France tries husband-wife team for research misconduct in plagiarism case
We’re always glad to have guest posts, and here’s one from François-Xavier Coudert, reporting from France.
As we reported the other day, a Nature editorial suggested that police involvement might be an appropriate response to research misconduct. The French seem to agree, based on reports in the media there, as Coudert writes:
A husband-wife team of French odontology researchers at l’université Paul-Sabatier in Toulouse have been on trial in that country for research misconduct. Christine Marchal-Sixou, an associate professor, faces a charge of plagiarism, and Michel Sixou, full professor and dean of the faculty of dental medicine until September, has been charged with complicity.
In June 2006, Samer Nuwwareh, a masters student in the group of professor Sixou in Toulouse, completed his thesis with Sixou as one of his two advisors. Six months later, Marchal-Sixou, who at that time was a graduate student in her husband’s group, successfully defended her doctoral thesis. Nuwwareh’s name features in the acknowledgements of the thesis, but his own work was not otherwise cited. After getting her PhD, Marchal-Sixou joined her husband’s group as associate professor. In August 2008, Samer Nuwwareh filed suit for plagiarism of his thesis. He declared at trial:
I felt betrayed and dispossessed. Today I want to get back the ownership of my work.
Eight different experts were called in to testify. It appears clear that a good part of the work was shared by the two theses, with 44 pages out of 150 (bibliography excluded) of Marchal-Sixou’s paper being directly drawn — and in some case copy-and-pasted, which we know thanks to some telltale, identical typos — from Nuwwareh’s work. The experts agreed that this “core” was the essential and most original part of the doctoral thesis.
Most of the time during the trial was spent arguing about who copied whom, and whose work had priority. Because Nuwwareh and Marchal-Sixou worked on closely related topics and actively collaborated at that time, her defense is that the work was thus a collective effort, owned not by either researcher but by the whole group. The lawyer for Sixou and Marchal-Sixou also characterized the whole affair as:
a cabal, orchestrated by a few academics and aiming at taking [the Sixous] down. These accusations were made by the guy two years after the facts, he was manipulated.
But other details that emerged during the trial raise some interesting questions. The couple shared a single email account, for example, so every time Nuwwareh wrote to his supervisor, Marchal-Sixou could read the messages. And she defended her thesis in record time, two years instead of the usual three, benefitting from the research in her husband’s group.
The prosecution seeks a fine of 5,000 euros from both Marchal-Sixou and Sixou.