Background I am asking this question in the context of the long running plagiarism scandal in Germany.The most prominent victim of the scandal of plagiarized doctoral dissertations by politicians was former defense minister Guttenberg. His doctoral title was withdrawn, and he resigned from his position. He was followed by several other politicians, and now even the German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan is under suspicion of plagiarism.

The interesting thing is that for all these people, the plagiarism was detected only due to plagiarism detection wikis like VroniPlag and GuttenPlag, where ordinary people compared these doctoral dissertations with other published work. The only role of universities has been to respond to allegations that are especially well documented and have caused a reasonable amount of public uproar.

Don't the Universities themselves bear any responsibility for letting this plagiarism go undetected? In fact Guttenberg's dissertation was awarded a summa cum laude. It appears as if their is no mechanism whatsoever (at least in German universities) to detect academic fraud.

Is there any mechanism at all to detect plagiarism or fraudulent research in PhD dissertations (doctoral theses)?

I understand that there are probably country based differences and my experience is primarily with the German system. Still it would be good to know the seriousness with which academic fraud is taken in different countries. This appears especially pertinent to the maintenance of the credibility of academia in general and doctoral degrees in particular, and yet there seem to be no checks whatsoever!

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    Short answer to the title question: The author!
    – JeffE
    May 8, 2012 at 13:25
  • There are a variety of tools available for checking student essays for plagiarism. Is there any reason, other than perhaps needing more journals added to their databases, that they couldn't also be used to check for large scale abuse in theses? May 8, 2012 at 14:04
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    Where not all of these cases with PhD thesis's in arts and humanities (Geisteswissenschaften)? I think in natural sciences / engineering this form of copy & paste plagiarism is not really possible like this. May 9, 2012 at 21:09
  • @MartinScharrer: Most of these cases wouldn’t even be PhDs (but LDs or similar) in the anglophone system, if I am not mistaken.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Nov 30, 2014 at 20:57
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    I'm coming to this late, but I'd love to know why the word "victim" is used in this context. Someone caught having plagiarized their dissertation is a victim?
    – Joe
    May 27, 2015 at 14:21

6 Answers 6


The problem is that the PhD system is designed for people who intend to become researchers. For these cases, plagiarism is not at all a common problem. You are expected to published your research, and you will not have a successful career unless it is widely read and cited. That gives lots of opportunities to get caught, and the penalties for plagiarism are a huge deterrent.

To the extent you find plagiarism, it's generally people who do not want a research career, but instead view the PhD simply as an obstacle on the road to a teaching (or other) career. Probably the community should scrutinize these sorts of theses more carefully, but it can be hard to work up the energy to do so when most of them are OK, and when these theses really don't matter much for the research world.

The German politicians are pretty much the worst case scenario. In the US, the stereotypical case is educational administrators. Typically, you have a distinguished person who starts to feel the need for a PhD. Perhaps it's because they associate with academics and feel looked down upon, or perhaps it's because an academic endorsement would make the public value their expertise more. This student is very smart and accomplished, and nobody suspects them of any dishonesty. However, they are also very busy, often working on a PhD while pursuing other projects as well, and academic research is not a priority. At some point, they succumb to pressure and start taking shortcuts. Probably it starts with small things, but the shortcuts gradually grow larger. They rationalize that the thesis doesn't really matter anyway, because they have no intention of following an academic career track. After all, they have the knowledge and experience, and they deserve the PhD title, so what difference does one document make anyway? Meanwhile, the advisor probably doesn't spend that much time working with the student, and has no reason to suspect anything. The advisor really ought to be extra careful in cases like this, but that would seem like an insult to the student, so it's easiest just to trust them.

So my take on this is that plagiarism is not as widespread as news stories might suggest. It's just particularly likely to happen in cases where it would attract media attention.


Given the complexity of the modern PhD thesis, and the number of references to other works in the literature that such a work would normally contain, being able to catch plagiarism can be difficult. This is especially true when you only have a printed version of the thesis to work from. Moreover, the time to review a thesis is normally quite short—a few weeks to a month at most. Given the number of other responsibilities most faculty members have, it's unlikely that they're actually able to verify every fact and every citation, let alone check for evidence of plagiarism!

On a general level, it is also assumed that everybody plays by the rules, and that therefore plagiarism shouldn't be likely in a PhD thesis. Only if suspicions somehow get raised do people take a second look. It's probably an invalid assumption, but it keeps the system moving. Unless we want to move to a QA-like scheme in which every claim and source has to be verified against the original, I'm not sure what other options there are.


Plagarism in journal publications is a large concern because the professors are often running their own labs, doing their own research, with very little oversight. The only chance to catch fraud is through a careful analysis of their publications, which is done both by the publications themselves, their peers, and the public at large.

Regarding PhD theses, the student is working with an advisor, doing (hopefully) original research. Any actual publications the student submits will go through the peer-review process, which will hopefully find any plagiarized references. Regarding the dissertation itself, it's often simply cut-and-paste from their actual publications, and once submitted, never read again.

It's likely for this reason that people probably don't dedicate much effort to finding plagiarized works in their thesis. The student is doing original work, as verified by their advisor and their committee, and any publications by the student have been peer-reviewed. No one cares about their thesis, and if they try to continue their behavior as they progress in their career then they'll simply get caught when it actually matters (i.e., during the peer-review process) in the future.

