Within the last year or so a few cases of plagiarism in academia have made headlines, and the NCCR Trade Regulation was not spared. Notably there were the cases of the german politicians von Guttenberg and Chatzimarkakis; unfortunately these ‘gentlemen’ are not alone. The Swiss version involved a professor at the University of Fribourg who is no longer associated with the NCCR Trade Regulation at WTI. However, plagiarism is a concern in all academic fields, not just the social sciences or the humanities, also the physical sciences have seen their share of academic misconduct, including plagiarism. Plagiarism is also not just something that ill instructed students do, unfortunately as evidenced above, it is also something that academics do. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, plagiarism is “the action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.”

Since this plague hit a bit too close to home, precautionary measures were put in place. Now all WTI working papers must be subject to additional controls to catch any potential problem of this nature before it hits the international headlines. I have just completed a manuscript on patentable subject matter, thus before I can take the paper any further along the publication trajectory, it must be controlled. Our procedure right now requires that the manuscript is first run through the turnitin program. What I got back was a 69 page long PDF file telling me that my paper had a 31% similarity index. The report then proceeded to list 284 sources for all of which it claimed that there was a similarity of 1% or less. At this point I was not amused.
My lack of amusement resided in the fact that I was very sure that when I write, I do not plagiarize. The next task was to verify the similarity report in its substance as that would be the proof of the pudding. I needed help to deal with the report as it all seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I got some instruction from our English editorial staff, and then got to work. In fact, there was no plagiarism in my paper, but it took one full day of work to go through the report and verify every single instance of similarity. At this point, one must ask what it is that this program does and if it is of any use.
First, turnitin reports similarity, but in the words of Susan Plattner it does so moronically. Similarity and plagiarism just are not the same thing. Second, my manuscript had been scanned as if it were a student paper with all the bells and whistles turned on ignoring the fact that less than 1% similarity is not significant and that there are many phrases of common knowledge, usually not longer than 30 words, which do not constitute plagiarism. In addition, the turnitin scan blindly goes through the bibliography and references and it ought to be of no surprise that these might be found in other papers and sources. For fun, we turned off all the bells and whistles and then my paper zipped through the turnitin similarity scan with flying colours. Still, I was asked to go through the report and the more than two hundred instances where turnitin had found similarity.
My first thought on starting this process was that because of one black sheep, we all get punished with additional work which does not seem productive. Still, curiosity gave me the motivation to plough through the report and verify it against the manuscript. To my surprise there was some value in the exercise. That value was where I had not anticipated it. It – turnitin – is excellent at catching my typos and other distractions while writing (spellcheckers miss a lot). Four types of errors were found.  First, I found on several occasions that I had made typing errors while citing or quoting a text, thus the similarity scan found my typos to differ from the source. Second, there were a few instances where I had used single instead of double quotation marks. Third, there were some in text citations that mentioned the author or source but were not in quotation marks. Those would have been alright, but the paper also does not suffer – other than making the text look ugly – with the addition of quotation marks. Fourth, while going through every single one of the 195 footnotes I caught one orphaned ‘Ibid’ created when I inserted a piece of text with a footnote.
In conclusion, turnitin is not just a nuisance, is is a good quality control instrument for senior researchers or editorial staff. In my view it is far from being an excellent quality control instrument, albeit a necessity in times when some unscrupulous researchers have lost track of what academic integrity is about. I like giving credit where it is due, and I find that this often makes for much more comfortable writing than when all that I voice is my own opinion.


Continue reading →

Hiatus or “Mein Kampf”

Yesterday the ball started rolling again. The Fall school term started on Monday for the Bernese, and with it the community’s political life wakes up from the torpor of a not so hot summer. Yesterday we had a meeting in Bern where one of the city’s social enterprises was presented to the two of us that followed up on the invitation. The reason being that in the heat of budgetary battle, our party has in the past made a motion to cut off the funding of this institution. The two of us that were at the meeting are both in the commission handling social, educational and cultural affairs, so it was time to look at the dossier with a higher degree of engagement. Clearly the two gentlemen public servants who briefed us were very good at selling their case.

