A case of plagiarism at ETH

Much has been written about the increasing levels of article retractions during the last months. Often, peers, reviewers, and student mentors have been criticized for not doing their job. I believe that we do have a responsibility for bringing these cases to light. However, as long as organizations – afraid of negative publicity – fail to enforce strict penalities, the problems will remain.

My previous employer, ETH, just has withdrawn the degree of a student after it found a case of plagiarism. However, she can re-enroll, reclaim her course credits and rewrite her thesis with a new topic. WOW, what a punishment. It reminds me of the story of the 1980s Budapest railway system, where the penalty for dodging the fare was … the price of a regular ticket. I have heard similar stories of my previous alma mater, the HSG, although I cannot confirm these from my personal experience.

Detecting plagiarism as a mentor of a thesis, or as the reviewer of a paper is hard, it is really hard work. Why would I invest my time and go through the hassle, if I know that fraud will not have serious consequences?

I have been waiting for the report of an Research misconduct committee dragging out their report for more than a year, while the retraction count of a German professor skyrockets to at least 12 retracted articles with no report and no consequences in sight. The same university only took a month to give an already retired professor a mild slap on the wrist for publishing a student’s work as article without any mention of said student. Why would I expose myself accusing peers when nothing is going to happen?

I do not aim to punish people for minor errors ("only those who don’t work do not make mistakes"). And I certainly do not appreciate the digging out of 30 year old dissertations just for the sake of detecting plagiarism. But organizations should face uncomfortable realities and implement harsh penalities once serious fraudulent activities are detected and made public.