Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Plagiarism Hunter Story

The weekend started with an odd story by the German news media.  The Defense Minister of Germany.....Ursula von der Leyen.....has been accused of plagiarism and using false references in her 1991 thesis for her doctorate degree from the Medical University of Hanover.

The jest of this?  There's this hyped-up group of plagiarism hunters who work for VroniPlag.....a curious organization.....who do research on mostly political figures and their thesis products from decades ago.

In this accusation, VroniPlag says that roughly sixty-odd pages of the thesis had issues.

I sat and looked at the title of the thesis: "C-Reactive protein as a diagnostic parameter for detecting a Amniotic Infection Syndrome with premature rupture and therapeutic relaxation in childbirth". Yeah, it's a pretty dedicated piece to health issues only.  It's the type of thesis that ninety-nine percent of the public would pass on and prefer not to read or review for errors.

VroniPlag has this history.....they hunt for players who have master's degrees or doctorate degrees and utilize various software platforms to identify plagiarism issues.  According to Wiki, at least to the mid-point of 2015....they had at least 120-odd reviews going on.  Some political folks....some business people.

The issue itself?

Before the commercialization of universities (not just the US but Germany as well) the conclusion part of your had to demonstrate an understanding of the topic that you'd spent four to seven years studying.  This usually involved a meeting between a couple of the professors and you....where a question would be asked and you would form some discussion or argument to "entertain" the professors.

In terms of "entertain", I mean showing a grasp of the topic and offering some comprehensive review of the subject area.

After the commercialization era, people wanted this done as a thesis or written form. This usually gave the student less fear of having to meet the learned team of professors and argue something or discuss a theory that they really weren't experts on.  The thesis was the lesser of evils, at least in theory.

By writing'd show the opening statement, some research on numbers or facts....citing them of course, and then come to a balanced conclusion that made sense.  On paper, it was a wonderful idea.

As time went by, it became obvious that the papers were now graded on three levels.

The first level was simply the demonstration of your knowledge level.  You actually had to select a topic that the professor might be entertained by and see your interest.

The second level was the usage of facts and research.  You would provide the professor with the idea that you were gifted and capable of reading a vast amount of material....come to conclusions....and interpret the data in an appropriate fashion.  

Finally, the third level.....the grammar and citations.  You had to actually write a coherent piece....sometimes in the fifty to one-hundred page quantity....with proper usage of grammar.  Then you had to cite in the proper fashion each comment lifted from another report, book or document.  If you just cited that 1,450 people live in Bierstadt.....where did the number come from and did you cite it correctly?

Some professors would just be thrilled to have a great paper on the first level, an average paper on facts/research, and a marginally gifted paper on grammar and citations.  Other professors would go the opposite direction.

How much effort do the professors put into grading a thesis?  That would be debatable.

You could hand one thesis to one university to get a marginally passing situation, and another university would grade it as outstanding.

I would offer this observation.  After spending X number of years studying under some program....a number of people reach a point in the midst of a master's degree or doctorate program where they've hit the peak and feel burned out.  They are having discussions with the professor over the possible topics.....feeling encouraged or discouraged on several different fronts.  Their enthusiasm has shifted.

The threat of severe grammar or writing review?  Frankly, unless you are in a program for English Literature or French Classics....the odds are that you don't have fantastic writing ability.  Then you start to worry over the time involved in this could take two or three months to write the whole thing and feel confident with the topic, the argument, the grammar, and the citations.

So, people start to look for short-cuts.  They use ten facts in some ten-line piece, from ten different sources, and only identify seven or eight of the sources.  Long hours play into you might burn up sixteen hours on a Saturday at some university library, and you simple screw up as you are trying to meet the deadline and deliver a very precise document.

The other short-cut is to find someone who wrote a similar subject four years ago at another university and got an outstanding you buy a copy of their product and lift significant portions for your product.  Twenty years would work fine.  Today with the internet and've got people who want to ID people who lift passages or plagiarize to meet the final product.

The general problem with this attitude by VroniPlag?  In some cases, the thesis was written twenty or thirty years ago.  The professor is long-since dead, and the writer of the thesis is now in their mid-fifties.  A lot has passed since the writing of the thesis.  Now to drag it up?  What's this supposed to fix or solve?

If VroniPlag wanted to say something....fine....go for all of the graduates of 1975....every single one of them.  The people who got master's degrees in French literature, marine science, or biology?  Pull up every single one of them and question them.  Be level across the board instead of cherry-picking your 'victims'.  As the current trend want it to be a political statement and take down people at the pinnacle of their success in life.  Or use this fantastic power to go after everyone who graduated in 2009 and bring them down early in life.

My hunch is that VroniPlag will continue their hunt until some identified victim commits suicide.  Then a couple of university chancellors will gather, discuss the matter, and decide that once they award a degree....they won't go back to review it.  And to hinder VroniPlag.....they will restrict the material by making it copy-righted or simply hiding it in their restricted archives.

Based on German journalists so far, Von der Leyen has a moderate problem with citations and it's not a big deal.  Some believe that the medical folks at Hanover will go the whole thing twenty years after the fact and just say it was marginal issues and not a big deal.

VroniPlag?  It'll just continue it's hunt and look for the next victim that they can take down.  The folks behind VroniPlag?  If they have degrees.....someone will eventually figure out that someone needs to review the reviewers at VroniPlag.  Then after that....someone will ask the magic question....who funds the people behind VroniPlag.  If it's just a hobby with no cost....fine.  I have problems believing the hobby angle and that people would want to spend a fair amount of personal money on the software required and put two-hundred or three-hundred hours into peer-review of some document written twenty years ago.

A story?  Well, for news value, I give it a "2" out of a "10".  If they were taking down journalists, zoo directors, volcano experts, engineers at Mercedes, and environmental one would ever say much because it seemed like a level playing field.  In this has a funny smell.

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