Campus - 06.12.2022 - 16:48 

Plagiarism accusation: HSG's position

Severe accusations of plagiarism are being made in the media against the post-doctoral thesis of a HSG professor. However, the criticism is also aimed at the University itself and the procedure it used to check the scientific integrity of the work. HSG President Bernhard Ehrenzeller comments on the ongoing debate.
Hauptgebäude der Universität St.Gallen
[Translate to English:] Gegen die Habilitation eines HSG-Professors werden in den Medien heftige Plagiatsvorwürfe erhoben. Rektor Bernhard Ehrenzeller nimmt Stellung zur laufenden Debatte.

Mr Ehrenzeller, last week HSG has been confronted with an accusation of plagiarism. The case was already known to the University beforehand. What do you think of the current reporting?

The accusation is that we did not take the case of suspected plagiarism seriously. But that simply isn’t true. We are very concerned that such accusations are being made because of course, we have the highest standards regarding scientific integrity and the detection of plagiarism. But checking for plagiarism is not limited to statistical measures and the comparison of algorithmic formulations. It also requires an evaluation of the content of the passages in question. We have the greatest interest in ensuring that the case is properly dealt with.

What did HSG look into in its investigation, which took place from August 2021 to May 2022?

There is a clear procedure for such cases according to the current regulations concerning scientific integrity: It involves two stages. In a first step, a confidence group checks whether there is an initial suspicion. If an initial suspicion is confirmed, an investigative commission is appointed by the president in the second step. The commission then examines the allegations in more detail and, if necessary, commissions an external expert before producing a final motion for the president. All these steps were carried out correctly in the present case.

What does that mean specifically?

In this specific case, the investigative commission examined whether the accused HSG professor had taken text passages from other people's and/or his own work and not identified them. An initial analysis was carried out by the plagiarism unit of the University of St.Gallen, which used the same checking software as the so-called plagiarism hunter Stefan Weber, whose analysis is referred to in the press. However, the electronic plagiarism check can only indicate an initial suspicion, which is why I have also set up an investigative commission. This in turn consulted an independent scientist, renowned in his subject area, as an external expert for an expert opinion. The focus here was on the extent to which the questionable sections from the dissertation and other third-party work constituted academic misconduct within the context of the post-doctoral qualification procedure.

Why did the investigation take so long?

The time required from August 2021 to May 2022 may seem long, but it can be well explained: Due to the extensive submissions made by a lawyer, which included numerous allegations by students, the proceedings were also extensive and time-consuming. In addition to this, there is a great deal of complexity regarding the proceedings and coordination within the process, which means it has not been dragged out in any way.

What was the result?

Based on the expert opinion, the investigative commission did not find any scientific misconduct within the meaning of the Integrity Principles. This is why I have ended the proceedings in line with the commission's proposal, and the process was completed in May of this year. The lawyer in question was informed accordingly.

The St.Galler Tagblatt newspaper also called in a plagiarism hunter, who has come to a different conclusion and now speaks of plagiarism. Did the commission really not find a single plagiarised passage?

The initial check by the plagiarism unit of the University of St.Gallen using the checking software Turnitin has identified overlaps between the dissertation and papers from the cumulative post-doctoral thesis. However, the similarity to the professor's dissertation was much less than the lawyer had argued in August 2021.

So HSG has identified similarities - plagiarism?

According to the external expert commissioned by the investigative commission, no plagiarism could be detected. In terms of an overall assessment, the expert comes to the following conclusion: "The lawyer's insinuation that the post-doctoral thesis could 'in large parts be a reproduction of the content of their own doctoral thesis...' can by no means be agreed with."

To this end, it is important to know that the post-doctoral thesis under investigation was a so-called cumulative post-doctorate. Checking such a document is demanding and cannot be done conclusively with plagiarism software. The reason is that, in the case of cumulative work, individual components may have been published before the thesis was submitted. The software then displays plagiarisms that are not actually plagiarisms.

Plagiarism consists of both matching text passages in terms of content - this can be checked online - and an interpretation of the matching text passages as to whether they pass off as one's own thoughts, which cannot be done by using software.

In summary: Checking plagiarism requires expert care and attention, which cannot simply be delegated to software. However, where overlaps were found, they were not considered significant by the reviewer in terms of key scientific achievements.

Do you understand that it is difficult for outsiders to understand this entire process? One can get the impression that it is purposely being slowed down, or that different standards are being applied. Why doesn't HSG speak clearly?

Yes, I understand that, and we too have the highest interest in scientific integrity. And we do not measure accusations of plagiarism against students' work using different standards than those of academics. Identified plagiarism is plagiarism. But the plagiarism check in relation to a collective post-doctoral thesis is complex. We assume - as of today - that the external expert has proceeded methodically and correctly to reach his conclusion.

At this point, however, we must also take a look at the management logic of the media: For some time now, we have been inundated with extensive and complex media enquiries in rapid succession. With the answers provided, the media has built a series of articles to keep the attention of the readers. And I expect there will be even more to come regarding this case.

The room we have to manoeuvre and to communicate our message is also restricted and is narrower than that of the media. It is limited because different rules and laws apply to us than to the media. We have to clarify information and must formulate our answers to the media carefully: content-related facts, regulatory framework conditions, personal rights of the persons concerned, and duties of care as an employer, for example. We cannot act lightly or pass judgement directly on the basis of an initial suspicion. Because we shouldn't forget, there's a lot at stake here - ranging from questions of scientific integrity, to the reputation of the university within the research community, to an existential dimension for the accused.

Further accusations are currently being made against the professor in the media concerning the appropriation of work of Bachelor or Master's students. What is HSG doing here?

Our concern is, of course, for the students affected. And we are investigating the allegations with regard to this, as well. What's important to me: If students suspect wrongdoing and want it investigated and clarified, we ask them to contact the appropriate offices at HSG. In such cases, these are the General Secretariat and the Confidence Group. The Ombudsman's Office is available for anonymous reports.

The lawyer who started the case expressed a suspicion of plagiarism against the dissertation and the post-doctoral thesis. Why did HSG only examine the post-doctoral thesis and not the doctoral one as well?

HSG must concentrate on what it is responsible for. In this case, that is the post-doctoral work. After completion of the investigation and its negative result, HSG had no reason to examine a dissertation not written at HSG. What's more, we cannot simply pass on suspicions that have been brought to our attention to third parties. This goes against data protection considerations and personal rights. It is, therefore, correct that the lawyer expressed her suspicions regarding the dissertation to the university responsible for it, the TU Darmstadt. The corresponding investigation process is now running there.

The University of Darmstadt contacted us to say: "This investigation is still ongoing and also laborious, because for us as a university, checking work is not done by counting matches found by a software. All passages, which have been complained about, are considered in their textual context. We are currently unable to say when the commission's work will be completed."

Should a case of plagiarism be found during this investigation, we will of course examine the consequences here at HSG.

Once again, to conclude: How will things now proceed here in Switzerland with the accusations that are being made against the post-doctoral thesis?

We have carried out extensive clarification work since 2021 and brought a clearly regulated procedure to an end this year. The whole thing is a very complex matter. So far, we have not been able to identify any violation of the principles of scientific integrity.

However, we also fulfil our duty of care towards all university employees: If the public gets the impression that something is wrong and, at the same time, the presumption of innocence applies, this is stressful for many of those affected. Especially for those doctoral students who are being supervised by the professor against whom the media accusations are directed. That is why we contact the doctoral students concerned in such a situation. We ask them, for example, if they would like to be supervised by other professors.

We will also investigate any allegations of the students regarding any academic integrity violations by the professor in question.