University winks at suspected plagiarism

TTÜ teadusprorektor Erkki Truve

PHOTO: Peeter Langovits

As plagiarism suspicion surfaced regarding a doctoral thesis already defended, Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ) acted in a way that laid bare a legal scheme how people, having received their Doctorates, may in case of suspicions withdraw the thesis, avoid inquiry, and keep it all within university walls.

This is exactly what happened with Maria* who defended her thesis at TTÜ at the beginning of this year. At the defence in January, no faults were discovered in her work by supervisor, opponents or assessment committee. Thus, the lady was awarded her Doctorate degree.

To their great surprise, five days later the university leadership found in their mailbox a letter by Priit Pärnapuu, a lecturer at TTK University of Applied Sciences, in which the latter requested inquiry regarding the thesis by Maria. Mr Pärnapuu is the man who discovered plagiarism in the infamous Doctoral thesis at Estonian University of Life Sciences, the legality of which is now disputed in court.

Regarding Maria’s thesis, Mr Pärnapuu’s accusations were especially severe: allegedly, the thesis includes unreferenced retelling of works by other authors, references to wrong sources, plain copying, and quotes presented as references. The lecturer went as far as to claim that, according to a computerised analysis, 31 percent of the essential part of the thesis is academic theft.  

«When comparing the University of Life Sciences thesis, and this TTÜ one, I’d say the latter is clearly worse,» Mr Pärnapuu told Postimees.

Whether the accusation holds water, nobody ever found out, however. Instead of calling a committee to investigate the suspicion, the dean offered Maria the option of using the end-of-studies clause, allowing the author to take a defended thesis back without much ado.

Thus Maria did pen the application, the committee cancelled the Doctorate decision, and all traces of the thesis were wiped off. For the university, this was a comfortable solution, as obligation to investigate the possible fraud and to publish its results fell off. What’s more – the plagiarism being unproven, no one is able to claim Maria has committed academic theft.

«I do not know if this was plagiarism,» admitted TTÜ Vice-Rector for Research Erkki Truve. «As the person withdrew the thesis herself, she probably thought there was something that could have been otherwise.»

The Vice-Rector conceded that in the academic sense the suspicion was extremely strong; even so, there were no basis to investigate. «By withdrawal, the process has been halted, as we no longer possess the thesis to analyse.»

This also means that no punishment was prescribed to Maria, as would have been due pursuant to TTÜ plagiarism rules. According to Mr Truve, the author may now rewrite the contested parts of the thesis and to defend it again, as will soon be the case.

According to education and research ministry vice-chancellor Indrek Reimand, all is legal when TTÜ allows theses to be withdrawn, and no fault can be found with the Doctorate student. «However, the university must draw its internal conclusions,» added Mr Reimand. «Starting with the question: why has such an option to withdraw a thesis been prescribed. That the rule is for the very purpose of cover-up... I do not dare to assume.»

According to Life Sciences University Rector Mait Klaassen and University of Tartu Vice-Rector Marco Kirm, it is not fitting for them to pass judgement on behaviour by technology university; even so, in their universities the option to personally cancel a thesis already defended does not exist. «With each such suspicion, a committee needs to be assembled to investigate plagiarism,» assured Mr Klaassen.

TTÜ Vice-Rector Truve explained that the withdrawal-permitting clause is primarily meant to allow taking back a thesis if its results prove to be false in hindsight. True: the same may be done with plagiarism, but then the sole requirement is that this be done within a month of being found out.

«Honestly, for me the option came as a surprise; but, obviously, this is the way it has been for decades. But we would not want people to keep their degrees who aren’t worthy of it,» said Mr Truve. According to him, withdrawal of thesis is not a usual practice at TTÜ. «I think this must be the first such case in the 96 years history of TTÜ.»

The university is not about to do away with the plagiarism-withdrawal clause. Also, it is difficult in this case to say, claimed Mr Truve, who was at fault, as it is very complicated for committees to verify theft of academic work. «I would not dare to find fault with the committee and the opponents, but the vice-rector will have a conversation with the supervisor and conclusions will be drawn by the fall. Yes, I do have trouble on my hands here,» admitted the vice-prorector.

* Postimees is not disclosing name of author of thesis, the person having acted within the rules.


Priit Pärnapuu, lecturer at TTK University of Applied Sciences

The thesis is plagiarism, there’s nothing here to argue about. The Doctoral thesis is based upon six-seven articles, with which there were also severe problems. There were the same errors – wrong references or failures to refer at all. An accident at work may amount to one to three places where plagiarism may be suspected, not pages and pages. When comparing the Life Sciences University thesis and the TTÜ one, I’d say the latter is clearly worse. TTÜ has been lucky – the student promptly owned up and withdrew the thesis –, Life Sciences University was not that lucky. But, on the other hand: should we ask how many cases of this kind we might have, then 170–200 Doctoral theses are yearly defended in Estonia, and only one or two are as extreme like these.

Maria*, author of the cancelled thesis

Indeed I took the thesis back – I said I agree. It was easier for me to change it that to start disputing. I want it to be correctly formulated, that it would be my business card in the future when I desire to enter the academic life. To begin with, I wrote the thesis as a manual for small and medium entrepreneurs: they just take it and can do according to it. All the formulas were in there. I removed these now, and only left the content of my own work. That was thanks to analysis by our institute: they showed me what could be better. We just did not have automatic source control for my thesis, while it was being prepared. All theses to come will now learn its lesson.

Tatjana Karaulova, supervisor of the thesis

When I got the notice, I thought what is the matter. Turns out, it was an issue of formalising. All these references had to be formalised correctly, and we have already redone it all. But now the thesis needs to de defended anew. All these ideas were our own and are really interesting. At the previous defence already, all realised this. Now, all it takes is to appoint the new date for the new defence. The committee will again convene, we will take another opponent, and then we will defend the same thesis again.