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?
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