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Science

Why painstaking detective work beats computer automation in the hunt for plagiarism

Germany's defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is the latest in a long line of politicians forced to fend off charges of academic plagiarism. Could automated computer analysis help clear up her case?

It seems it's not only German carmakers that lie and cheat on an industrial scale - apparently, German politicians are at it, too. Given the number of cabinet ministers whose academic work has been scrutinized over the past few years, you may find yourself quoting Shakespeare to opine "there is something rotten in the state" of Germany. Only make sure you credit him properly, or you'll lose your job.

The first headline politician to fall was former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. An investigation in 2011 found Guttenberg had plagiarized passages in his doctoral thesis. He was stripped of his PhD and resigned from his post.

That same year, "promising" German MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin fell under suspicion over her academic sanctity and quit amidst the row.

Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier escaped an investigation into his academic work unscathed.

But Annette Schavan, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, did not. She was stripped of her PhD and resigned from - ironically - her post as German Education Minister.

Now, the latest high-ranking politician under scrutiny for alleged plagiarism is one of Guttenberg's successors, Ursula von der Leyen.

Much of this is thanks to a wiki - a collaborative online community of users and contributors - called VroniPlag.

Screenshot Vroniplag - Ursula von der Leyen

This VroniPlag "barcode" indicates significant alleged plagiarism in von der Leyen's 1990 thesis

VroniPlag was set up by Martin Heidingsfelder and is maintained by volunteers, who include, says the website, "the young and the old, men and women, scientists and non-scientists."

A predecessor of sorts was GuttenPlag - a wiki dedicated to exposing alleged plagiarism in Guttenberg's dissertation. It takes its name from Veronica Saß, the daughter of German politician Edmund Stoiber, whose thesis became the first VroniPlag handled.

The wiki lives off the initiative and unpaid work of an online community - and declines donations.

Their motivation is simple. Plagiarism, says a detailed comment on the community website, hinders scientific progress.

How does it work?

It's largely down to painstaking detective work - the community scouring theses in their spare time - through the night, after their day jobs.

If any plagiarism is found, the community publishes "barcodes" which visualize the amount, and extent, to which they say a thesis, or extracts therein, were plagiarized.

In the case of Germany's current defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, a significant number of pages in her 1990 thesis consist of up to 75 percent plagiarized text, according to VroniPlag.

VroniPlag founder Martin Heidingsfelder

VroniPlag's founder Martin Heidingsfelder has been dubbed a plagiarism "hunter"

Von der Leyen, however, denies any plagiarism.

Automated computer search?

There have been attempts to automate the search for plagiarism.

But a study conducted by the University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics in Berlin found just 15 of 28 programs they tested were any good.

Only three programs were described as "partially useable."

One of the biggest problems in using automation is that many of the original scientific texts, those used as a source for any act of plagiarism, are not freely available online.

Then there's the minor issue of unsophisticated computer programs highlighting entirely benign sentences as plagiarism - when in truth they are a standard turn of phrase.

It's understood that a piece of software called ProfNet was used in an investigation of Steinmeier's academic work - but his name was ultimately cleared.

So it seems old-fashioned, slow detective work, as done by the VroniPlag community, wins out.

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