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The now former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was the center of an embarrassing row recently when accusations of plagiarism led the University of Beyreuth to stripping Mr Guttenberg of his doctorate. The now shamed Mr Guttenberg, dubbed by the national media ‘Mr Googleberg’ or ‘Mr Cut und Paste’, blamed the media for instigating a ‘witch hunt’ on his person but after futile resistance, stepped down from his post in the Merkel government.
The German ‘copygate’ is regrettably not the only high-profile case of academic fraud at the moment. In Denmark, the previously revered neuro-scientist Milena Penkowa is under criminal investigation and internal probing for several accounts of tampering with research results, abuse of research funds and falsifying experiments. Her case, which goes back to a dispute over her doctorate in 2002, shows a cynical and greedy disrespect for the institution she represented – The University of Copenhagen. Another recent example is the launch of an investigation into the claims that the son of Libya’s faulting dictator Gaddafi plagiarized his PhD thesis. Saif al-Islam’s enrollment into the London School of Economics was already an embarrasing story for the institutions which accepted him as a student alongside a £1.5m gift from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. With the accusation that the now 38-year-old graduate used a ghost writer and copied several sections of his work, the reputation of the institution is taking a serious blow.
And it is not just a successful bout of investigative journalism. As modern society has grown to value knowledge on behalf of academic credentials, the widespread of falsification, misrepresentation, plagiarism and cheating has exploded.
The obvious question is: Why do people cheat? Academic misconduct has a way of, if caught, tarnishing the fundamental credibility of that person, profession and/or institution. A journal on behalf of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning found that competitiveness, ambition, greed and other anti-social behavior are most likely motivations for academic fraud. Since the process of gaining academic success has become so competitive, the temptation to gain them illegitimately have equally increased. The author’s explanation for this situation is that “the value of academic success and qualifications is not limited to educational advancement alone. It is accompanied by the prospect of improved status, power, and influence.”
The recent cases have briefly exposed what has been a major problem in the worlds of academia and publishing for many years. Both students and institutions have turned their blind eye to the rule book on academic conduct and it does not seem that things will change anytime soon.
What is deeply concerning – and frustrating for anyone who did academics – is the fact that the more cases of fraud are exposed, the more damage it causes further down in the system. The people who fake their way through scholarly work and credentials set off a chain reaction of mistrust, ridicule and degradation of the world of academics. Honest researchers and writers will have to fight twice as hard to be taken serious, and It tarnishes everything that touched the case – it tarnishes everyone who legitimately follows the same path.
The morale of the story is – don’t be a cheater. The paradox of lying to advance one’s position is that with increased influence comes increased exposure and a bad apple in the cart can soon rot the rest of the harvest. Still, there is little else to do for real academics world wide than to make sure their own practice is legitimate and hope that the recent cases will scare off the rest.