In the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag, I recently stumbled upon a very interesting article which discusses a very hot topic: trust (or not) in the academic world. The title, which could be translated by “Hunting plagiarists per mouse-click“, indicated that we’re again talking about a web-related subject; and indeed the article is all about the wikis that allowed to reveal serious frauds in thesises of highly ranked German politicians. The most famous one was GuttenPlag Wiki, which is closed today… now that the former German Minister of Economics and Defense Karl-Theodor Zu Guttenberg resigned. Who are the people who read thesises to reveal fraudulous passages? Why do they do it?
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams wrote a whole book about how “wikinomics” will change the world; ans after Wikipedia and Wikileaks, we now have another concrete example. Web-platforms like the previously cited GuttenPlag or VroniPlag (named after Veronica Saß, the daughter of Bavaria’s former minister-president Edmund Stoiber) show of how thesises of very respected poloticians like K.T. Zu Guttenberg or Silvana Koch-Merin are checked by a crowd of anynomous proofreaders! In the thesis of the latter, they found that 34,5% of the pages contained uncited material. Both ministers resigned after this “thesisgate”.
As in almost all wikis, the contributors are unpaid and participate on a voluntary basis. A survey showed that these proofreaders were on average 38 years old and 60% of them had a university degree. When GuttenPlag’s activity was peaking, almost 150 people actively contributed in the wiki, and today VroniPlag still has 19 active contributing members. One of them is working hard of a program that will automatically compare thesis for fraudulous passages… But why do people do that?
The article doesn’t really provide an answer. One of the interviewed men pursued a PhD himself but stopped working on it after about a year. So are these seekers just frustrated academics? Knowing that almost all of the contributors to GuttenPlag had full-time jobs and that one out of five where PhDs, this explanation seems unlikely to me. Or are they left-wing anarchists who want to reveal how rotten politics are?
So it’s probably not anarchy neither. Whatever the motivation behind these wikis and their contributors (I guess some academics are already working on papers about the phenomenon), it’s a serious wake-up call for the academic world… and for science in general. Some people in Germany now argue that PhDs have to stick to the academic world for research and teaching purposes. Personally, I like te fact that a PhD is the very best degree you can get in Germany and that it stands not only for academic excellence but also for corporate & politic ambition. “The’re still waiting for a clear reaction from the academic world“, the article says about these Plagbusters, “it’s not science that is endangered; its the value of academia“.