Academics support plagiarism whistleblower petition

More than 600 academics in Germany have signed a petition demanding that cases of plagiarism and data manipulation be settled in discourses at subject level. The campaign is critical of a move by the German Rectors’ Conference to have such issues treated confidentially in university committees.

Germany’s higher education system has been rocked by a wave of plagiarism scandals involving top politicians, which culminated earlier this year in the resignation of education minister Annette Schavan, following allegations of plagiarism.

Internet campaigns making incidents of plagiarism public started with the case of former defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who had to step down and was stripped of his doctorate in 2011.

According to its President Horst Hippler, the Rectors’ Conference – Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, or HRK – seeks to restrict the activities of internet forums like Guttenplag or Vroniplag, which played a key role in developments.

The HRK proposes that official university committees addressing allegations of plagiarism work in strict confidentiality, to protect both the whistleblower and the academic in question.

“Confidentiality will be breached if the whistleblower brings the issue to the public eye,” the HRK states, adding that, in doing so, it is the whistleblower who is then violating the rules of good academic practice.

Philosophy historian Stephan Heßbrüggen, who launched the current petition campaign, argues that academia “does not require any secret proceedings to fulfil its chief purpose, that of gaining scientific insights. It goes without saying that given this purpose, the rights of individuals regarding confidentiality or protection against defamation come second.”

Heßbrüggen claims that the proposals put forward by the HRK potentially “criminalise” legitimate academic activities on the part of whistleblowers, turning such activities into a possible violation of standards of good academic practice and creating “fear, uncertainty and doubt”.

In such a climate, junior academics in particular will think twice before raising any accusations, justified as they may be.

But above all, Heßbrüggen claims, academics abroad will hardly seek collaboration with a higher education system that has “defined its own standards in a procedure lacking transparency to such a degree and reaching such a dubious outcome”.

Meanwhile, the German Research Foundation, or DFG, has not adopted the HRK statements in its own recommendations on good academic practice. It notes that it is “not the whistleblower who harms academia but the academic displaying misconduct”.

The DFG goes on to say that any prejudgement of the academic concerned has to be avoided in all circumstances, and that whistleblowers should not address the public “without having previously informed the university of indications of suspicious conduct”.

It does not, however, explicitly state that whistleblowers should refrain from going public if their allegations are rejected or only reluctantly taken up by an institution.