Posts Tagged ‘Debora Weber-Wulff’

A rash of rescinded PhD’s as German Universities clean house

August 6, 2011

Some good may be coming out of the zu Guttenberg affaire.

Many PhD thesis awarded – mainly to politicians – by German Universities are now under investigation and the initiative is coming from the media and on-line websites. The apparent speed with which the Universities are moving is – I think – unprecedented. It is also a tribute to the power of the internet for change (not forgetting the misuse of that power as evidenced by the “hate-sites” and the Norway massacre). But the Universities themselves rarely investigate without external pressure and some measure of scandal. And as Gerard Fröhlich points out scientific “cheaters” usually have venerable establishment figures as their protectors.

Gerhard Fröhlich, University of Linz, from an interview in the online Journal of Unsolved Questions:

Self control mechanisms are a myth in science ( and just) to avoid any serious external control. I have studied all fraud affairs precisely and in almost every case anonymous allegations coupled with mass media outrage – in most recent years with an interim period of outrage on the internet – were necessary before the institutions themselves agreed to take action. Science and its sponsors, media and politics, everybody wants heros, “Uebermenschen”. The lion’s share of uncovered scientific cheaters were supermen or superwomen, shooting stars in their field, decorated with honors and predicted to win the Nobel Prize.

In every case, though, an elderly gentleman held his protective hand over them to award them an official seal of scientific credibility.

Prof. Debora Weber-Wulff summarises the status of the various actions /investigations ongoing at German Universities.  From Prof. Debora Weber-Wulff’s blog:

The media barrage has not let up, as there are new candidates up every few days. So here is my modest attempt to get you up to date:

  • Mathematics professor at the University of Potsdam censured
    This blog reported in May 2010 on the plagiarism dispute between Gumm and Denecke. The University of Potsdam has just revoked the rights that the now-retired Denecke had to still supervise dissertations, and he is to remove the publication from his CV, and withdraw the book from the market.
  • Veronica Sass
    Doctorate rescinded by the University of Konstanz
  • Matthias Pröfrock
    Doctorate rescinded by the University of Tübingen
  • Silvana Koch-Mehrin
    Doctorate rescinded by the University of Heidelberg, she has legally challenged the decision
  • Georgios Chatzimarkakis
    Doctorate rescinded by the University of Bonn
  • Bijan Djir-Sarai
    Plagiarism level is currently at 60% of the pages, the University of Cologne is investigating
  • Uwe Brinkmann
    Doctorate rescinded by the University of Hamburg
  • Margarita Mathiopoulos
    Plagiarism level is currently at 46 % of the pages, the University of Bonn is investigating
  • Siegfried Haller
    Plagiarism level is currently at 21 % of the pages, the University of Halle-Wittenberg is investigating
  • Jürgen Goldschmidt
    is the most recent member of the club, clocking in at a plagiarism level of 10% of the pages, the Technical University of Berlin is investigating. The entire nation is having a good laugh at his footnoting technique, which includes “Tagesschau vom 02.12.2004” (on page 42 of the dissertation), “WDR vom 24.03.2007” (on page 51), and best of all “Super Illu 17/2005” (on page 45). SUPERillu is a weekly family magazine often read in Eastern Germany, leading Spiegel Online to headline “Magna cum Super-Illu“. Mr. Goldschmidt tried to delete two sites that he runs on the topic of his dissertation, as they contained the sources for some of the plagiarism. Luckily, the Internet Archive had kept a copy for posterity.
  • Bernd Althusmann
    The weekly newspaper Die Zeit hired investigators to look into the dissertation of the minister of education of Lower Saxony, currently the speaker for the national committee on education. The calls for him to step down are getting louder and louder.
  • Roland Wöller
    The dissertation of the minister of education from Saxony was investigated in 2008, when it was determined that he had incorporated large portions of a master’s thesis by another student into his work without proper attribution. The University of Dresden sent him a sharp letter reprimanding him and requesting that he “fix the footnotes” for future editions of the book, but they did not rescind his dissertation at the time. The thesis is being re-investigated by people outside of VroniPlag. Update: The media is trying to make a scandal out of this, as there is nothing else to report on. Flurfunk debunks the scandal.

Continuing >> The strange and murky case of Silvia Bulfone-Paus

June 22, 2011

Professor Debora Weber-Wulff  has a comprehensive recapitulation of the twists and turns in the Silvia Bulfone-Paus / Borstel case. This is a strange story and at least 14 retractions, anonymous internet campaigns, Russian scientists being used as scapegoats, establishment scientists in denial, claims of nepotism and the destabilisation of science – no less (according to Nature)  have been some of the ingredients so far. The story continues ………. .

Copy, Shake and Paste:

Silvia Bulfone-Paus is an immunologist. She worked at the Forschungszentrum Borstel (FZB) outside of Hamburg in Germany, and is a professor at the Medical University in Lübeck. reports that she published many papers together with the Russian couple Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian from Russia. Retraction Watch reported in March 2011 that 12 papers by the three authors have been retracted. The three have published 22 papers together, so there may be more.

In October 2009 the biologist Karin Wiebauer realized that the Western blots in some of the papers were very similar – sometimes just the labels were changed, in others a dose of Photoshop was used to mirror, move or distort the bands. This is the same method that Marion Brach used in the Hermann/Brach scandal end of the 90s [strangely enough, there is nothing in either Wikipedia about either them or the scandals].

In November 2009 Wiebauer informed the first author, Bulfone-Paus, of her discovery. Nothing happened. Finally, in April 2010 an investigation committee was convened. They determined that there was just sloppy publication, but the results were okay. There was a culprit found – the Russian couple. They were accused of deceit and the 12 papers retracted, although the Russians did not agree to the retractions. 

