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Why I hope I would have spotted Saif Gaddafi’s plagiarism

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Old habits die hard, and I can’t resist returning to academic times to look at the plagiarism which has been found in Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis. He became a doctor after writing on “The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions.”

Meghnad Desai, one of the external examiners of the thesis, writes today in the Guardian.  The strap line sums up part of the article well: “When it comes to Saif Gaddafi and his PhD, hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.”

Lord Desai, emeritus professor of economics at LSE, writes:

Ever since the Libyan crisis broke and Saif Gaddafi, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, was heard ranting about shooting people down, the London School of Economics has been under a cloud. This is for two reasons. It awarded him a PhD, and accepted a donation of £1.5m from a foundation set up by him.

The conflation of these two separate facts is made to look like the LSE giving the degree in return for a quid pro quo. It is now also claimed that the PhD was not only plagiarised but that some people at the LSE knew that it was so. As one of the two external examiners of the thesis, I can only say that we were never informed of this by his supervisors or anyone else. If it is found to be the case, then strict measures will have to be taken by the University of London about the degree awarded.

Obviously, if there were suspicions Lord Desai should have been told. Beyond that, if there were suspicions why were they not investigated by the Gaddafi’s supervisor and why was plagiarism not spotted by Lord Desai and his fellow examiner?

The thesis was submitted in 2007 when plagiarism spotting software was in common use. Was Gadaffi’s work put through this test?

While I have neither supervised nor assessed doctoral theses, I have been involved with many MA dissertations. I have also found plagiarism. They systems at the two universities where I worked did not really encourage the discovery of cutting and pasting.

It is immensely time-consuming and there is no extra pay. Once I took it all the way through the procedure because it was flagrant and serious. The student was simply told to re-submit with the limitation that he could only achieve a pass.

It was much simpler and used much less time to, as a supervisor, call the student in and ask them about their sources, say they were not satisfactory and that part of the work had to be done again before it would be passed to the assessors.

Should Saif Gadaffi’s plagiarism have been spotted? I think so.

When assessing, I tried out the special software and found it awkward to use and not very effective with the work journalism students produced. My own technique, used on every dissertation I assessed, was simple:

  • Read quickly through parts of the dissertation looking for changes in style, use of vocabulary, sentence length, variations in rhythm. Very complex sentences by someone writing in their second, or third language, was also a warning sign.
  • Then select a few phrases and Google them. If a phrase come up in a near-identical paragraph, there is good evidence of plagiarism. It can be a matter of poor sourcing but frequently a fuller investigation shows plagiarism.

Applying this technique to Saif Gaddafi’s thesis, the second phrase I Googled came up with a positive result on a website called Download free MBA reports.

That was far from conclusive because the item was dated after Gaddafi had submitted his work. But a date limited Google search came up with the same material put on the web four years before the thesis had been submitted.

I know I was doing this in the knowledge that others had found plagiarism in the same paper. But I am confident I would have spotted problems: it had taken less than five minutes to find the first example.



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