Is plagiarism a victimless crime?

Aschbacher's plagiarism check hardly considered German-language sources

The plagiarism allegations against the doctoral thesis of the resigned ÖVP Labor Minister Christine Aschbacher at the Technical University in Bratislava raise the question: How did it come to this?

For the plagiarism hunter Stefan Weber, who uncovered the case, the failures can be broken down into two components: on the one hand, the work of the two assessors, who apparently insufficiently examined the work, and on the other hand, the Slovak plagiarism software that was used and the foreign-language software Content hardly taken into account. Specifically, this is the state plagiarism checker Centrálny register záverečných prác (CRZP).

Roughly speaking, plagiarism software works by comparing the uploaded document with an underlying database that contains a variety of other texts. These come, for example, from the Internet, from previously submitted papers and from scientific publications. If more than one word matches, the passages found are marked in color, provided it is not a quotation. The reviewers then see this and evaluate whether it is plagiarism or not.

21 million texts versus 70 billion

The database used by CRZP consists of around 21 million texts. The majority of these are textbooks and older papers, and some internet sources are also used. "Only a fraction of it is available in foreign languages, namely eight percent," explains the Slovak journalist and plagiarism checker Mária Benedikovičová, who uncovered several plagiarism scandals in connection with Slovak politicians, to STANDARD. The Slovak Ministry of Education does not disclose how many of these eight percent are German-language sources. "However, the control protocol by CRZP is not a confirmation that it is plagiarism, that must be decided by the assessment committee."

For comparison: The software Turnitin used at most Austrian universities relies on 70 billion websites, both current and archived, as well as more than a billion student papers. In addition, there is a comparison with a large number of specialist publications. Around 630 million of all content is in German, says a Turnitin spokeswoman on request. This massive difference should have ensured that CRZP only recognized a match of 1.15 percent in Aschbacher's dissertation. According to Weber, however, it was at least 21 percent in an exam with Turnitin.

A question of money

However, the TU Bratislava only uses CRZP for non-Slovak work. She is not alone in that: the software is common practice at most Slovak universities. As students from several Slovak universities confirm on a broadcast, no other plagiarism checker is used as a rule, not even if a thesis was submitted in a different language.

Why is there no internationally used system? "Offers like Turnitin are comparatively expensive," says German media IT specialist and plagiarism researcher Debora Weber-Wulff from the Berlin University of Technology and Economics about STANDARD. "Slovakia and countries such as Albania and Poland want to use their own programs because of their own languages." (Muzayen Al-Youssef, Selina Thaler, January 15, 2021)

Gleanings

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