The plagiarism committed by a PhD student at the RSM in her thesis was intended, according to the National Board for Research Integrity (LOWI). The reprimand she received ‘can be considered a toothless sanction and as tacit approval of a serious form of plagiarism’.

In June last year, it became known that large chunks of text in a thesis by an external PhD student at Rotterdam School of Management had been plagiarised. The research integrity committee at Erasmus University advised that the PhD title should be revoked, but the executive board did not feel this was necessary. The student’s supervisor had apparently been so remiss that she could not have done much about it.

Personal responsibility

Rubbish, according to the National Board for Research Integrity (LOWI). The fact that the supervisor “failed badly” was “absolutely clear”, but that does not relieve someone of their own responsibility. Furthermore, so much text had been copied that the student must have realised that she had gone too far. According to the LOWI, this was a conscious case of plagiarism and not the result of “negligence or error”.

Tacit approval of plagiarism

The PhD student concerned was given a reprimand and instructed to revise her thesis by 1 October. For the rest, her error had very few consequences. Furthermore, the student did not work at the university, but was an ‘external PhD student’. In her case, a reprimand means nothing. A sanction can therefore “be considered a ‘toothless sanction’ and as tacit approval of a serious form of plagiarism”, writes the LOWI.

Withdraw doctor’s title now?

What now? According to the LOWI, Erasmus University has two options. If the board is really unwilling to revoke the doctor’s title, it needs a better defence for its decision. For example, the LOWI misses the “important aspect” that society as a whole also has a vested interest: it must be able to assume that a doctor’s title has a certain value and that there is no question of “deceit or manipulation”. The interests of the institute should also play a role. If it becomes known that the university allows people to obtain a PhD even though there has been serious plagiarism, this can harm the “name and fame” of the institute.

Option two is to revoke her doctor’s title anyway. That is a complicated procedure because the law has no provisions for revoking that degree. However, the LOWI does not feel that it is impossible. In its advice, it explains what the legal steps could be.

No response as long as the investigation is ongoing

According to a spokesperson, the Executive Board does not wish to respond to the LOWI report now because the investigation is still continuing in Rotterdam. A committee headed by RSM dean Steef van de Velde is currently studying the revised thesis which will then be reviewed again by the Doctorate Board. At the same time, experts outside the university are investigating all ten PhD theses produced under supervisor Teun Hardjono. No response to LOWI’s advice will be issued before these investigations have been completed.

The plagiarism was discovered last year by sociologist Floor Basten. She was already familiar with the LOWI advice but she was surprised to hear that it was already online. She hopes that the university will follow the advice. HOP/TF