Who Cares About Plagiarism? Let’s Make Dissertations More Valuable Instead!

By Stephan Manning.

Here we go again: Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s Minister of Defence, has become the latest target of VroniPlag* Wiki – an ongoing campaign against plagiarism in German doctoral theses, which has famously led to the downfall of several German, mostly conservative, politicians, including Annette Schavan (former German Minister of Education) and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (former Minister of Defence). Since it started in 2011, the campaign has resulted in the revocation of 26 PhD titles obtained by politicians and other people of public interest. In fact, plagiarism in doctoral theses has become one of the major reasons for office-bearers in German governments to lose their jobs prematurely. How is that even possible? Who cares about plagiarism in dissertations anyway? Don’t we copy and paste all the time? And why care about plagiarism when nobody actually reads those dissertations to begin with?

Theses Collection

With an increasing number of doctoral degrees issued across the world, the degree itself has become a commodity. In several countries, including Germany and Austria, doctoral degrees are almost a necessity not only for entering academia but as stepping stones for professional careers as well. In the U.S. we might be facing a similar trend since, with increasing numbers of PhD graduates, only very few will find a job in academia. The growing number of PhD graduates has arguably led to an inflation of dissertations nobody reads. In certain professions, such as medicine, the scientific value of many dissertations, such as the one by Von der Leyen, is particularly questionable. Some have labelled them as ‘academic trash’, which is a double offense: not good enough for academia, and too academic for practice. As a result, neither academics nor practitioners care to read them. Why then bother about plagiarism at all?

Let’s face it: In most professions, plagiarism – i.e. taking someone else’s work and passing them off as one’s own – is a non-issue. Especially in today’s digital world of copy & paste, of re-using templates, of re-posting tweets and blogs, plagiarism has become pretty common to fill pages with content. When writing up reports and other documents, for bosses, co-workers and clients, using and modifying what others have written can save time and help deliver ‘something’ that satisfies most needs. Nobody would expect to see citations of other people’s work or reference lists, because it’s irrelevant. Well, except in academia. Referencing is an important principle in a field where generating ‘new’ and ‘original’ ideas and getting cited for them means a lot. Whereas in other professions plagiarism is a practicality to get things done, in academia it is a violation of ethical norms in the pursuit of ‘novelty’ and ‘originality’.

And here is the problem: Especially for those who write dissertations as a stepping stone for professional careers, the wish to obtain the degree fast may collide with academic norms – filling pages to deliver ‘something’ vs. making an ‘original contribution’. Whereas to academics missing citations is misconduct, opportunistic students may just not care, nor would they claim that their work is particularly original anyway. In fact, who would seriously think that each of the Millions of dissertations produced every year makes a significant ‘original’ contribution? Also, I doubt that people like Von der Leyen intentionally tried to make someone else’s work ‘their own’. She was probably just too lazy to reference everything and instead was way more interested in planning her next career move once the thesis is out of the way. And let’s be honest: even if students with this mindset cared to include all cites, this would not necessarily make their dissertations more interesting. Showing ‘originality’ by separating ‘yours’ from other people’s work is nothing but an empty formality. In other words, with complete citations, a ‘trashy’ thesis might look more ‘academic’, but not be any more valuable to most readers. Or would you care to read Von der Leyen’s thesis if she added all the missing cites? I wouldn’t. So does that mean that the whole fuss about plagiarism is exaggerated and that offenders like Von der Leyen are accused unjustifiably?

It’s not that simple. In the eyes of the public, any violation of specific ethical norms may be seen as moral misconduct, an indicator that this person will also be unethical in other contexts. Yet to some extent, Von der Leyen and other politicians have also fallen victim to a slightly dated conception of what a dissertation should accomplish. Does it need at least 500 citations to make a significant contribution? No! The number of citations will not make a dissertation more valuable.

Instead, I suggest to strictly differentiate between professional and research dissertations. The former type should be written by people aspiring to enter practical fields after graduating and demonstrate the ability to apply academic knowledge to practical problems. Even a handful citations may be sufficient here, and even the sloppiest students can list those. The latter type should be written by people aspiring to enter academic careers and showcase the ability to contribute significantly to academic debates. And clearly, a more thorough engagement with the literature is needed here. But expectations are different. Instead of measuring professional dissertations, like Von der Leyen’s, by the degree to which they cover all the literature they should be evaluated by their potential value for practice. Does the dissertation help solve any real problem in any context? Do people in practice read and get inspired by it? By contrast, research dissertations should meet the standards of academic journals, not just in terms of citing others but in terms of making a significant contribution to ongoing debates. Does the dissertation get cited by others? Does it help generate academic papers and important research streams?

In sum, plagiarism in dissertations is to some extent a phantom issue. While clearly indicating sloppiness and lack of care for ethical norms – which is why politicians got fired because of that – it also raises a fundamental question: Do all dissertations need to reference a whole library to make an ‘original’ contribution according to academic norms? Maybe not. In particular the growing number of professional dissertations can be less ‘original’ but should be accessible and impactful for practice! That way people will start caring about the actual content of dissertations, not just about missing cites. And it may also stop the mass production of ‘academic trash’ and instead help better translate academic knowledge into practical solutions for pertaining social, economic and environmental problems.


* VroniPlag is named after Veronica (Vroni) Sass, plagiarism offender and daughter of German politician Edmund Stoiber.

Picture: shelf with doctoral theses, libguides.usask.ca


9 thoughts on “Who Cares About Plagiarism? Let’s Make Dissertations More Valuable Instead!

