Plagiarism Debate & The Future of Academic Writing

TLDR: This is a statement about plagiarism allegations, the recent turn of events, and an outlook on knowledge creation in the Internet Age.

In 2018 — after 16 years away from academia — I moved from Berlin back to Vienna to start building a research institute and help shape a new academic discipline of “Cryptoeconomics” at my Alma Mater, the Vienna University of Economics & Business. The invitation to continue the work I started at BlockchainHub Berlin in a more academic setting, seemed like a unique opportunity, even though it was hard for me to give up the life and work I build in Berlin.

Together with other researchers we defined new areas of research focusing on “Token Economics & Token Engineering” while bridging the gap between the startups, industry & the research community. The institute was independently funded, mostly for applied research projects with industry players. My role was to bring the practical experience from the startup community into academia.

In January 2020, a journalist from the German newspaper FAZ contacted me and the University regarding plagiarism allegations concerning my dissertation I wrote over 20 years ago (1998–2001). He informed us that my dissertation was being analysed by VroniPlag — a German leaks platform for plagiarism. We could see in real time how a group of VroniPlag volunteers — mostly anonymous people — were continuously working to find citation mistakes. At that point, my dissertation was only accessible through an anonymised link (the link was accessible to anyone but my name was not revealed yet.) I immediately informed my supervisor and the dean’s office introduced a standard procedure for investigating such allegations, which was also communicated to the journalist.

A few days later I was put on temporary leave from the university, but neither my supervisor nor anyone from the dean’s office was present to explain the exact context and further procedures. I never had any chance to make a statement until months later. Neither were my two thesis advisors questioned. As a result, most operational activities of our institute had to be halted, fundraising was stopped, and a coat of silence thrown over the issue.

From what I understand now, there is a German court ruling which prohibits journalists or platforms such as VroniPlag from reporting on pending investigations. I assume that this is reason why I did not hear back from the journalist until months later:

  • Earlier this summer I was pre-informed by the university about the revocation of my dissertation. A few hours later I was pre-informed that I was being fired, all by email and without a personal conversation.
  • The next day a member of VroniPlag wrote an email to the dean’s office informing the university about the plagiarism allegations, demanding the university to investigate. Apart from the timing, the wording of the email strikes me as a bit odd, as I would have assumed that VroniPlag uses site traffic analysis where they would have probably discovered that different computers from our University had been accessing VroniPlag since January. In any case…
  • One day later the journalist — who had originally contacted us in January — contacted us again and officially reported in the FAZ that my dissertation was revoked, based on the information the university gave him.
  • Blindsided by the fast turn of events I gave an interview to DerBrutkasen where I tried to raise questions, but could not say much, as I had not talked to my lawyers yet.

What happened…

Given my position, the general public obviously has the right to know if there is a problem with my academic credibility. The university also has the obligation to investigate when allegations arise. After all, my dissertation contains a mix of different error sources and methodical mistakes which affected many pages. I regret that my lack of rigour 20 years ago led to the current situation, which also affected other people involved with our institute.

While I do not question that the university had to investigate, I do question the way the events unfolded and the process was handled: The question of (i) whether or not my dissertation needs to be revoked, needs to be discussed separately from the question of (ii) whether or not the revocation process was arbitrary.

I have now appealed the decision to revoke my dissertation on the grounds that process was arbitrary:

  • The university applied a law from 2017 to assess and revoke a dissertation that was approved in 2001 (16 years before that law was passed).
  • The university chose to ignore the statements of both my thesis advisors who defended the original contribution of my dissertation. The university ignored those statements on the grounds that they seemed biased — in spite of the fact that the university had informed me that I could include the statements of my thesis advisors when submitting my own statement.
  • The university dismissed the fact that I published my dissertation voluntarily online — which was a new and optional feature back in 2001 and not a standard practice — and that I have been listing the link to my dissertation on platforms such as Linkedin for years. Assuming that the incorrect citations in my dissertation are a result of intentional plagiarism is an interpretation but not a fact. Both reviewers — officially appointed by the university — stated that intentional plagiarism cannot be concluded.

There are many more aspects to that case which I cannot officially discuss at the moment, given that there are pending legal proceedings.

Independent Scientific Contribution?

The process of deciding whether or not to revoke a dissertation, when plagiarism allegations arise, usually considers questions of (i) mass & quality, (ii) intentionality, and (iii) originality of the scientific contribution independent of all the mistakes.

After all, scientific contributions cannot be reduced to the art of correct citations only — which represents one of many methods and is a means to an end. While methods are important, science is ultimately about “knowledge creation” (ergo the German word “Wissenschaft”). The assessment of a scientific contribution needs to account for the question of whether “new knowledge” was generated.

In addition to my two thesis advisors, all official reviewers appointed by the university acknowledged the original academic contribution of my thesis.

The assessment of such originality — applying the time perspective of 1998 — is the most important question that needs to be reviewed in the coming appeals process.

What’s next?

Regardless of the outcome of this appeals process, I will continue my work on the Web3 as a socio-economic phenomena.

Furthermore, this whole situation has also made me think about “knowledge creation” in the Internet era. Academia might need to rethink some of its methods based on the tools we have developed over the last 20 years.

Do we want to use Internet based technology for the sake of finding the mistakes in other people’s work, or can we use AI and Web3 based tools for novel types of reference systems, that could liberate scientists from having to worry about “correct citations” and instead focus their attention on making an original scientific contribution.

In the light of the recent release of GPT3 — an open-source AI tool that can write code and prose — one has to wonder whether AI based text generators can be trained to write scientific papers, how this will influence the plagiarism debate, and what the role of a human scientist could become in a not so distant future.

Read more on this in a series of upcoming blog posts which will be published over the next few months — the first of which has been published here.

Author of ‘Token Economy’ https://amzn.to/2W7lQ8h// Founder @tokenkitchen @blockchainhub & @crypto3conomics// Artist @kamikat.se