Last year, NRC Handelsblad published an article accusing then interim ESHCC dean Dymph van den Boom of having plagiarised other people’s work in her 1988 dissertation, as well as a number of dies orations held during her tenure as Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). After being asked by UvA to look into these allegations, professors Ton Hol and Marc Loth concluded last month that while Van den Boom had been ‘sloppy’, she had not committed plagiarism as such. “Notwithstanding my professional and personal appreciation of both professors, I am concerned that their conclusions could create a serious problem, both within academic education and beyond,” says Pieterman.
“In essence, they have formulated a new definition of plagiarism, in which an important role is assigned to the individual’s motives. This ruling can easily be adopted as an authoritative source by clever students or lawyers hoping to render a plagiarism charge ineffective.”
Commission does not find plagiarism in Van den Boom’s work
Sloppy, perhaps – but hardly plagiarism. This was concluded by a commission of inquiry…
Insurmountable burden of proof
Plagiarism is pretty straightforward, says Pieterman: it’s the appropriation of someone else’s writing. “As soon as you transcribe five or six words written by another author – without citing the source – you’re plagiarising his or her work. Your motives in doing so are irrelevant.” And according to Pieterman, this is also the definition adhered to by examination boards when reviewing students’ essays and theses.
This view is confirmed in the EUR brochure Fraud and Plagiarism, which can be consulted via the link. Students are informed that “when you transcribe text from someone else’s article or project paper without citing the source or using quotation marks – either by ‘copy-pasting’ sections from electronic documents or literally typing over specific passages – this amounts to plagiarism: fraud, in other words. Even when the copied passages only form a relatively small part of your project, this can be considered fraudulent action.” The definition does not include any further provisions regarding students’ underlying motives to copy other people’s work whole-hog.
And now, Pieterman concludes, the commission of inquiry has added this specific nuance of motive to the definition of plagiarism. “In their view, it can only be considered plagiarism in a case of ‘borrowed feathers’. This introduces a subjective element in the existing definition. And it makes the burden of proof almost insurmountable for an examination board accusing a student of plagiarism. The board would need to prove that the individual has copied passages with the intention to take credit for them as proof of novel and original insights and ideas.”
Level of culpability
Pieterman believes the commission was free to rule otherwise. “It’s a simple case of plagiarism when passages are transcribed without a clear source citation. To which extent the author can actually be censured for this is a different question altogether.” In other words, even when fraud is observed, this does not necessarily have to result in a harsh rebuke of Van den Boom’s actions.
The commission put forward two arguments in support of its decision to not characterise the transcribed passages in Van den Boom’s thesis as plagiarism. In the first place, the commission states that the sections in question are part of the introductory section of her thesis, in which Van den Boom presents an overview of the relevant literature. In the second place, the commission claims that according to experts, the academic community still paid very little attention to ethical questions in the 1980s (Van den Boom’s thesis was presented in 1988), with plagiarism hardly being the hot topic it is today. “I can sympathise to a certain extent with the first argument, but the second argument confounds me,” sees Pieterman. “I was awarded a doctorate in 1990 for a thesis in the field of Sociology of Law. In my thesis, everyone else’s work is clearly indicated with quotation marks and a source citation. And an earlier thesis written in 1983 was no different. The argument that at the time this wasn’t the standard is incorrect. The same rules applied back then as today. This is evidenced by the 1983 APA citation guidelines, which Van den Boom was also expected to adhere to.”
Pieterman hopes EUR’s examination boards and Executive Board will decide to distance themselves from the commission’s ruling. “With a concrete statement, you can at the very least throw up an obstacle for clever students looking for loopholes. If you don’t clearly speak out against these new-fangled interpretations, you may be broadsided by them further down the road. At which point you won’t have a position statement to fall back on.”
Isn’t Pieterman actually giving these ‘smart students’ the wrong direction with his plea? “That’s always a risk. But I believe that it’s even more important to alert the parties responsible to an issue that right now may not be clearly in their scopes.”
The Executive Board has indicated that they aren’t going to respond to the article above.