The Reading Room at the British Museum

Recently Read (7 – 13 April): Three perspectives on academic integrity

The stories that make up this week’s collection focus on academic integrity. The first story invites reflection on whether “generational differences” can be a valid excuse for plagiarism; the second one looks into the criteria of awarding honorary doctorates; and the third one reports on efforts to fight malpractice by regulating the provision for ethics education.

Busted!

Last week, I expressed my incredulity that a scientist such as Jane Goodall, whose work I admire greatly, could be involved in plagiarism. I think that there is a natural tendency to write more causally as one becomes established, and I thought that her acknowledgement of her mistakes was a valuable teaching moment for us all. All, maybe, except the eminent Zygmunt Bauman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds, author of nearly 30 books since 2000. The good professor, it appears, was called out for systematic plagiarism by Peter Walsh, a courageous doctoral student in Cambridge. Here’s his response, as reported in Times Higher Education:

“[W]hile admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60-odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues that Mr Walsh obviously confuses,” he said. “As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him.”

Many ways to get a PhD

While on the topic of research malpractice, here’s a story about a German politician, whose PhD dissertation was retracted but will get to be a doctor nonetheless.  Annette Schavan, a former education minister in the Federal Republic of Germany, had been awarded a doctoral degree in educational science at the University of Düsseldorf in 1980. In 2013, following discovery of extensive plagiarism in her thesis, her degree was revoked. She was also stripped of at least one honorary doctorate (from the University of Cairo), and an honorary professorship at the Free University of Berlin. Yesterday, however, it was announced that “the University of Lübeck, which Schavan helped rescue from recent financial woes, is bestowing on her an honorary doctorate”. Here’s an older comment about Schavan, by Ana Dinescu, which seems pertinent:

The titles – one or two or even more Ph.D.s and other honorary titles – are not a guarantee for moral accountability. There should be, and there are, high societal expectations for the holders of those titles. But I am not quite sure to what extent ethics are part of the compulsory curricula for Ph.D. candidates. Maybe the rush and pressure to become a doctor – for family, social, and even for financial reasons – leads one to ignore the human element of the title. Maybe it is lacking humility that the title is not the end of the journey, but the beginning of a new stage, when the new academic contributes with humility to the changing of his small academic domain.

More to read: “Dr” Schavan is, of course, not the only German politician to lose a doctorate on account of plagiarism. Readers will certainly recall similar events involving MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Defence Minister zu Guttenberg, and others.

Meanwhile in Japan…

Calls to educate scientists more thoroughly on issues of research integrity seems to have made an impact in Japan, where the Ministry of Education is taking action in the wake of several embarrassing stories of academic misconduct. Part of the initiative will involve making ethics training compulsory for all faculty and graduate students. According to Japan News:

Prof. Mari Oshima of the University of Tokyo, who participated in the education ministry review of guidelines said, “It’s common in Japan for each lab to teach students experimental methods and how to write academic papers. Because of this, there have been discrepancies between researchers over awareness on the issue.” Oshima, a researcher of biomicrofluidics, said, “Awareness of norms should be nurtured in the minds of students, so that creative research activities are not hampered by an excessive emphasis on disciplinary actions.”

More to read: At the same time, Waseda University is running a retrospective inquiry into all their doctoral theses in science to ensure that they are plagiarism free.

~

Greece-based readers will have noticed that in writing this post, I have avoided talking about the elephant in the room: the most recent scandal involving the way doctoral degrees were conferred in Panteion University, and the backlash caused when the university revoked the PhD of a prominent politician’s aide. I felt that this is so “rich” a story that I could not do it justice in the space of a couple of paragraphs, but I plan to engage with it in more detail when time permits.


Image credit: © ceridwen [CC BY-SA]

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