Plagiarism beyond celebrities

Original ideas are highly valued in academic circles. Professionals sacrifice sleep and family time in order to come up with new ideas or results. But why do some academics at Central European universities plagiarize? By no means I wish to imply that plagiarism is unique to Central Europe – it is not. But given the fact that we have started to address this phenomenon only recently, and given our unique history, it might be worth to explore the causes.

Foto: Creative Commons/ almighty turtles

One might guess that university students who copy and paste from the works of others would like to get their degrees as easily as possible. But what could be said about university teachers, presidents or members of parliament presenting the work of others as their own? A university professor’s motivation might be very simple – quick access to academic titles. And politicians? Academic titles suggest that the bearer is wiser than the surrounding world … a kind of snobbery, we would say. This is probably the main reason why politicians like to collect academic titles – a common practice in Slovakia for decades.

Although plagiarism is of course not unique to Central Europe, we started to discover how widespread it is here only recently. In this text, I will consider some specific features that might have contributed to the spread of plagiarism particularly in our region. Although famous plagiarists now make headlines, I will go beyond such celebrities.

Too much work, too little time

Imagine a young PhD student who wants  to pursue an academic carrier. They are eager to teach, to conduct research, to present papers at conferences, to follow the development of their discipline in professional journals, etc. Soon after entering academia they inevitably encounter a wall of obstacles. One needs to show results, despite a shortage of financial resources for research – there are plenty of students, but an insufficient amount of teachers. Moreover, scientific journals have strict publication requirements. At the same time, there is a huge amount of administrative work but a seeming lack of time to do it thoroughly.

A thesis supervisor is continuously asking about the dissertation: Have you collected all necessary data, have you already read this and that book, did you apply for this and that grant, did you already plan a study trip to this and that country, and so on.

There are also other sources of pressure. A department head asks for publication examples that are needed for accreditation. A dean who wants the faculty to receive high marks in an upcoming evaluation asks for publications in journals cited by Web of Science. And everyone else expects teaching of the highest quality. Our PhD student would like to fulfil all these demands, but the best accomplishments cannot by achieved by everybody.

Lack of detection

Most post-graduate students struggle with time and there are several solutions. Some might improve their time management, others may lower their personal ambitions or even change jobs. Yet, many students come to the specific Central European solution. They look around and think: Well, I read my paper with great success at that conference. What happens if I read the same paper just slightly changed and under a different title at another conference? There are different audiences listening to my presentations – nobody will notice my very small deception. This is the crucial point of departure for plagiarism: No one will detect the deception.

The deceiver is focused on utility and convenience, ignoring the basic moral questions raised by the act. That is how it starts. When nobody spots the cheating, the temptation arises to do it again. Next time, another next slight change is added. Then the student will not just publish a original paper as new for a second time, but will start to use ideas produced or data collected by other professionals, without mentioning the source.

Mindful of the demands of accreditation bodies, most university officials are pleased to have an employee producing many scientific articles, and conference papers. Our increasingly successful PhD student begins to rise within the academic hierarchy, eventually reaching th ultimate goal of a full professorship. While our student has produced many publications, books and journal articles, unfortunately, only some of them have followed standard academic procedures and are truly original.

Plagiarism, then, can be seen as the highly probable outcome of a particular state of affairs: when regulations for university accreditation are based on quantitative criteria. When the process is primarily concerned with the number of papers, projects, and research reports that are produced, instead of considering the quality of work, then everybody strives just for quantity.

This is side effect of something deeply rooted within the Central European mind. Of course, it is not only in Central Europe that academics plagiarize. Plagiarism is a global problem, but why it occurs varies from place to place, country to country.

No need to feel responsible

Historical context is one place to look when trying to discern why academics engage in plagiarism. For example, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have different backgrounds than Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, or Croatia. Many Western European countries were created from below. These countries experienced only brief periods of authoritarianism in the modern era.

Central European countries were created from top to bottom. Hungarian and later Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy and administration were well known for their authoritarianism and  rigid structures. Also, forty years of Communist rule crushed the spirit of individual initiative.

The Communist regimes told us that we could not make our own decisions. They decided what was right and wrong for us. Consequently, the social psychologies of the East and the West are grounded in two different worldviews.

In the West people know they do not need to accept a destiny. They understand the necessity and the possibility of directing change in their lives. Deeply rooted in their subconscious minds, there is this conviction: we decide ourselves. Individual initiative will shape our future.  This is the result of centuries´ long development when only rather short periods of authoritarian regimes interrupted individual or group initiatives. People in Central Europe are used to the idea that one’s fate is settled at the top of a social hierarchy. A different conviction is deeply rooted here: the authorities decide.

To manage our destinies

Central Europeans have lived in democratic societies for a very short time, historically speaking. It was not long ago that we learned the important lesson that individual initiative can shape our future.

Still, we have not learned fully that a dishonest individual initiative can and will harm one’s future. In the Communist past, formal fulfilment of regulations was considered more important than doing the job correctly. Consequently, sometimes we are not afraid that acts of deceit are ultimately self-destructive. The lesson that fulfilling the requirements given by the authorities is not sufficient and that doing a job well comes first is being learned only slowly.

The media love to cover plagiarism scandals in Central Europe. Stories about accusations of plagiarism are popular, especially when it concerns the president of a country. Still, I believe the plagiarism in Central European universities is only a symptom of a broader problem: a lingering lack of understanding that individuals can control their destiny, and that our future does not, and should not, depend on submission to authorities.

Erich Mistrík

Erich Mistrík

is a professor of philosophy, he lectures aesthetics and multicultural education at Comenius University in Bratislava.