Gijs van Oenen
Gijs van Oenen

Last week Roel Pieterman told EM that this judgement may cause trouble down the road. According to Pieterman, the members of the committee, Professors Ton Hol and Marc Loth, included a ‘touch of subjectivism’ in their definition of plagiarism, which might make it very hard for examination boards at EUR (and elsewhere) to designate plagiarism as fraud. For this reason, he called on EUR’s examination boards and the university’s Executive Board to distance themselves from the committee’s judgement. Is there an actual need for such an action?

Taking credit for another person’s work

The thing that most worried Pieterman was the committee’s conclusion that while Van den Boom had included passages copied from academic literature in her dissertation without citing the source or using quotation marks, it takes more than that to be guilty of plagiarism. Plagiarism, the committee stated, involves ‘the copying of passages or paraphrases thereof which include scientific insights and ideas that are presented as being original or the academic’s own, without a clear reference to the original source from which these passages were taken’. “Simply put: people are guilty of plagiarism when they take credit for another person’s work.” The committee does consider the copying of passages without attribution or quotation marks an ‘unjustifiable’ shortcoming – an academic mistake – but as long as one doesn’t pass off other people’s ideas as one’s own, the committee feels that such shortcomings do not constitute plagiarism.

How problematic is this judgement? I can go along with the committee’s argument that the controversial passages are all from a part of the dissertation containing only a literature review. In other words, it was perfectly clear that these words were not Van den Boom’s own original opinions. Flawed literature references and missing quotation marks are definitely sloppy and culpable, but I find it a plausible idea that plagiarism is about pretending to be original. I believe the distinction made by the committee is correct from an academic point of view. Furthermore, the committee’s judgement was partially based on the argument that ‘also by the standards of the time at which the dissertation was written, this does not constitute plagiarism’. Opinions may differ on that point, but I think we can give the committee the benefit of the doubt in this regard. Apparently, there were no authoritative regulations at the time under which flawed citations constituted plagiarism.

Today’s standards

Things are different today. By today’s standards, Van den Boom’s 1980s method most definitely constitutes plagiarism. The EUR brochure Fraude en plagiaat (Fraud and Plagiarism) explicitly states, as EM remarks, that every passage copied without attribution and quotation marks qualifies as plagiarism. Similar definitions can be found in the Rules and Regulations drawn up by the examination boards of the EUR faculties. In addition, the Higher Education Appeals Tribunal (CBHO), the highest court in the Netherlands competent to rule on such matters, has stated that even in a section or chapter dedicated to literature review – which is where Van den Boom’s copied passages were found – flawed or absent literature references in students’ work constitutes plagiarism (CBHO 2019/060.5).

No need to distance ourselves from the committee’s judgement

It is good that Pieterman expressed his concerns, but there is no need for EUR’s examination boards to distance themselves from the judgement on the Van den Boom case issued by UvA’s committee. For the reasons outlined above, it seems unlikely that this judgement will affect any plagiarism at present or in the future. Neither do I find it necessary for the Executive Board to distance itself from the judgement. On the one hand, because the investigation was conducted by UvA, not by EUR, and on the other hand, because it is up to the individual examination boards to determine, through reference to the regulations on fraud and/or plagiarism provided in their respective Rules and Regulations, what consequences will be attached to fraud or plagiarism. And finally, in assessing the gravity of such cases, it is legitimate to consider whether the plagiarism involved a pretense of originality.