German universities taking six years to act on plagiarism claims

Ombudsmen need more resources and voluntary investigators need recognition if fabrication is finally to be taken seriously, says sleuth

January 20, 2023
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Universities in Germany typically take six years to respond to the dossiers assembled by VroniPlag Wiki, a handful of academics who have been outing plagiarising politicians for more than a decade.

Debora Weber-Wulff, professor of computer science at HTW - Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin and long-time member of the group, told Times Higher Education that the universities’ foot-dragging was driven by litigation fears, and that they should put more money and incentives behind in-house investigations.

High-profile subjects of the volunteers’ work include European Commission president and former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, whose thesis had alleged plagiarism on more than four out of 10 pages. Her institution, Hannover Medical School, accepted that it contained plagiarism, but said its pattern “does not indicate intent to deceive”. 

Dossiers prepared by the group and sent to university presidents and deans present suspicious sections alongside matching text with hyperlinks to the original source material. “All they have to do is pick up the sources, pick up the thesis, see if we’ve typed it up right, and then decide whether they think it is OK,” said Professor Weber-Wulff. 

A reflection on universities’ responses to the group, titled “Talking to a Wall” and published in the book Academic Integrity: Broadening Practices, Technologies, and the Role of Students earlier this month, warns of a growing tendency not to rescind degrees but instead issue a “reprimand” for bad practices. 

“That’s a big problem. Universities are eager to use these because that means they don’t get sued,” Professor Weber-Wulff said, adding that institutions tended to win cases when plagiarists do sue, usually because of procedural errors on the part of their institution.

“Every university in Germany has a so-called ombud for good scientific practice, but most of them don’t have the resources they would need, they don’t have people whose job it is to check for plagiarism,” said Professor Weber-Wulff, contrasting this with the University of California, San Diego, which she said had an academic integrity department with 10 staff and a remit to counsel doctoral students on good academic writing practices. 

Plagiarists will be pleased to learn that VroniPlag Wiki’s numbers have dwindled in recent years. “It’s so much work because we don’t use some magic software, this is all work done by hand,” she said. “If you find a case of plagiarism in a student, all the work you have to do documenting it, bringing it to a board, presenting it, that’s all time that you're not investing in other research and publications.” 

Lecturing and organising academic integrity awareness initiatives should count towards tenure or other career benefits, she said, adding that staff working on temporary contracts also needed to be paid for time spent tackling plagiarism.

“I have the feeling that these cases of plagiarism are not taken seriously, or rather that the universities are trying to hide,” said Professor Weber-Wulff. She said the issue would be fixed when any group of graduate students could be counted on to know the academic integrity rules of their institution and how to avoid plagiarism in their own writing.

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