“Title arousal” issues in German Education

Another German Minister with Doctoral Difficulties.

BBC News recently reported on German minister Annette Schavan having her doctorate withdrawn following accusations of plagiarism. This comes barely two years after another minister was found to have plagiarised parts of his dissertation.

It’s a rather unhappy picture:

A German university has voted to strip Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate after an investigation into plagiarism allegations.

The University of Duesseldorf’s philosophy faculty decided on Tuesday that she had carried out “a deliberate deception through plagiarism”.

The minister has denied the claims and said she will appeal.

An earlier plagiarism row brought an end to the political career of Germany’s defence minister in 2011.

Large parts of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s 2006 legal dissertations were found by Bayreuth University to have been copied and he stood down before it issued its damning verdict in May 2011.

Using the same words as Duesseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University, it concluded that he had “deliberately deceived”.

ctrl_c_ctrl_v_plagiarism

The New York Times offers an additional angle, commenting that the scandal reflects a distinctive German fascination with titles:

Coming after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down as defense minister over plagiarism charges in 2011, Dr. Schavan’s déjà-vu scandal can only hurt Dr. Merkel ahead of September’s parliamentary election. But the two ministers are far from the only German officials to have recently had their postgraduate degrees revoked amid accusations of academic dishonesty, prompting national soul-searching about what the cases reveal about the German character.

Germans place a greater premium on doctorates than Americans do as marks of distinction and erudition. According to the Web site Research in Germany, about 25,000 Germans earn doctorates each year, the most in Europe and about twice the per capita rate of the United States.

Many Germans believe the scandals are rooted in their abiding respect, and even lust, for academic accolades, including the use of Prof. before Dr. and occasionally Dr. Dr. for those with two doctoral degrees. Prof. Dr. Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, calls this obsession “title arousal.”

“In other countries people aren’t as vain about their titles,” he said. “With this obsession for titles, of course, comes title envy.”

Title arousal and title envy do seem rather striking reasons for plagiarism but something very strange does seem to be happening in German politics. But also in Romania and Hungary where similar accusations have been levelled at ministers there too.

Not Guilty, Your Honour: students and cheating

Honour codes and cheating

Two fascinating stories recently about students cheating and responses to it. All universities face the issue of how to educate students on the importance of honesty and integrity in academic study and avoiding plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Many US institutions have what is called an Honour Code to which students are expected to adhere and which covers all aspects of their behaviour in academic and non-academic activities. Similar statements can be found in the registration or matriculation agreements signed by students on arrival at UK universities. These also relate to the disciplinary regulations covering academic and other offences which describe the powers the university has (which may range from fines, to mark deductions to expulsion) to respond to behaviour which breaches these agreements.

The first of these pieces, in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how Coursera, one of the big MMOC providers, has moved to add an “honour code prompt” in response to reports of widespread plagiarism by students following its courses:

Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”

Only a few courses that are now under way include essay assignments, so just three courses are affected (though tens of thousands of students are enrolled in each one). Officials say they may add the honor-code prompt to other types of assignments in the future. Students in all Coursera courses already agree to its honor code when they sign up for classes.

“A large part of the plagiarism arises from lack of understanding of the expected standards of behavior in U.S. academic institutions, especially among students who have not been trained in such institutions,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the company and a Stanford University professor, in an e-mail interview. “We believe that this language will be quite helpful.”

It is interesting that the view here appears to be that this is really an issue about cultural difference and alternative norms about what is and is not acceptable in terms of academic work. This is likely to be a factor when there are so many students, from many different backgrounds and educational traditions, taking a course. It is a challenge faced and addressed in traditional university education too. What is different here though is that the nature and operation of MOOCs means that plagiarism and other forms of cheating is inevitable. With huge numbers of students taking each class and automated or peer marking and no quality assurance then it is simply impossible to be confident about the integrity of the assessment process. Such an invitation to students to sign a pledge looks, at best, a little tokenistic.

Meanwhile, Harvard University, which has never had an honour code, is to consider instituting one as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam according to this piece in The Washington Post:

Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

Harvard University is investigating whether dozens of undergraduate students cheated on a take-home exam last spring.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” President Drew Faust said.