There ensued an anonymous Internet-based campaign. Colleagues then published an open letter supporting Bulfone-Paus,  saying the poor woman, who is a brilliant researcher and has published much, including work together with her husband, was deceived by her postdocs. The Borstel Board of Directors – sans Bulfone-Paus – published a good response to the open letter soon after forcing her off the board:

Severe failure in one area (as supervisor and responsible senior, corresponding and first author) can hardly be compensated by merits in other areas. […] For all scientists, one of the greatest goods in science is personal credibility and integrity, and that the most precious currency scientists have is the truthfulness of their data. The scientific community expects rigorous adherence to the rules of scientific research from principal investigators and, in particular, from heads of research divisions or departments. […] The scientific misconduct in Silvia Bulfone-Paus’s lab and her procrastination to go public despite being ultimately responsible has highly damaged the reputation of the Research Center. This is what cannot be tolerated.

But now the plot thickens: An additional paper by Bulfone-Paus (not including the Russian couple) in Blood  is currently under investigation. A co-author on this one is her husband, Ralf Paus, a dermatologist at the University of Lübeck. And the university has verified for Spiegel, a German news weekly, that they are currently investigating 6 papers of Paus. 

And now it bubbles up that Bulfone-Paus and Paus both have professorships in Manchester, in England, where they spend 20% of their time, according to the Times Higher Education. The couple also have three children, as reported by Spiegel in January

In other news about Borstel, another director, Peter Zabel, stepped down earlier this month amidst plagiarism charges. It seems he double published a paper (once in German and once in English), as well as in 2009 publishing a paper that included large portions of text and diagrams from a 2008 paper published in the US. The double publication is deemed not so severe, although it is not clear that the later publication makes clear that it is in fact a double publication – the abstract has been rewritten, but is still similar. Zabel has now also resigned from the editorial board of Der Internist.

The double publication was found by someone calling themselves Clare Francis, who informed Retraction Watch, Abnormal Science Blog, and me. It was found using the Déjà vu tool for searching for duplicate content in Medline. 

Joerg Zwirner, in a recent post to the Abnormal Science Blog, calls for setting up an Office for Research Integrity in Germany, as is to be found in the US. I heartily agree – this is far too complicated to understand for non-medical researcher, but it seems that there are deficiencies in the medical research complex in Germany that have existed for decades. And Hermann/Brach did not result in these being adequately addressed. Germany needs action, and it needs it now.


Guttenberg plagiarism: Germans fixated with academic titles

February 18, 2011
c. 2011: Axel Völcker,

Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff

The Guttenberg plagiarism saga continues while he has gone off to Afghanistan for a surprise visit – probably because it is less dangerous there right now.

Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff is Professor for Media and Computing at the HTW Berlin. She was involved in the BMBF flagship project “Virtuelle Fachhochschule” developing eLearning materials and carries out Internet- and eLearning-related projects. She also works on detecting plagiarism and has a plagiarism blog.

Following the apparently blatant plagiarism carried out by Germany’s Defence Minister for his PhD thesis, she was interviewed by which includes the folllowing:

What is your assessment of the Guttenberg situation?

What the rest of the thesis is like, and which chapter the alleged plagiarism is in – that’s another question. There are communities here who say it’s OK to plagiarize a little in your methodology section, but not in others. I think this is completely bizarre. Germans have a way of talking the problem down.The excerpts that the Süddeutsche Zeitung has online are scary, because they are one-to-one copies. And that’s not OK.

What is the real issue then?
This has to do with the German tendency to love titles, they are title-fixated, and people in politics love to have a doctor title so they seem wiser. But it should be about science, for scientists to prove that they can work by themselves – it’s the first proof that they can do research on their own.

Would you say there is a culture of plagiarising and cheating among German students?
I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a download culture. Young people download their music, videos, and why not download their thesis, because they just see it as busy work – something that stands between them and the degree they think they want or need so they can make lots of money and don’t have to work any longer.

She also writes on her blog:

Guttenberg, the conservative German defense minister from Bavaria, has left the country and gone to Afghanistan. They say this was planned, but right now, he’s probably safer there than in the streets of Berlin. The opposition is gleefully taking potshots at him (metaphorically, you understand).

His supporters accuse the scientist who discovered the plagiarism of being part of a commie plot to undermine the country, if I understand their tone of voice correctly.
No one believes that a professor might sit down one evening at the computer, in the midst of writing a review of a doctoral thesis that had been around for a while, but had a very prominent author, currently under fire for other things. The professor, Andreas Fischer-Lescano of the University of Bremen, poured himself a glass of Argentine red wine, looked over the thesis and put three words into Google: “säkularer laizistischer multireligiöser” (secular lay multireligious – the thesis includes a chapter on putting references to a god in a constitution).
And he got a hit. From an article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung by Klara Obermüller, written a few years before his thesis was published. Oops. He poured another glass and tried some other terms, and some more. Fischer-Lescano wrote a scathing review, and includes as an appendix 24 word-for-word passages that are not quoted and not referenced. The review will be published the end of the month in Kritische Justiz, 44(1), pp. 112-119.
A number of journalists have spoken with me today to question this way of working. How do I look for plagiarists? “Well,” I said, “pretty much the same. Except that I prefer Austrian wine.”

As a sociological phenomenon, the rise of the “cut-and-paste” culture together with the German love of academic titles is a worthy subject for study. But what does not seem to be in doubt is that Guttenberg is just another politician who is just another fraud. And a misuse of position – whether to get an academic degree or to amass huge sums of money – is still corruption.

Why voters continue to vote for frauds is an even more interesting subject for study.

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