The Heidelberg affidavit: German Universities take action to prevent PhD fraud

I have long felt that the work of researchers and scientists cannot and should not be devoid of liability (whether criminal or civil liability) in cases of scientific misconduct or fraud. Recently two University of Toronto law professors argued that medical ghostwriting where medical or pharmaceutical companies finance the writing of favourable, peer-reviewed,  scientific articles should be considered fraud and liable as such.

Now after the retraction of a splurge of PhD’s awarded to German politicians, the academic community is acting to protect the reputation and the value of their PhD’s. Heidelberg University and Bonn University – among others – are tightening their regulations. The NY Times  reports:

The plagiarism scandals that rocked the political world in Germany this year have led to a period of soul-searching among academics and researchers around the country. They have also prompted calls for stricter controls at German universities. …. After several cases in which doctoral theses were described as using unattributed material from earlier works — the most prominent of which pushed Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to resign as defense minister — German universities have questioned the way doctoral candidates are tested. Some academics insist that the system is generally sound, pointing out that in the half-dozen high-profile cases where plagiarism was found, the doctoral degree was ultimately retracted.

… the University of Bonn, which in July retracted the doctoral title of Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a member of the European Parliament, the university will publish extensive and explicit guidelines so that doctoral students know exactly what is expected.

Heidelberg University, which in June formally retracted the doctorate of Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a member of the European Parliament, announced in August that it would begin demanding that doctoral students sign a legally binding affidavit, attesting original authorship. Signing a false statement on such an affidavit can prompt legal action in the local courts, which can lead to a fine and even to a prison sentence of up to three years under the German penal code.

Professor Thomas Pfeiffer, speaking for the university, said the threat of possible legal action, in addition to the embarrassment of a retracted doctorate, would act as a further deterrent.

Faculties at the University of Bonn, Heidelberg University and the University of Bayreuth have all retracted doctorates after internal commissions determined that students-turned-politicians had plagiarized. They are demanding that all doctoral theses be submitted as an electronic copy, to help spot-checking with plagiarism-detection software, a step considered just as important as a deterrent for would-be plagiarists as it is a detection mechanism.

Read the whole article

The Heidelberg affidavit seems a relatively simple and effective way to go. It is pre-emptive and should act as a deterrent without being oppressive. Of course one would wish scientific research to be carried out in an open atmosphere which is not clouded by suspicion. But since the rewards of scientific misconduct – whether as academic or political advancement or in monetary gain – can be very high, suspicion and rivalry will remain unless a system of liability is introduced. This would not only create accountability but would also encourage the taking of responsibility for one’s own work. In fact, if scientists and researchers automatically bear a certain liability for the integrity (not the quality) of their work, then an open atmosphere could actually be promoted.

I see no reason why an extension of the “Heidelberg affidavit” could not be applied to all research workers regarding the integrity of their work and be an integral part of any employment contract.

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