What is perhaps most surprising about this incident is the scale of it with half of a class of 250 said to be involved. The key difference between this and the Coursera response is that the University detected the possible cheating and is acting on it in order to maintain the standard of its awards. That’s not something we can expect to see from a MOOC provider in the near future (of which Harvard is of course one, albeit indirectly, through its partnership in edX).

The other rather dispiriting conclusion we can draw from all of this is that human nature is such that many people will, if you give them the opportunity, cheat.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.

Cheating: Only a Click Away

Another plagiarism concern

Previous posts here have covered related matters including online plagiarism, plagiarism in admissions essays and a video attempting to advise students on plagiarism. A recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at students cheating through the use of clickers.

Kevin D. Livingston, an associate professor of biology at Trinity University, in Texas, was told by students in his genetics course that other students had used clickers to cheat on homework. Instead of grading assignments individually, he had used clickers to poll students on homework questions in class. He was dismayed to learn that some students had simply shared homework answers during the clicker poll to get credit instead of actually doing the problem sets beforehand.

He also teaches an introductory-biology course in which clicker questions and attendance constitute 20 percent of the grade. He assumes there is some cheating using the devices but leaves it up to students themselves to report abuse, since cheating can nullify hard, honest studying. “I can’t spend all my energy trying to police cheating,” he says.

 

It goes on. Whilst clickers are clearly commonplace in North America I’m not sure how widespread their use is in the UK. And I’d be surprised if we have the kind of problems described here:

Mr. Bruff, the clicker expert and a fan of the devices, says the concerns about cheating are not exaggerated: He sees students boasting about it on Twitter. “I saw one where a guy took a photo with his camera of the clickers he had on his desk—his and four of his friends’—and he was basically bragging about it.” Mr. Bruff says he attends education-technology conferences throughout the country and is constantly asked how to curb abuse.

University “cheating league table”

A rather dubious league table

The Telegraph has a story based on reported incidences of plagiarism which it describes as an:

investigation into cheating at universities, with thousands of students caught plagiarising, trying to bribe lecturers and buying essays from the internet.

As noted in a previous post this issue is really about improved detection rather than a greater prevalence of cheats.

But, anyway, given that they’ve gone to all this effort, you might like to know that the top 10 looks like this:

2005/06 2009/10
Greenwich 540 838
Sheffield Hallam 117 801
Kingston n/a 799
Westminster 840 749
East London n/a 733
Central Lancashire n/a 642
Leeds Metropolitan 157 532
Wolverhampton 360 498
Coventry 74 428
Middlesex 289 425

Bottom of the table

2005/06 2009/10
Dundee 0 0
Cambridge n/a 1
Bristol 3 2
Abertay Dundee 19 5
Durham 2 5
City 4 7
Leicester 0 8
Oxford 11 12
Essex n/a 18
Birmingham 15 20
Sheffield n/a 20

Which, of course, proves absolutely nothing other than that different institutions have different ways of recording, reporting and dealing with plagiarism.

Online plagiarism crackdown “catches thousands”

Tackling plagiarism

It seems that it is still difficult for newspapers to report intelligent steps to tackle plagiarism in a non-sensationalist way. See for example an earlier post on the Sun’s coverage of cheating by students.

The Scotsman is the latest offender in reporting steps taken by universities to tackle plagiarism:

THE number of Scottish students who are trying to cheat their way to a university degree has soared to unprecedented levels in the past five years, according to new figures.

A survey has shown that thousands of undergraduates have been caught plagiarising other people’s work to pass their degree exams.

But last night the leader of Scotland’s students insisted the record plagiarism numbers reported by many of Scotland’s top universities was down to improved detection systems, rather than an increase in cheating by undergraduates.

Liam Burns, the president of NUS Scotland, said: “These figures shouldn’t be seen as a sign of increased cheating, but the inevitable effect of improvements to anti-plagiarism software.

“It’s not as if there are hundreds more students actively trying to cheat.”

Sensible words from the NUS Scotland President. This isn’t totally straightforward but it really is down to improved detection.

Detecting Plagiarism in Admissions Essays

Tackling plagiarism in admissions

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education some colleges in the US are stepping up their efforts to detect plagiarism among applicants:

About 25 universities and 20 application services are testing a plagiarism-detection service offered by iParadigms, the same company that provides Turnitin.com, a popular tool for catching plagiarism in academic writing, said Jeff Lorton, business manager at Turnitin for Admissions.