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    The part about original work may be true in the experimental sciences, because you can see what the student is doing in the lab (well, they might be committing fraud with the results, but you can tell they are doing something). By contrast, in math if someone comes to you with a proof, you can't tell where they got it. If it's great work, then you'll probably recognize if it is plagiarized, but if someone digs up an obscure paper and recycles part of it, there's no way of knowing without a search. This may be a poor thesis, but a poor thesis can be enough to graduate. May 8, 2012 at 13:20
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    By contrast, in math if someone comes to you with a proof, you can't tell where they got it. — Really? I find (at least with undergraduates) that a few detailed questions about their thought process ("That's cool! How did you think of that?") usually uncovers whether someone really worked out a proof themselves.
    – JeffE
    May 8, 2012 at 13:33
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    @JeffE: Yeah, if someone tries to pretend they came up with something clever, they will likely get caught. But there are a lot of junk papers that are boring, poorly motivated in the first place, and involve only pretty trivial proofs, but are correct and have some (minor) originality. This won't get you an academic job, but it could be enough to graduate with a minimal thesis. If you really interrogated the student, you could probably catch them. However, if you have a struggling student who comes to you with such a paper, you'll probably just feel relief that they can actually graduate. May 8, 2012 at 15:57

This is not a proper answer to the question at hand but since Ivar Persson used the term "responsible" - I only see one responsibility*: The responsibility of the PhD candidate to follow the main academic goal: the search for the truth with true methods and true intent.

Do we really blame mentors (or: advisors) for failing to detect plagiarism when the problem is on the other side of this mentor-mentee relationship? .

* for a responsibility term close to what Christopher Avery proposes


It seems like no one thought of who sounds obvious to me: the PhD examination jury. It bears the responsibility to award the thesis, is made of international experts of the field, and should therefore be able to detect ideas that have been borrowed; also the advisor, who supervised the work, has a prominent responsibility among them.

I do not buy the argument according to which an advisor might have trouble detecting plagiarism of a obscure paper: she often propose the questions to the student, and should therefore know the surrounding literature.

More precisely, there may be cases where the plagiarism is difficult to catch; nevertheless, right after the author these people, to who the university asks whether the work deserves a PhD, have the main responsibility.

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    Not all countries have a "jury" system like you describe. For instance, in the US, a PhD student typically has a "committee" of professors from her own university, and it's quite common that the advisor is the only one who's an expert in the student's specific subspecialty. Jun 11, 2013 at 20:53
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    The advisor "should therefore know the surrounding literature": In general, yes, but IMHO it's unreasonable to expect the advisor to be familiar with every relevant paper ever written. If you look at all the papers cited in your students' theses, can you honestly say that you knew about every one of them before the student did? Jun 11, 2013 at 20:57
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    This is putting the cart before the horses. The advisor and committee have the job to find out whether the work is of quality and sufficiently original to warrant a PhD. However, bar a glaring blunder in the checking progress, the team should be able to assume that the candidate did not act in blatant contravention of academic standards. If you demand a complete checkup, you establish an atmosphere of distrust. That may be appropriate in banks where large amounts of money are handled or in the secret service, but it doesn't belong in science. I wouldn't want to work in such an atmosphere. Jan 22, 2016 at 22:45
  • @CaptainEmacs: I fail to see how the advisor and committee could be considered responsible for finding out "whether the work is (...) sufficiently original" and not to detect plagiarism, which is the least possible level of originality. I am not saying that they should always check for plagiarism, but that they have a strong responsibility to detect it. By their knowledge of the field, the oral defense (in countries where it exists), the regular talks with the candidate (for the advisor) they should be able to detect plagiarism in many cases. Jan 24, 2016 at 19:20
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    @BenoîtKloeckner Yes, of course, that's what I mean by "bar a glaring blunder". I doubt, however, that they are responsible in a case of outright fraud, i.e. a competent attempt to hide the plagiarism; which is what I would expect from a "competent", i.e. plagiarism-aware, but malicious PhD candidate. If we have a case of an "incompetent" candidate who commits "unsophisticated" plagiarism, the question is how they could have been considered as a suitable PhD candidate in the first place. Jan 24, 2016 at 19:56

All of the candidate, his/her advisors, examiners, colleagues and peers have levels of responsibility for detecting plagiarism, however it is not the primary objective of a Ph.D. system. The primary objective is to determine whether the candidate has the ability to carry out research, think logically and clearly about that research and communicate the results of the research, the implications and possible directions for further research based on the results.

When it is detected, the serious consequences (loss of reputation, loss of career, public exposure etc.) are the principal deterrent to others. Of course advisors and examiners should be actively on the lookout for plagiarism however their principle activity is to advise on the development of the work and examine the result of the work. Ph.D.s are, in some cases, supervised and examined by early career researchers, who may not have the depth and breadth of knowledge of the literature to detect some cases of plagiarism. No matter what, the candidate carries the ultimate responsibility.

No system we can devise will ever be perfect. Students are not often given much guidance about what constitutes plagiarism, other than having to sign and agree to be bound by the universities policy on it. There is far more advice available now than when I did my PH.D., and many more sources of advice on what constitutes plagiarism.

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