  1. The idea of the article is thought provoking. But it’s not because the airbag doesn’t work that the brakes don’t matter. Of course research needs to make sense but it is independent from the duty of citing authors. It’s about honesty and about justifying your claims. Citations don’t make good research alone. Not more than the brakes alone make a good car

  2. It’s not meaningless, because it can lead to much higher pay… somehow (many) people in Germany still perceive others with doctorates as of high(er) reputation – like in the old Austrian tradition when even a Magister (M.A.) is used as title or Italy where you’re addresses as dottore when you went to college…
    The real problem is that these titles, in fact regardless of the discipline, (may) lead to higher salaries in some jobs like consulting where clients, especially those founders of family-owned SMEs are ignorant of what’s happening in academia. (and know I don’t even want to enter the discussion about doctorates in medicine that are typically written in an average 4-6 months!! I know 3 Dr.med. who work in financial services and retail and never had to do anything remotely with even health care management except for their “thesis”)

  3. Interesting post! The way I see it, there’s a difference between plagiarism and sloppy citations. The former suggests a lack of creative thought – only purposeful stolen thought. That is not okay in my book on any accounts and should have severe consequences. The latter can have original thought, just insufficient citations or careless literature review. I think I share your sentiment that if we require all subsequent phds to know the entire library of history of everything that has been done before – then it hinders original thought and creativity. So maybe we can be relaxed if some idea gets mentioned without full or complete citation. But it shouldn’t be done as purposeful stealing of ideas, which is what plagiarism is. But that’s what makes plagiarism so hard to catch too – there has to be elements of knowing and intent.

    • Very interesting perspective. And you are right that questions of honesty matter independent of whether we are talking about a professional or a research dissertation… Maybe criteria for professional dissertation should include ‘novelty of contexts’, i.e. you can apply an established theory or idea (and of course cite it), but then you need to apply it to a new problem area or context… And this will be your ‘original contribution’. Anyway: good points!

  4. I think you are mixing up 3 issues here, Stephan. There is particular debate around the way German medical doctors graduate from med school. Basically all of them submit a ‘PhD’ thesis and are awarded the medical doctoral title ‘Dr.med’ for works that often resemble MA theses at best. This is similar for German JD degrees. The vast majority of medical and law PhD dissertations does not fulfill PhD criteria around original research etc. and they are actually not ‘quoting the entire library’. Doctors and lawyers in Germany should graduate with regular postgrad qualifications rather than a PhD by more or less default.

    The second issue that simply far too many people complete PhD which is a vast of money and resources, but a handy supply for universities of student fees and adjunct faculty. There are simply too many PhDs that are written as a qualification alone. If you have a look at the plagiarized theses they are almost always quite boring and do little to advance science. There is no ‘sloppy genius’ with great ideas who is so excited that s/he forgets to put a few quotation marks in her/his paper.

    Only then do we reach the main point of your argument. Should good, relevant, interesting and ‘worthwhile’ PhDs be forced into the dominant straight jacket of the book-length treatise of a subject? And how holier-than-thou should we be in an age of remix culture, copyright fluidity and changing norms about a term like ‘plagiarism’?
    But at the end of the day, we need less and probably more traditional PhD theses in the sense that they will always be an academic rite of passage in addition to advancing knowledge etc. I think there should be more byproducts to a ‘boring’, technical thesis, whether that’s (boring) peer-reviewed articles or blog posts.

    • Thanks ‘aidnography’ 🙂 I disagree that I am mixing up things, but I do combine two separate issues: ethical conduct (plagiarism) and value/quality of dissertations. I think they are related. As for academic/research dissertations, I totally agree that referencing prior lit sufficiently in order to make their own ‘academic contribution’ transparent is needed and part of the craft of being an academic. BUT: More and more PhD degrees are issued each year to people who are NOT entering academia but instead just need the thesis to get a degree that might or might not help them advance in their professional careers. Measuring their dissertations by the same criteria is nonsense and counter-productive. OF COURSE they also need to reference others if they use someone’s else’s ideas, BUT they should not be required to include a massive number of cites, but INSTEAD be encouraged to write something useful based on a few references. And maybe their motivation to make an impact with the dissertation is far greater than their willingness to dig through academic debates. This will solve two problems in one go. Less plagiarism and more utility.

  5. thanks, Stephan, this is very interesting, given the changing norms – most students plagiarize routinely, and few faculty bother to check or follow up. There is the technology aspect (it’s very easy with the web) and the instrumental attitude toward education (they think like consumers buying a degree). This is particularly in business schools. And you are right that PhDs (finance, economics, policy) are increasingly tickets to higher level jobs in government, finance, and NGOs.

    But there are many types of plagiarism. Back in the day, students were thrown out of universities for a couple of sentences copied without attribution. This happened to a friend of mine back in undergrad days. The common form of plagiarism today is weaving together chunks of text into a paper without proper attribution. Still unacceptable to most of us, but the students are still doing some research and thinking, and generating an original paper. But it’s a slippery slope that degrades the value of education, and discourages those who take it seriously.

    And the same goes for professional PhDs. Surely you are not suggesting that someone can just copy another dissertation? – if the thesis is to be valuable even in business/practitioner terms, it needs to tackle a problem in an original way.

    • Thanks David. And yes, I am not suggesting that plagiarism is or should be a non-issue. All I am saying is that only because people include all the cites does not make an increasing number of dissertations more valuable. Citations are an overrated indicator of ‘quality’. Instead I suggest that professional dissertations do not need to cite every single article, but instead work with fewer but in more meaningful ways. There should be a real utility rather than accumulated academic trash.

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