In the past month the Czech public saw the heads of two government ministers roll over suspicions of plagiarism in their university theses. A third minister only barely survived, explaining that the shortcomings in his thesis were due to inexperience in referencing sources. The scandal sparked a public debate regarding the problems of plagiarism in institutions of higher learning and how widespread a problem it is given the developments of recent weeks. I spoke to the former president of the Accreditation Commission, Vladimíra Dvořáková about plagiarism and its roots.
“I think it is a very deep and serious problem in the society. If we look back into history –this is the way how Czech identity was formed. The Czech nation had no aristocracy after the Thirty Years War and during the days of the national revival they held education in high esteem, as a very, very high value. And now we see that politicians who sought to win public approval tried to get some titles, to show that they are very well educated, but mostly what they studied and where they studied was not on a very high level. Some resorted to plagiarism, some may have used so-called “research” agencies which produced their thesis for them and there was a very big scandal at the Plzen Faculty of Law where politicians concluded a five-year program in several months or a year. So this is a problem of the pseudo-elite. I am saying that some people who had no chance of accomplishing a good-level education are reaching for this as a symbol that says “I am someone who is highly-educated and worthy” and it is also connected with the possibility to get some post (that requires a university degree) a seat on an advisory board, an executive board and so on. So at this time, it is very useful to have a master’s degree or something like that.”
You say this Czech obsession with titles –and Czechs do have a great respect for titles and use them all the time – goes back a long way in history? How come it is still thriving today? Have we not been influenced by the Western world in this respect?
“You will find it to some degree in all the countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But here it is also connected with this revivalism and national identity and so on. I am not sure how many people still accept that and try and obtain a title in view of this, but it is true that titles are still used in everyday life with colleagues, friends, not only when you are at a job interview. At a job interview that information is fine, but why use the title when you are seeing a doctor or speaking to someone in the neighborhood? Here we use the title as if it were an indelible part of the person’s name. The tendency is weaker but it is still present.”
So many people study for the sake of the title, rather than for the sake of the education itself?
“That is a difficult question to answer, because first there was a big pressure for education to be a mass thing and there were lobbyist groups that wanted civil servants and policemen, and so on, to get a higher education. And this was connected with some private schools that were profit-oriented. So there were these profit-seeking organizations that tried to make as big a profit from education as possible. That was a problem and very often these schools did not offer a real education, but they offered diplomas and that was attractive for some politicians. This is not only a problem here in the Czech Republic; you will find other countries where they speak about diploma mills. But in this country the problem is often connected with people who are very active in politics on the local or national level and I am afraid that what we have just witnessed with the ministers can happen at any time, anyplace –and also these persons present a security risk because they are very vulnerable to blackmail. So it is quite a dangerous situation.”
Would you say that plagiarism is a widespread problem at Czech universities?
“Well, I would not say universities, but in the institutions of higher education some forms of plagiarism can be found. But you know, it I not so difficult to prevent that. It is mainly the work of the teacher and the student. If you are the supervisor of some thesis, you speak and consult the work with the student as it progresses and then it is difficult to commit plagiarism. The problem is that often it happens that there are many students and too few teachers and then it can happen that a student can get away with plagiarism – or they can ask an agency to write their entire thesis and then it is very difficult for the teachers to see this. And you can see that good universities and good schools of higher education have limits on how many theses can be supervised by one teacher, they have rules saying the student is obliged to communicate with the teacher as they work on their thesis, so there are now many measures to try to prevent plagiarism. But in 2005, 2006 there was a massive influx of students and a lack of financing for public institutions of higher education and many private institutions whose only goal was to make profit.”
Would you say that schools are doing enough to combat the problem, especially now that there’s a program to uncover plagiarism, or would you say that more needs to be done?
“I would say that more needs to be done, because the program is a fine thing, but it can only find passages that have been copied from the internet. But you can take stuff from a book that’s not on the internet and plagiarize that or – what I consider ever worse – you can pay an agency to write the whole thesis for you – and there are many agencies online that promise to do that. That goes against the logic of getting a higher education, but also shows the values of the society and that’s a big problem. Because if you have politicians for whom plagiarism is something that’s normal, then that really says something about the society.”
What should best be done at this point?
“That’s hard to say. As the former president of the accreditation commission I can tell you that we tried to do evaluations all the time and the worse the school was the more expensive a lawyer they had to communicate with is. So it can be a problem. Now I think it is partly easier, because for demographic reasons there are not so many students and many schools aim to provide a high quality education. It is also up to journalists to talk about the problem and show that these people are not really highly educated, but they cheated – and in this case I think the media did a good job. And it is for the public to know that you do not want to have a title – you want to get an education.”