I was recently looking at the rates of PhD revocations of people who were found to have plagiarized large portions of their PhD theses by Vroniplag, and it isn't that high.

Most people that were found by sites like Vroniplag whose PhDs weren't revoked are either established professors or are working outside of academia so it's kind of understandable that their PhDs weren't taken.

But there seem to be instances where someone plagiarized portions of their thesis and they are still promoted by their Universities and given funding.

Why is PhD thesis plagiarism forgiven in some instances by academia?

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    I poked around at the Wikipedia page a little bit; relevant quotation is "some universities disagreed with VroniPlag findings, even in cases of blatant plagiarism (between 40 and 70% of pages affected with plagiarism). The correct methods for dealing with plagiarism—and its prevention—remains an ongoing discussion in Germany. ". I think this is going to be a hard question to answer, especially since these are sensitive proceedings and a lot of the details in the decisions will be kept private. – Ben Bolker May 11 at 20:02
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    Katherine, there’s no need to name specific individuals and it violates our policies, please avoid rolling back mod’s edits. – Massimo Ortolano May 11 at 21:29
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    The problem with this question is this that the relevant decisions are very individual, usually not public, and are involve internal politics, we cannot possibly know. Thus there is no general answer except a big list of possible reasons, which will never be complete. There usually is no answer for a specific case either for the aforementioned reasons, even in high-profile cases. And if it’s not a high-profile case, we have a policy against it. – Wrzlprmft May 12 at 5:22
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    @Wrzlprmft I could not find a policy that says that questions must lead to a complete answer which accommodates all possible cases. Your concern also seems to apply to any question about the internal workings of academia, for example, questions about supervision or hiring. Since the issue with naming individuals is fixed now, I vote for reopening the question. – lighthouse keeper May 12 at 6:39
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    @lighthousekeeper: Sure, you cannot cover every eventuality, but here it’s just wild guessing or a really long list – and the answers so far confirm this, as they go in a completely different direction, without anybody suggesting that either of them is wrong. There is no way to say an answer to this question is better than another. With questions about supervision or hiring, we either have some details on a specific case or at least a goal, or we have to ask directly for statistics. … – Wrzlprmft May 12 at 9:20

Social and reputational factors play a big role here.

If a student gets away with significant plagiarism and is later found out, that does not cast a favorable light on the original assessment of the thesis--specifically, the role of the advisor, who should oversee the thesis writing process and ensure that the submitted thesis adheres to the methodological standards of the field.

A department involved in such an investigation might downplay the plagiarism to protect the advisor's reputation and avoid tensions between the advisor and other department members.


I certainly won't and can't speak for all cases, but it is still true that a doctoral student is a student and is in a learning situation. Therefore, some universities will treat plagiarism as they do other sorts of misconduct and try to turn it into a learning situation so that the student can improve their practices and ethics. The alternative of failing the student and expelling them from the program is extreme, of course.

I would hope that when plagiarism is found in a dissertation, and agreed that it is plagiarism, that the dissertation gets corrected and proper citations and proper quotations made. But that is a hope, not a certainty.

Sadly, too many people get out into the world without really learning all that should be learned, and, from the prevalence of plagiarism questions here, I think this is one area that probably needs to be explicitly addressed somewhere in the educational process. But, too often, people just make assumptions and assume others make the same assumptions without reflection.


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