Copy a rule, for example plagiarism

Scientific theft of ideas: "I wouldn't exactly plagiarize a doctoral thesis"


From bad quotations to bold copying - the prominent cases in which the ideas of other scientists were allegedly stolen did not just accumulate since the work "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat" (Science Plagiarism). LTO spoke to Prof. Dr. Roland Schimmel on dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, new possibilities of modern technology and differences between doctoral students and students.

LTO: Professor Schimmel, what is plagiarism?

Mould: The question is a bit tricky, because this term is not a legal terminus technicus that you would find in copyright law, for example. But there is an approximation of a consensus to the effect that plagiarism is the appropriation of someone else's intellectual achievement without identification of the author. By the way, according to the prevailing opinion, even if the plagiarist does not notice it.

LTO: So the accusation of plagiarism does not necessarily imply an intentional or even knowingly act?

Mould: Right, the concept of plagiarism is purely objective. In his much discussed book "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat", Volker Rieble worked out how broad the possible understanding is. Of course, one has to distinguish this from the question of sanctions. Both in terms of society as a whole and in terms of audit law, of course, someone who acts deliberately is treated differently from someone who does not knowingly act.

Of course, there may also be situations in which you can believe someone with a pure heart that they have simply forgotten a quote. In an examination paper during the course of study, the statement that someone wanted to put quotation marks and a footnote, which should have been put according to normal academic practice, but was then forgotten because the phone rang, may possibly be heard. If the person concerned claims this in three cases, it is relatively evident that it is a protective claim.

With both feet on the ground, you can say that copying three lines without marking them as foreign ideas can be an everyday oversight. That's why nobody fails an exam. But if someone copies pages - preferably including the typing errors - because he is copying from the Internet, then the claim that he acted neither willfully nor even negligently is simply not valid.

"It is mainly about questions of scientific propriety"

LTO: Now there is not only the option of literal copying. Where exactly does the accusation begin when taking over scientific content from another author?

Mould: According to academic custom, the corresponding quotation must also be substantiated. Not indicated by quotation marks, but by a document that indicates that the text section has just been taken from another work. The author and reference must be given so that the reader, and possibly also the examiner who has to assess the work, knows that the submitter is a dwarf on the shoulders of giants. You want to know what the giants are called.

It is important that the dwarf can misunderstand the giants. Not only in the examination business, but above all from the scientific point of view, you have to be able to check in order to uncover inconsistencies in the argumentation. In law, in particular, it is very important to be able to actually approach someone who not only adopts an unidentified argumentation but also reproduces it incorrectly.

It's not just about the right to examine, i.e. the question of whether someone is also deceiving. Rather, it is primarily about questions of scientific propriety.

"Theft of ideas is by no means normal in scientific operations"

LTO: The work "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat" by law professor Volker Rieble, which you mentioned earlier, has been causing an uproar, especially in the legal world, since last year. The attacked even successfully defend themselves in court, the dispute over the standards of scientific work is carried out in public. To what extent is "copying" part of the standard of academic practice to a certain extent?

Mould: You have to answer that in a differentiating manner. In the academic world, especially when writing comments or manuals, you have to provide an overview of the views represented. This is part of a work that wants to meet scientific requirements. It can happen that a receipt is omitted. People make mistakes.

The determined theft of ideas, also denounced by Professor Rieble, is something else. Such theft of ideas occurs, but is by no means the norm. In my opinion, it is not the main problem either. In my opinion, most professionally socialized colleagues can live very well with admitting other people's ideas.

The situation is different in the examination business, i.e. with the exams as part of training. Students are listless, trained too late or - for more or less louder motives - start their work too late. And if an examination paper is designed to last four weeks, it cannot be completed in two days. If the student wants to try that anyway, he copies the texts and ideas of others and ignores receipts. This happens significantly often. The problem with this is that this type of student is only working towards their final grade; scientific propriety is simply not important to them.

