What to do when plagiarizing becomes good scholarly practice?

For the last couple of weeks, the German Minister of Defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was under pressure because it was found out that he had plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis. After first admitting that he had made mistakes, zu Guttenberg finally decided to resign from his post. One of his reasons was that he did not think that his personal situation should go on to dominate the press the way it did in the last couple of weeks. The plot however gets more interesting by the minute. Following an article on bbc news, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, has studied at LSE, London and is also supposed to have plagiarized his PhD thesis. In addition, LSE had received project and university funding from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. Sir Howard Davies, the director of LSE, who even traveled to Libya, is under enormous pressure to not only return the money but to sever any ties with the country. Although the two cases are at a first glimpse quite dissimilar, other than the plagiarizing part, they do have a political dimension in common. And all those involved, the universities and the politicians have to ask themselves how much more important money and standing is in comparison to ethically correct behavior. In both cases major universities have a reputation to loose and in both cases, political careers are jeopardized by self-made mistakes. Ethically the situation is difficult in more than one dimension. Firstly, those who cheat act against a set course of conduct, that is taken quite seriously in academia. Secondly, those in public office and in a position of leadership are judged not only by the academic community, but by their whole country. Hence, the cheating is not only a case of having or not having a PhD attached to one’s name, but to have the trust of those to whom one is presumably a figure of respect. So, one would actually think that the trust is lost and the cheater a persona non grata. The case however is quite different, especially for the German Minister of Defense. Sympathies are still largely with him, and many voice the opinion that he had just too much to do and therefore made a stupid mistake. It was not plagiarizing at all, but just forgetfulness. But what are we to make of this? Every student in history has a good excuse why it was impossible to finish an essay on time or why one is to late to class. But somebody who aspires a PhD should be slightly above that. Or is that just wishful thinking? Because if it is, then cheating will become a normal part of academic life and the worst that can happen is a slap on the fingers. But if that really becomes the norm, we can stop writing our PhD’s!?!

Related articles:
“LSE investigates Gaddafi’s son plagiarism claims” in bbc news uk/education

Theories of Political Justification
By Simone Chambers, University of Toronto
Volume 5, November 2010
Philosophy Compass

Author: the medical philosopher

I am a philosopher of science with the main focus on philosophy of medicine. I write about evidence based medicine, medical research versus medical practice, ethics in medicine and why medicine needs to be patient centred and how we can achieve that.

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