Published: 12.07.13

Master’s thesis contains plagiarized material

The results of an external expert assessment commissioned by ETH Zurich revealed that Doris Fiala’s ETH Master’s thesis contains scientific inaccuracies and plagiarized material. The Rector confirmed the evaluation and considered the thesis failed. The ETH has drawn lessons from the case and will reinforce the governing rules and conduct for scientific dissertations.

From the editor
An external expert assessment revealed that Doris Fiala's Master's thesis contains plagiarism.
An external expert assessment revealed that Doris Fiala's Master's thesis contains plagiarism. (large view)

The suspicion that Doris Fiala’s thesis written for the ETH continuing education programme, Master of Advanced Studies in Security Policy and Crisis Management (MAS ETH SPCM), includes plagiarism and scientific inaccuracies was growing. This led to the commissioning of an external expert assessment, which confirmed beyond doubt that Fiala used content from various other sources in her thesis (“Swiss migration policy in the context of national security and globalisation”) without properly referencing it.

Negligent work

“Authors of scientific works must always handle the intellectual property of others in a careful and correct manner,” says Rector Lino Guzzella, who is responsible for education and teaching curriculum at ETH Zurich. After careful examination, the ETH concluded that Ms Fiala had acted negligently and clearly violated the rules of conduct set for scientific work.

As a result, the thesis has been retrospectively failed. Ms Fiala no longer holds a Master’s diploma of Advanced Studies. Nevertheless, she can apply for the MAS ETH SPCM programme again and request recognition of her existing academic credits. A new master’s thesis, however, would have to be resubmitted and written on a different topic.

Rules not adequately enforced

With regards to scientific work, ETH students are made aware of the rules of conduct during the course of their studies. All students, including those registered in continuing education programmes, receive the rules of conduct in written form at the beginning of their studies. While writing their theses papers, students are supervised by course leaders and co-supervisors. In Fiala’s case, defects in her thesis were observed at the time but plagiarism was not detected. “Although rules for dealing with issues of plagiarism were in place, it is clear in retrospect that they were not sufficiently enforced at all levels,” says the Rector.

Obligation instead of recommendation

ETH now has excellent rules of conduct in place for scientific practice. A practical ‘citation etiquette’ for dealing with intellectual property has been implemented across all courses. In addition, students must sign a declaration stating that all written work handed in has been independently written. ETH Zurich has used the Fiala case as an opportunity to make organisational improvements. “These rules,” says the Rector, “must be reinforced more firmly among students as well as lecturers.” A guide for students stating the binding obligations of the declaration is currently in preparation.

A basic course on scientific work is already being offered in certain departments and will expand to all ETH students in future – including students of the ETH’s continuing education programmes.

A general examination of written work at ETH is not planned, adds the Rector: “At ETH, thousands of theses are written each year. Cases of plagiarism are rare exceptions. We do not wish to place our students under general suspicion.”

This article has been issued as a press release by ETH Zürich.