawn is a worse offense in this person’s eyes than cheating on your doctoral dissertation.”
    I think this person don’t understand the fundamental scientific process. Why? Because nobody explains him how it works. It’s as simple as that.
    Is it his fault?
    I don’t think so.
    We, the scientific community, must leave the ivory tower and comunicate much more with “normal” people. They don’t know about our needs. We must tell them that stealing a idea or thought is the same as stealing money. People with no scientific background are not aware about this obviousness.
    Another point is that many people think we, the science people, understand ourselves as the elite – and, c’mon, a bit elite-bashing is fun…

    • Christoph Jansen says:

      Most people do not understand the fundamental scientific process. And, alas, they never will. I have to say that because there are many people around me that I have tried to convey that to, but mostly without success. Not even my colleagues in our astronomical society can understand it, although we surely have scientific debates and talks about methods quite often.

      Do I only value the work of a sailor on a sailing ship if I really know how it is done and what there is to it? No, and that is the way it is with most parts of society. We simply have to accept that a certain profession or group requires certain special prerequisits. This has nothing to do with an ivory tower or with elitist attitudes.

      Science has two major prerequisits. The first is that anything you claim or publish has to be backed with all evidence, data and sources you have, thus making it fully retracable and capable of being put to the test. This especially means that you have to openly declare, which exact part of any claims or theses is yours and what sources you used to get there. This also means that there is a clearly distinguished line between other people’s achievements and your own ones.

      The second one is truthfullness. You may be wrong, you may be mistaken, you may have misinterpreted – all this is part of the process, it does not disqualify you in any way as long as you are honest about it. It may not make you the sharpest one among your colleagues, who might see the errors earlier.

      But, as soon as you prove to be dishonest and to either twist facts to support a claim or to steal other people’s ideas to claim them as your own, you are dead in the scientific community. The reason for this is simply that you always have to be able to rely on anything that is claimed in science as being said from a vantage point that is as objective as possible. Otherwise you create a maze of irretracable half-thruths and lies which may require a total rework of the field affected. In some sciences with fatal consequences to people, but the principle is the same in any sciences and it is strict and without exemption.

      Above all utilitarian considerations, this is the central ethical self-commitment any scientist has to make and has to strive not to violate. Failing to do so can terminate even the most brilliant career without further notice.

      If that is what can be conveied to the public, then this is very much. Especially in times where ethical considerations often seem to fall back behind utilitarism and it is very hard for Joe Public to believe that scientists really take this as seriously as it sounds.

      And above that, in my mind, we need to convey that thus anybody that willingly takes on the task of writing a scientific paper or thesis and just for the sake of getting his Dr. in front of his name disregards this ethical baseline simply proves that he is a deeply flawed character without any real sense of responsibility. Which, in turn, also must be said of scientific people who tolerate or foster such behaviour.

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  3. Christoph Jansen says:

    In fact, VroniPlag does not look at the politicial orientation of any plagiarist in any way whatever. Cases are usually brought in from third parties and are only accepted while these parties can present a number of significantly plagiarized locations together with their alleged true sources. Only after this information has been confirmed to be correct, anybody at VroniPlag will take a further look at these theses.
    Any political bias can pretty easily be refuted by one simple fact: Surely followers of all political parties are currently looking into the other ones’ theses and are searching for plagiarism. Anybody of these might present VroniPlag with a case of non-governing parties. But this rarely happens.
    VroniPlag is totally open. As a Wiki, the only ways of communication are the Wiki pages and the open chat. Above that, as all histories of anything ever written on VroniPlag are saved, it would be quite easy to prove in hindsight if any serious “leftwing” case has ever been dismissed without further investigation.
    The reason for the seemingly biased investigation is pretty simple, in my mind. Most people with a doctorate in the “rightwing” parties stem from politics, economics and other fields rather being from the Humanities and Social Sciences. These are fields in which plagiarism is easier than in the natural sciences, which in turn tend to be preferred by “leftwingers”. Above that, the centre-right parties have a much higher percentage of doctors than the others. So, on the whole it is to be expected to find more plagiarists on the right wing than on the left. Surely there also is a component of trying to seem more respectable with a doctorate.
    Regarding Mr. Althusmann, his case has been largely exaggerated. He may have been lazy or a careless worker, but calling him a plagiarist is in my opinion not on the point. Nonetheless, serious lack of scientific exactitude may also be a reason to withdraw his doctorate – if it can be proven to be a leitmotif in his work.
    The case is interesting in another way as it rather shows the laxness of quality control. Practically all these things might have been discovered by his supervisor, as they are hardly disguised at all or mostly quite obvious and do not need nearly as much detective work as the other cases. So here we have, for the first time, a case in which it is not self-evident that the person has cunningly defrauded his advisors, but where the question arises, why the advisor did not even spot wrong citations of his own work. The debate is finally incontrovertibly opened to the question of how much systemic foulness lies hidden beyond the surface we have only just scratched.
    And this is a sign to all of those who criticized VroniPlag for making their cases public (Althusmann, by the way, is not among these): Would there have been any willingness by universities, to openly and thoroughly address these things? Certainly not, it would all have been sorted “between gentlemen” and above that have been left just as it is.

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