The rise of vanity PhDs and their impact on plagiarism

The university of Dusseldorf has now stripped Mrs Annette Schavan of her Dr title. The education minister is still fighting against the accusations so protocol says that the presumption of innocence is not lifted. This adds to the list of political prominence who were stripped of their Dr titles (Karl-Theodor zu Gutenberg, Georgios Chatzimarkakis,..).

My conjecture is that for Dr titles of prose-dominated “sciences” plagiarism is more common because there is only a small number of meaningful sentences you can construct if you restrict yourself to the vocabulary of a narrow subject matter. Add to that the fact that you need to immerse yourself in a certain literature in order to bring a PhD thesis to an end and you can see how you can intentionally or unintentionally write sentences that pre-existed (especially if you do a PhD on the side, because you are -for example- an ambitious, distracted and multitasking politician).

In the pre-digital age you could easily get away with non-referenced but preexisting sentences (the vernacular “definition” of plagiarism) because of the inability (the authors’ and the others’) to check. In the digital age this control increased but so did the supply of texts to read and (not) cite. Moreover copy & paste made it possible to have more intentional or unintentional plagiarism as well as to salt your plagiarism with noise and game the controls. As Dr titles became increasingly inflationary we got more of what I call “vanity PhDs” (i.e. PhD’s with negligible scientific contribution, in prose “sciences”, written on the side by distracted people who never intended to go into “science” and aiming at the “Dr.” prefix to their name for a salary or career bump) and that ought to correlate with increased plagiarism.  The proliferation of inflationary vanity PhDs resulted, I suspect, in more impact-less, obscure and unread texts allowing plagiarism to flourish and hide. Perhaps we should reconsider what ought to count as a PhD and who ought to be able to award one. Not everything which mimics the letter of science is a science.

 

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