I struggle with finding something that needs to be done in this city, most of the infrastructure works, there is a little bit of corruption but the mechanisms to keep it in check also work. So where are the battles worth fighting?

The Swiss heaven is not uncoupled from the global economy. This coupling of our city to the global economy gives the all too prevalent myth and folklore of Swiss society quite a run for its money. Literally. While at the national level the very popular SVP is busy with an anti-migration campaign, the common folk has other problems.

For instance the institution that we visited yesterday serves a group of about 2’000 folks who are all unemployed or receiving social welfare aid. They fall into three categories: (a) qualifying for immediate workforce integration; ((b) needing special assistance for workforce integration; and (c) needing assistance for social reintegration. The city-run social enterprise offers a variety of services that include job placement in social, private, or state enterprises; coaching and remedial training. However you can not just walk-in, you need to be referred to the office by either the unemployment office or the social welfare office. Their reintegration success quota does not seem to ever go above 40% and that is just for those people who are able to compete out there on the hustle of the job market. A large fraction of the folks referred in very precarious social and economic conditions.

Wether we like it or not, what we see happening is a fragmentation of society where the weakest just fall through the cracks and end up in economic, social and culture conditions that have us all think a bit harder about and where do human rights standards play a role in an ever not only more competitive, but much more aggressive economy. That is, the weakest member of societies, that either due to sheer bad luck, poor choices, or unfortunate circumstances find themselves unable to provide for their own subsistence. Now, the SVP can complain all they want about the state providing for these people, but it does not change the fact that it is the state’s responsibility to do so.

Low and behold, this is a global phenomena, society is becoming more and more fragmented. More and more people are not finding access to a means of living in dignity. The statistics and revolts and riots are the evidence. But do not take my word for it. Recently Friedman had a few bits to offer on observing London burn, Arabs revolt, and Israelis taking to the streets and notes that the common denominator for these uprisings  “can be found in one of the slogans of Israel’s middle-class uprising: “We are fighting for an accessible future.” Across the world, a lot of middle- and lower-middle-class people now feel that the “future” is out of their grasp, and they are letting their leaders know it. “

Although our briefing yesterday was rather down to earth, and down to the provincial troubles of tiny Bern, the observations shared with us echo this very same sentiment that more and more people are falling out of the so-called ‘productive’ workforce.

I am deeply concerned. Some five years ago I noted in this blog that “[t]he way that I see it, the paradigm shift already happened. We are here and the revolution is taking place. The shift is from capitalism to social humanism. I am not quite sure what to call it, but let’s play around with the term social humanism along the lines that business is art and that it is all about sustainability somehow. How?

I am deeply concerned because a purely capitalistic and production maximization approach does not serve a global economy towards sustainability. There is nothing sustainable about squeezing more and more out of the workers, factory workers, and middle management. Society is breaking like mayonnaise. Putting all the ingredients for mayonnaise in a blender does not produce mayonnaise. Process is important, and sometimes process is not fast. The blender would be faster, and economists like blender arguments, however blenders produce a fragmented slime instead of the smooth mayonnaise.

Perhaps it is time that I develop that idea of social humanism a bit further. Corporate social responsibility comes to mind, and human rights were already there. I return to the idea of what it is to be a citizen and what the relationship is between the citizen and the government.

How could social humanism open access to the future for all?

Daniel Suarez on the human brain at the FAZ

The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to cope with its environment, and we can’t fundamentally change our ‘wiring’ overnight. However, in a rapidly evolving technological world our slow, biological version cycle puts us at a disadvantage against those who’d like to push our mental buttons. We’re a stationary target. In some ways this is akin to being forced to run an unpatched version of Windows even as malware authors are scanning our source code for flaws. What drives humans? What are our weaknesses, predilections, and passions? As marketers and others delve into the oceans of consumer and social media data now at their disposal, fundamental knowledge about ourselves that even *we* don’t know will be bought and sold on a daily basis.

(via Harald who ignores all social media, but has a GSM in the car’s navi)