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A plague of plagiarism

Following academic and non-academic news from around the world, one could be forgiven for thinking that plagiarising one’s way through a PhD programme has to be one of the easiest things to do and even a pre-requisite for a political career in education. Now, the over-representation of this particular topic in the media could just be due to the widespread availability of plagiarism software in recent years, but the degrees and their acquisition by personas of public interest, politicians especially, is too much of a salient topic to pass on. That is not to say that there is no value in the journalistic investigation of the abuse of academic standards as it certainly contributes to shaming both the institutions in question and the individuals involved. It actually does not go far enough.

The plethora of high-level cases that have surfaced within the last two years indicate that not everyone is equal when it comes to writing their doctoral thesis even in the academe, a place where the influence of politics and money is presumed to be traditionally non-existent despite the fact that most institutions are publicly funded. To get a glimpse of how pervasive this phenomenon is in Europe, one can start with the then German minister of defence Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, which surfaced in March 2011, closely followed by two German members of the European Parliament (Silvana Koch-Mehrin and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis) and the Turkish education minister Ömer Dinçer appointed in July 2011 despite being stripped of his professor title in 2005. The list certainly does not get shorter in 2012 - in April, Pal Schmitt, the Hungarian president was forced to resign, the Romanian education minister Ioan Mang also resigned in May, while the Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta is still denying one of the most blatant cases of copy and paste plagiarism. To make this inconclusive list even more intriguing, the former EU Commissioner for Education and Culture, Jan Figel is currently facing an investigation for presenting a book he co-authored earlier as a substitute for his PhD thesis.

The easy argument could be that these are so-called ‘cold cases’ from a time when there was no plagiarism-detection software around, but this would only serve to brush the problem under the carpet. Although using tools for matching text is by many standards an efficient solution, it does not allow for the detection of the theft of ideas and is highly dependent on the database the work is being compared against. In a sense, this is only a patch-work solution. What is needed is a genuine debate about the problem in academia as well as a thorough investigation of the definitions and meaning of plagiarism across cultures. Yet even with the media spotlight cast on the many investigations of flagrant disregard for academic standards, there is a dearth of initiatives focusing on corruption or integrity in academia in Europe.

One exception is a project led by a consortium of universities and sponsored under the Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme called Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education across Europe (IPPHEAE). The project currently surveys a variety of actors across higher education institutions trying to establish and evaluate academic integrity measures nowadays employed in Europe. Dr Irene Glendinning, one of the coordinators, revealed that preliminary results across all EU countries indicate that over 40% of students so far surveyed have admitted to “accidental or deliberate” plagiarism and that the attitudes of administrators and professors towards using disciplinary or supportive measures vary greatly from institution to institution. The project is open to institutional participation until the end of December 2012 with final results expected by autumn 2013.