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Background I am asking this question in the context of the long running plagiarism scandal in Germany.The most prominent victim of the scandal of plagiarized doctoral dissertations by politicians was former defense minister Guttenberg. His doctoral title was withdrawn, and he resigned from his position. He was followed by several other politicians, and now even the German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan is under suspicion of plagiarism.

The interesting thing is that for all these people, the plagiarism was detected only due to plagiarism detection wikis like VroniPlag and GuttenPlag, where ordinary people compared these doctoral dissertations with other published work. The only role of universities has been to respond to allegations that are especially well documented and have caused a reasonable amount of public uproar.

Don't the Universities themselves bear any responsibility for letting this plagiarism go undetected? In fact Guttenberg's dissertation was awarded a summa cum laude. It appears as if their is no mechanism whatsoever (at least in German universities) to detect academic fraud.

Is there any mechanism at all to detect plagiarism or fraudulent research in PhD dissertations (doctoral theses)?

I understand that there are probably country based differences and my experience is primarily with the German system. Still it would be good to know the seriousness with which academic fraud is taken in different countries. This appears especially pertinent to the maintenance of the credibility of academia in general and doctoral degrees in particular, and yet there seem to be no checks whatsoever!

1 Answer 1

All of the candidate, his/her advisors, examiners, colleagues and peers have levels of responsibility for detecting plagiarism, however it is not the primary objective of a Ph.D. system. The primary objective is to determine whether the candidate has the ability to carry out research, think logically and clearly about that research and communicate the results of the research, the implications and possible directions for further research based on the results.

When it is detected, the serious consequences (loss of reputation, loss of career, public exposure etc.) are the principal deterrent to others. Of course advisors and examiners should be actively on the lookout for plagiarism however their principle activity is to advise on the development of the work and examine the result of the work. Ph.D.s are, in some cases, supervised and examined by early career researchers, who may not have the depth and breadth of knowledge of the literature to detect some cases of plagiarism. No matter what, the candidate carries the ultimate responsibility.

No system we can devise will ever be perfect. Students are not often given much guidance about what constitutes plagiarism, other than having to sign and agree to be bound by the universities policy on it. There is far more advice available now than when I did my PH.D., and many more sources of advice on what constitutes plagiarism.