Turnitin for Admissions runs essays through a database of Internet content, journals, books, and previously submitted papers. It then provides a report detailing the number and nature of matches to see if any admissions essays appear to be copied from others.


You wouldn’t think this would be a huge problem but it seems that when Turnitin for Admissions conducted a study in which it analyzed about 450,000 personal statements it found that “36 percent contained a “significant” amount of matching text (more than 10 percent).” That seems pretty high.

It certainly seems high compared to the 1 in 20 quoted in a UK study by UCAS as noted in an earlier post. The real question remains though, what do you do when you find a bit of plagiarism in a personal statement? It could perhaps be seen as one way to deal with excess student demand over number of available places.

“Plagiarism up 700%” at University of Nottingham

Slight misinterpretation of non-comparable data

According to a shocking report in Impact, which doesn’t let facts get in the way of a sensational story, plagiarism is up 700% at the University of Nottingham:

The University of Nottingham has insisted that cheating is not skyrocketing among its students, following the emergence of figures which show a significant rise in recorded plagiarism at the institution in the last five years. According to records released under the Freedom of Information Act, 280 students were caught submitting copied work in coursework last year compared to 38 in 2004: a rise of over 700%. Another 11 were found to have cheated in exams in the 2008/09 session.

The University also reported 123 second offenders caught in the last five years. Only four of the culprits were expelled, while most were allowed to continue studying after having their marks docked.

But the real issue is that the means of detecting and recording plagiarism have significantly changed and, most importantly, new software has been introduced to detect and deter plagiarism.

Citing an investment in plagiarism detection software and a change in the system for gathering plagiarism data, a spokesman for the University argued that “There is no clear evidence that plagiarism and cheating have actually increased to this extent.”

In an official statement, the University spokesman said: “In 2006 the university invested in plagiarism detection software to assist our academics. This accounts in part for a noticeable rise in cases detected and proven.

“It is impossible to attempt to extrapolate increases or draw any conclusions from the limited and non-comparable data currently available in relation to plagiarism. Direct comparison is unreliable since the information held by schools within the University from before 2006 is incomplete.”

All absolutely correct. Several of the comments which follow the article also acknowledge the University position and offer a helpful critique of the piece which, far from being a serious piece of investigative reporting, is in fact simply an account of the results of an FOI request. A bit like the recent report in the Sun.

The Sun investigates academic offences

The Sun seems to have a new found interest in academic offences. It says that “160 exam cheats were booted out of university last year”.

According to the respected journal:

DIMWITS with notes scrawled on wrists and arms were among 160 exam cheats booted out of university last year. The brainless old wheeze of writing answers on body parts continued to beat hi-tech scams such as accessing the internet with mobile phones, The Sun can reveal.

We submitted a Freedom of Information request to discover the most popular ways of cheating – and which campuses had the most culprits. Worst was Teesside University in Middlesbrough – where 17 students were caught. Middlesex University expelled 15, followed by Kingston (10), Sheffield (7) and University College London (6).

Scams were: Notes written on SKIN, including palms and legs; BUYING coursework such as essays off the internet; STEALING – like the Chester University student who swiped another’s memory stick and passed work off as theirs. Faking ILLNESS to have poor results upgraded; Nipping to the LOO after hiding notes there; PLAGIARISING work on the web and HIDING notes in pencil cases and dictionaries; STAND-INS taking the exam; PRETENDING a bereavement affected performance – and lastly using a MOBILE.

Great to see tabloids interested in this particular aspect of higher education.

Help from Mum and Dad

BBC Education has a report on this wonderful phenomenon:

Parents are paying hundreds of pounds for degree-course essays for their children studying at university, claims an essay-writing service.

The essay company, UKEssays.com, says that 78% of student customers buying essays are using their parents’ money. “The students will talk about the essay they want and then they put their parents on the phone to give the credit card details,” says a spokesman. The company says these are “model essays” and not for plagiarism.

Of course not. Why would anyone pay for a model answer and then plagiarise it?

This company has been doing a lot to tout its business locally too.

And it appears that if your parents were really flush, they could pay £40k for a PhD thesis. All perfectly reasonable.