Why Austria slept through 20 years of quality assurance – or wanted to. A guest commentary by plagiarism hunter and title examiner Stefan Weber.
Doz. Dr. Stefan Weber is a plagiarism expert and university lecturer in Vienna and Salzburg. Joachim Bergauer
With the debate about the academic texts of ministers Susanne Raab and Alma Zadic, we are finally turning our focus to the quality of domestic theses: A close look reveals plagiarism in Susanne Raab’s thesis as well as countless sentences merely rewritten from the literature in Alma Zadic’s doctoral dissertation, with and without references to sources. It is now no longer just a question of: Did someone cheat here?? There are now also the following fundamental questions: Is this the academic level we want to have?? Is it science, if one only rewrites texts of others a little bit, and this sentence for sentence? And is it possible that one is allowed to do in Austria what one is not allowed to do in other countries??
Problem 1: No clear rules, especially for lawyers
We need only take a look at our neighboring country: Germany had to cope with the "Guttenberg shock" in February 2011: an almost completely plagiarized legal doctoral thesis by the then-popular defense minister, who was being touted as Merkel’s successor. A year and a half later, the Association of German Teachers of Constitutional Law spoke plainly and adopted new guidelines for good academic practice. I quote only two rules: "In scientific publications, the reader must be able to recognize the extent to which the author relies on the results and formulations of third parties beyond what is generally known." ‘Blind citations,’ d.h. the unchecked adoption of the quotations of others, basically violate the standards of science."
To be on the safe side, I asked the chairwoman of the association: These rules also apply to students. Now it is hardly conceivable that these and 13 other citation rules mentioned do not also apply in Austria. However, these rules have not been spelled out by the domestic professional societies until today. In the standard textbooks – especially resistant are the "Abbreviation and Citation Rules" from the Manz-Verlag – the new rules did not find their way into the textbooks until today. And this after almost ten years! But not only Austrian lawyers would finally need clear citation rules. All faculty, researchers, and students should be subject to a code of conduct for science, as has existed at most international universities for decades in some cases.
Problem 2: No binding of funding to the ombudsman system
In 2019, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has decided to reissue the code "Guidelines for Ensuring Good Scientific Practice", a work that dates back to 1998. Austria has nothing of the kind, a "practice guideline" in this country remains a vague flowing text without liabilities, which tries to combine good scientific practice with research ethics.
But even more dramatic: all universities and non-university institutions in Germany have to (!) the guidelines of the Code are legally binding (!) in order to continue to receive funding from the DFG. The system of gentle pressure on institutions serves without exception to raise awareness and quality assurance. In Austria there is nothing in this direction. The Austrian counterpart to the DFG, the F (Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research) does not issue a code, nor does it make the allocation of funding dependent on the implementation of a system to ensure good scientific practice (GWP). The F allocates about 240 million euros of taxpayer money per year for Austrian research.
Why was there never a debate in Austria to establish a system like in Germany?
Problem 3: A completely toothless oAWI
No spelled out citation standards as in Germany, England or America. No linkage of payments from research funding pots to a functioning GWP ombud system. And third, a completely toothless Austrian Agency for Scientific Integrity (oAWI), which, according to its website, still reserves the right not to deal with cases that are more than ten years old. Shortly after the Aschbacher case, the statute of limitations for plagiarism was removed from the draft of the university law amendment at the last minute. For the oAWI, of course, this was no reason to rethink its statutes. Tax money is better invested there: for example in a threat of legal action directed at the plagiarism hunter.
It has long been clear that we need an alternative to the oAWI. Again, it is sufficient to look at neighboring countries (although it must be clearly emphasized: even there, many other things are not better): In Germany there is the "Ombudsman for Science" since 1999. Press releases from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) repeatedly mention sanctions after scientific misconduct has been identified, albeit quite modest ones. But did such a press release ever exist in Austria??
What is going on in Austria?
The universities are "autonomous. But quality assurance is apparently not satisfactorily provided by the autonomous universities. The path from "autonomy" to the comfortable allotment of indifference and leveling down is not a long one.
Where does this low level of interest in quality assurance of content and in rules, control and sanction mechanisms that have long existed in other countries come from? Why no clear citation rules as in Germany, why no code as is common internationally, why no sanction system for non-implementation? Can it be that citation rules in this country are seen like cookies banners or DSGVO norms? The latter are indeed annoying, the former are immensely important and the basis for an intellectual discussion with the work of others to take place in science.
In the meantime, I believe that Austria’s scientific landscape has simply become more comfortable. It’s like media funding: without a big scandal, no one looks closely. And so it comes to distortions, to increasing complaints that more and more often the wrong people are appointed and to research proposals that predominantly paraphrase the trendy words of call texts.
An instructor once said about my work that I was on a lost cause, because: "Die Inhalte san wuascht"."Maybe we should think about whether this typical Austrian dogma is really smart and helps the country to move forward.