Plagiarism in the 21st century - how the professionals check the test items

LTO: Do the examiners of scientific papers check whether there is plagiarism? Are there control mechanisms that can be used to counteract the theft of ideas?

Mould: In the academic business this is now done almost entirely across the board. A comparison with google is the least that auditors use. It can do a lot to compare unusual formulations, sometimes also spelling mistakes or formatting. Sometimes even the google image search helps.

In addition, there has been plagiarism detection software for over ten years, some of which is purchased by universities, and some not because the licenses are chargeable.

Such software is often used simply to ensure that two students do not submit identical papers for a term paper. We then talk about the classic attempt at deception and less about allegations of plagiarism. And of course the software is not entirely undisputed. Opinions differ as to whether and to what extent it works.

"We already have reason to take a closer look"

LTO: Is such a scan always carried out or only if there is an initial suspicion?

Mould: I usually only search with initial suspicion myself. However, I usually do a one-off check with a particularly characteristic formulation - for my own good conscience. The handling is very different among the colleagues.

LTO: Are there any guidelines for this?

Mould: Not at all universities and departments. However, there is certainly increasing awareness of this topic. There is not just one prominent plagiarism case. We already have reason to take a closer look. And the technical possibilities make that much easier for us now than it was twenty years ago.

LTO: What sanctions are there if plagiarism is discovered?

Mould: If it is not the supervisor of a scientific paper but the examiner notices after it has been submitted that it has not been properly quoted, there is usually not much that can be saved. The decision is then only to ask yourself whether, even if you turn a blind eye, you can no longer let that person stand.

Of course, this is ultimately a discretionary decision. No examiner will fail a candidate because of four lines not marked as foreign. But if he finds larger sections, then he has no other choice.

"Quantitative or qualitative - sometimes the auditor has no other choice"

LTO: In contrast to a term paper, a dissertation or even a habilitation often comes down to a single idea, which, however, carries the entire script. Is the discretionary decision based only on quantitative considerations, i.e. the question of how many passages have been taken over? Or can it also be qualitative in nature?

Mould: It is in the nature of science that one cannot do without the ideas of others. But if you take it over without labeling it, I would definitely make a qualitative separation: If it is an secondary thought, you would probably not sanction it, but let the work pass because of the value of the knowledge built on it or other new knowledge.

But if the main idea of ​​the work were to be presented as new, although it was already published abroad years ago, it would have to be called plagiarism and the corresponding harsh consequences would have to be drawn.

For studies and doctoral theses, of course, the author - or, if I may allow myself this comment, the ghostwriter - can and must ask his supervisor if there are uncertainties about scientific standards.

"I wouldn't plagiarize in a doctoral thesis, of all places"

Once a thesis has been assessed as having been passed, the candidate is far from off the hook. A doctoral thesis or even a habilitation thesis is taken up much more often than a master's thesis or the like. The latter is read by two examiners and then disappears in the archive in case of doubt.

In the case of a doctoral thesis, on the other hand, it does not have to be the examiner who reveals similarities to another work, but perhaps a reader who years later deals with a topic that was completely exotic at the time the dissertation was written, but is now completely common is. If I wanted to plagiarize myself, I certainly wouldn't do it in a doctoral thesis. (laughs)

In such a case, I can only support the withdrawal of the doctorate. Unlike possibly a student who may have made a mistake once in order to pass an examination in the given period of study, a doctoral student is usually an adult who not only wants to achieve a higher degree of academic dedication, but also wants to take the risks involved is aware of such a deception - and should have thought about it beforehand.

LTO: Professor Schimmel, thank you for the interview.

Roland Schimmel is Professor of Private Business Law at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. and, among other things, author of the work "Correctly formulating legal exams and term papers". He wrote the essay "To successful plagiarism in ten easy steps" and, according to his own statements, deals with plagiarism over and over again when evaluating examination papers.

The interview was conducted by Pia Lorenz.


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