A paper-thin line

January 9, 2014

The recent spate of plagiarism scandals in Germany – which have toppled some senior politicians – has had an unexpected side-effect. Some academic researchers are reportedly so frightened of committing plagiarism unintentionally that they are changing their behaviour.

In a recent article in Der Spiegel, Katharina Schenk, a doctoral student, argues that the distinction between a careless slip with a footnote or two and genuine misconduct aimed at deceiving should be clear but that in practice it is not. What, she wonders, constitutes an actionable offence in this context? And can anyone be truly safe from the plagiarism hunters?

The original scandal was at one extreme of the misconduct scale. In this, it was discovered that Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was then defence minister, had copied huge chunks of material for his thesis. He was stripped of his doctorate and he subsequently resigned his post. At the other extreme, the University of Bochum terminated its investigation into the doctoral dissertation submitted by politician Norbert Lammert on the basis that he had done nothing wrong other than commit some minor technical errors.

However, Ms Schenk is nervous, and she fears that she too could fall foul of the plagiarism police and be tainted by the allegations. She is so uneasy that she has developed her own system to prevent accidental plagiarism. In the books she uses for her research, she plasters green Post‑it notes on which she writes her own ideas and thoughts in pencil; the material that she intends to cite directly she highlights in bright pen. But she continues to be concerned that this “note chaos” could result in errors that might subsequently be picked up by plagiarism software.

Ms Schenk believes that it might be prudent to check her work with such software prior to submission, while recognising that doing so would not guarantee that her work is in the clear. She makes the point that even if her Post‑it notes get out of order and let her down, what really matters is to pose a “clever (research) question” and to provide the answer only if one has really discovered it oneself. No software, she believes, can challenge such a contribution.

Nevertheless, it is still important to take other precautions. In their popular text Writing Research Papers: A Guide to the Process, Stephen Weidenborner and Domenick Caruso offer both advice and warnings on this issue. In a chapter titled “Avoiding plagiarism”, they explain that credit must be given for any ideas that are not an author’s own and that an author must state where this information is located. They also warn that it is possible “to plagiarize by accident”, but that sufficient checking should resolve the problem.

But they also note that students could be caught out if their paraphrased sentences remain close to the original and therefore liable to be picked up by plagiarism detection software. They must move beyond the level of token change and truly rewrite sentences. This can be hard work, but it is necessary.

All that said, anyone now alleging plagiarism in Germany must also be fair about what doctoral students can realistically be expected to do. Common sense and the right attitude should enable any authorities or plagiarism hunters to differentiate between a careless mistake or minor lapse and a serious ethical or even legal breach.

Even so, after the series of scandals, it remains the case that German politicians with doctorates will now face an ever-present danger: they can be exposed to unfounded allegations of plagiarism deliberately aimed at ending their careers.

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