Despite the fact that a PhD student removed all instances of plagiarism from her dissertation before submitting it a second time, she has been asked to surrender her title. On Tuesday, the university announced several measures following the plagiarism case. Rector Magnificus Huib Pols admitted: “Our quality control system failed to a great extent in this case.”

A PhD student at RSM committed plagiarism in her dissertation and was given another chance to rewrite it. Although the plagiarised sections have been removed, the revised dissertation was inadequate. The university has asked her to surrender her title and has announced that it will be carrying out a number of measures, firstly to deal with the dissertation, the PhD student and her supervisor and secondly to tighten the rules for doctoral dissertations to prevent similar situations in the future. Rector Magnificus Huib Pols has repeatedly stressed that he sincerely regrets the state of affairs. “This situation detracts from what we at the academy believe in: good science. Furthermore, it has generated a great deal of negative feelings.”

Why has the PhD student been asked to voluntarily relinquish her doctoral degree?

“The Dutch Higher Education and Research Act allows the Doctorate Board (CvP) the right to grant a doctorate but the same act does not offer any way of withdrawing a doctorate, so the Doctorate Board decided that the only thing to do was to ask the lady to voluntarily relinquish her doctoral degree. In addition, we have carried out a number of measures: we are removing the dissertation from the library and asking other libraries to do the same, and we’re paying back the doctorate premium. This makes it quite clear that we are doing everything we possibly can to dissociate ourselves from the dissertation.”

That is as much as you can do?

“As the Doctorate Board sees it, we can do no more. A doctorate has never ever been withdrawn and besides, the Doctorate Board is not at all happy with the supervision or the quality control of the doctoral procedure. The dissertation passed a small committee and then a large committee – in theory, the PhD jumped through all the hoops. Nonetheless, at some point in the procedure, someone should have done something to prevent what happened later.”

What will happen if the PhD student refuses to surrender her title voluntarily?

“The Doctorate Board will still do everything it can to dissociate itself from the dissertation and besides, we will be taking steps to review the rules for doctoral dissertations and to deal with the thesis supervisor. We have called in the Doctorate Board to give us a clear policy on the matter within the current legal framework.”

The National Board for Research Integrity (LOWI) has also looked into the matter and eventually decided that there are two options: either still withdraw the title or provide better reasons for the measures.

“We decided to work on justifying our measures. The LOWI’s report looks at the pros and cons, but doesn’t really provide a clear decision.
“The LOWI’s report is also very interesting because it made us consider a number of matters: had we considered the PhD student’s own responsibility carefully enough? Can we justify our response to our own academic community properly? By offering the lady the chance to distance herself from her dissertation, we are appealing to her own sense of responsibility and we can justify our actions to the academic community by the quite tough penalties we are imposing on the PhD student and her supervisor.”

Would it be a good idea to amend the Higher Education and Research Act so that it would become possible to withdraw someone’s doctoral degree?

“We spent a long time wondering about that, but when you look at how all this happened, you realize that the quality control mechanism for the doctoral procedure should have prevented it. That means that it’s not really the law that’s inadequate here – the problem is how to guarantee quality.”

Improved internal quality assurance should prevent such cases in the future?

“That’s what I feel is so good about this judgement. As Erasmus University, we will first look at our own processes. On the one hand, we will be tightening our existing doctoral regulations and their enforcement. On the other hand, additional steps will be taken to better involve external candidates in the ERIM research programme at RSM.”

To substantiate his statement, Pols quotes from the report of the University’s Doctorate Board: ‘The University’s Doctorate Board feels that the thesis supervisor seriously failed in his duty as thesis supervisor for the accused.’ “This is a clear, unambiguous statement. In clear, unequivocal language, that was our express endeavour. Ultimately it’s about whether you are able to guarantee quality assurance.”
And that quality assurance must be better guaranteed by tighter doctoral regulations. For example, all candidates will henceforth work with an education and support plan, and will be overseen by at least two supervisors. The members of the core committee need to provide a written substantiated response which can be checked. “The aim is to ensure that such incidents never occur again in the future”, says the dean. According to Pols, tightening the doctoral regulation does not necessarily mean that there is something structurally wrong. “Many of the measures are already operational in practice in several research schools. They were just not explicitly included in the doctoral regulations.”

Are you shocked by this case?

“Yes, of course. Unfortunately I can say, also from previous experiences with such dossiers, that every case is a shock. And each time you have to wonder how alert we need to be. I think that in each of the various cases (Pols refers to the cases involving Don Poldermans and Dirk Smeesters, ed.), it has been demonstrated that Erasmus University expressly accepts its responsibility and that it publishes its processes in full transparency.”

In recent years, there have been several integrity cases, not just at EUR, but also at other universities. Are these just rogue cases, or does it prove that the system is not watertight?

“If you start to list rogue cases, from Stapel to Poldermans, each case has a different story. I don’t like tarring every case with the same brush. What you do see is an increased alertness in the academic community. And that’s why we want to be transparent about this and accept our own responsibility.”

The thesis supervisor will not be allowed to serve in that capacity at EUR and will not be allowed to have a public farewell on campus. Why is he being punished so severely?

“The University’s Doctorate Board is extremely disappointed that, despite the fact that no other incidences of plagiarism were found in the other theses, the thesis supervisor was not able to adequately fulfil his duties. Secondly, there were no signs of any attempts to rectify the situation on his part. This is very regrettable, and that is why we felt it would be appropriate to give a clear signal in this respect.”

The candidate was given a second chance. She removed the plagiarized sections but had only lightly revised the dissertation. Do you understand that?

“If you give someone the opportunity to rectify something and that proves unsatisfactory, then you obviously regret that.”

Was the task clear enough?

“If you tell someone in the academic world that he or she has to rewrite something, then you don’t need to give detailed instructions. Particularly to someone who already has a PhD.”

The committee which examined the new version of the dissertation also judged the quality of the dissertation. The committee voiced strong doubts about its scientific quality. What do you feel about that?

“The committee was asked to give its judgement about the plagiarism and the rewriting of the plagiarised sections. The committee is free to give a more extensive judgement, but that was not taken into account in the measures.”

Did the fact that she was an external candidate play a role?

“In my opinion, when granting a PhD, there is no difference between candidates. They just have to satisfy common academic standards. And I repeat: the quality system failed to a very great extent.”