The PhD’s New Clothes, or: Anonymous Information regarding Plagiarism

‘It’s very good,’ said Vimes, ignoring this. ‘But I need to know more. I need to know the names. I think you know the names. Where did they meet? Things like that. I need to know them,’
‘Some things are a mystery to me,’ said William. ‘You’ve got more than enough evidence to release Lord Vetinari,’
‘I want to know more,’
‘Not from me,’
‘Come on, Mr de Worde. We’re on the same side here!’
‘No. We’re just on two different sides that happen to be side by side,’
“The Truth” by Terry Pratchett

Debora Weber-Wulff reports on her copy-shake-paste blog about two different ways to deal with cases of suspected plagiarism. According to her posting, the University of Düsseldorf accepts its responsibility and follows up cases (“Objective, unemotional, to the point”). In comparison, she cites an eMail by an professor at an other university (referring to, which refers to an anonymous blogger — so take it with caution) who has a different approach. The responsible person there first wants to know who makes the accusations of plagiarism — and why. Actually, they want to know a lot — Weber-Wulff translates the Mail by said professor (it was written in German) as:

“As long as you keep your visor down and prefer to act as an anonymous sniper, you are no one who is acceptable in the world of science and who is morally able to stand above the person accused. I need your name, your address, your workplace and an explanation of the reasons that led you to investigate the dissertation of Ms. D[…]. Until I have that information, I will not undertake anything.”

Waow. Missing context information aside — really? I mean, somehow I am not that surprised, Marcus and Oransky mentioned such a practice in a 2011 contribution to “Lab Times”. But still, name, address, workplace (why?) and a justification?

Sure, there is the fear that universities might get swamped by anonymous accusations. From what I have seen so far, the Academic world does not have a surplus of integrity and backstabbing isn’t that rare. Even mobbing happens — and don’t get me started on exploitative leadership. But that is exactly the reason why the Academic world should take accusations seriously and examine them. There are people working in science (and many who want only the title) who do not work with integrity.

And sure, anonymous accusations can be very damaging, but this can be countered by keeping accusations confidential and doing a non-public investigation prior to making official announcements. False accusations are a fact of life — they have to be sorted out. And if possible, the accusers should be held responsible.

But false accusations are not really a problem here. It should be very easy to differentiate between false accusations and real ones — it’s no hearsay, everything is there in writing. Universities should provide best practice examples on how to document the accusations (e.g., providing copies of the literature where information was plagiarized from). It will distinguish the mud-slingers from the ones who want to keep standards high.

Sometimes I wonder how much the lack of action of some universities disqualifies the dissertation thesis as something that has any merit. We would not have this discussion if someone anonymously reported a crime to the police. The police would a) check whether it has any merit, and b) investigate. And if they are not sure they would likely rather investigate than not.

The strange thing is that this way of dealing with scientific misconduct is not how science itself does — or rather should — work. It’s a strange double standard. After all, the argument should count. And while there are the names of the authors on scientific publications, we usually do not see their titles. It’s what you say, not who you are that should count.

Okay, that was pretty naive. I strongly suspect that even with anonymous peer review there will probably be differences how some people are treated. And in a way asking for names, places of work and intention betrays science as what it — unfortunately — can degenerate into: an hierarchical status in-game. But in principle, it shouldn’t matter who says something. And there are good reasons why some accusations must be made anonymously. There is such a thing as revenge in the Academic world. Some people have influence and might use this influence to take down those who accuse them, especially when these accusations are true.

I strongly suspect that the main reason for the reluctance to follow up accusations is that finding a PhD guilty of plagiarism is not only about the person him- or herself. Finding someone guilty of plagiarism is no laughing matter, nothing to snicker about or to show Schadenfreude, because it falls back not only on the person who did it, but also on the institution and — especially — the supervisor. He or she might come off as an idiot who does not know the literature in his/her field, a gullible fool who was unable to see the sometimes blatant cases of outright plagiarism.

Of course, there is little time in the publish-or-perish world of Academia. And in some cases, professors supervise theses that are not exactly in their area of expertise (but they have an interest to “cover” that subject). They might be able to judge the methodological merit, but they do not know the key literature — nor would they notice plagiarism. And so, cases of plagiarism might put their competence and integrity and suitability for the job in question.

But plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct need to be dealt with — continuously, because it will crop up again and again. And it needs to be prevented by better training and supervision. But those are unpopular ideas in a time where the output in papers is the only thing that counts.

So, no wonder that some (i.e., the bad) institutions think that investigations are to be avoided at (almost) any cost — and asking for names and places of work and intention is a way to quiet many people. But I think it damages their reputation more than any cases of plagiarism ever could.

And yup, no wonder that in some cases, it’s the “child” — the layperson, the anonymous vigilante — who is the only one who can say that the emperor has no clothes. It would be nice if those in power would hear it — and not continue with business as usual.