Student stripped of a Master’s degree for plagiarism and fabrication

A Master’s degree which was awarded by the University of Eastern Finland and which had been based on fraud perpetrated by a student was repealed by a decision of the Supreme Administrative Court. Following a lengthy court case, the decision sets a precedent, as the law does not provide the possibility to cancel a degree once it has been awarded.

The University of Easter Finland awarded a student of physics a Master’s degree in December 2011. A male foreign student, who had studied in the Faculty of Science and Forestry, was awarded the Grade Excellent for his Master’s thesis. The following year, he submitted his article to a journal in his field. It was revealed that some of the content of the article, including images and graphs, were plagiarisms and had been taken from an article previously published by the same journal.

The Optical Society of America, the publisher of the journal, issued a formal warning to the author and the article was not published. The University of Eastern Finland was notified of the matter, and the university launched an investigation into the Master’s thesis of the student, who by then was working as a junior researcher. The thesis also turned out to have been plagiarised.

“According to the statement issued by the committee appointed by the University, the author has committed serious and continual research fraud, extending from the Master’s thesis to the latest article manuscript he had sent for publication. The person’s Master’s degree was cancelled and he subsequently lost his job as a university researcher and his postgraduate study rights. This was followed by a major court case, as the student appealed against the court decision,” says Petri Rintamäki, General Counsel for the University of Eastern Finland.

Similar cases are known to have happened before, but the plagiarists have eventually admitted their fraud, once caught. What is unique in this case is that the student strongly denied the allegations and contested them.

“He and his legal counsel fought the case till the bitter end, as he clearly felt he was being gravely wronged by being stripped of his degree. Their key argument was that the student had not received sufficient guidance in research ethics, and yet he had taken courses related to the very topic during his studies. Be it as it may, it is simply common sense that his conduct was unacceptable. You cannot present someone else’s work as your own. The student maintained that he had not known that copying other research was not allowed and that he was unaware of good referencing practice, which he blamed on the University’s failure to provide proper guidance. He denied that his actions were in any way deliberate.

For the University, the investigation was a timeconsuming and expensive process. The temporary research ethics committee appointed by the university re-examined the thesis with the assistance of three professors and one external associate professor, spending six months on the process. The committee was unanimous in its decision that the student had been aware that his conduct was unacceptable and that the fabrication and deception had continued for a lengthy period of time. As a result, the student’s Master’s thesis was cancelled by decision of the Dean.

The student later appealed the Dean’s decision before the Administrative Court.

“Since there are provisions in the law regarding the cancellation of a university degree, the Administrative Court issued its statement on the matter, finding that in this case, the university did not have the right to cancel the degree on its own decision. According to the Administrative Court, the Master’s thesis should have been identified as a plagiarised work at an earlier stage. The university subsequently appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court. Persons guilty of plagiarism may not retain their degrees because a Master’s thesis is a demonstration of its author’s knowledge of the major subject and ability to conduct scientific research.

One option mentioned in the precedent would have been for the Supreme Administrative Court to accept the university's ruling. This would mean that the university is entitled to cancel, on its own initiative, any degrees that have been awarded on false grounds, if such a thesis is later found to be plagiarism. If modules required for a degree can be rejected but the overall degree cannot, this could lead to a situation in which there are degree holders who have not in fact completed all of the required modules.

After a process lasting several years, the Master’s thesis was eventually cancelled by decision of the Supreme Administrative Court. However, the Supreme Administrative Court agreed with the ruling of the Administrative Court of Eastern Finland that it was not within the rights of the Dean of the university to cancel a degree that been awarded in 2013. Instead, the Supreme Court upheld the university’s secondary claim that a Master’s degree can be revoked since the fraudulent conduct did not come to the university’s knowledge until later. It is also in the public interest to maintain confidence in research conducted in universities, and therefore the case was of wider significance.

“The university was called upon to explain, in the course of the court process, why the mistakes and shortcomings in the thesis had not been identified at an earlier stage.” The university argued that even the best of electronic anti-plagiarism tools are not always able to incorporate every item of research published and recognise plagiarised work.

The student also spent a large amount of time on appealing the case.

“With all that time and trouble, he could have written a Master’s thesis,” Rintamäki concluded.

Teksti Arja-Leena Paavola

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