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Yle report: Finns Party presidential candidate's master's thesis "systematically plagiarised"

An Yle investigation has found that Finns Party MP presidential candidate Laura Huhtasaari plagiarised major parts of her master's thesis.

Laura Huhtasaari
MP Laura Huhtasaari in Parliament 3 May, 2018. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

An Yle investigation has found that the vice-chair of the Finns Party, presidential candidate Laura Huhtasaari, copied large parts of her master's thesis. Before January's presidential election Huhtasaari had been accused of plagiarising parts of the dissertation..

Following the allegations, Jyväskylä University carried out a preliminary investigation and said it found that the Finns Party candidate had copied sections of texts from two previously-submitted theses in her 2003 thesis "Cultural Practices in Multicultural Basic Education Groups."

As a Finns Party presidential candidate, Huhtasaari profiled herself as a nativist, conservative, anti-immigration and evolution skeptic. She has been publicly complimentary about extreme rightist groups, and consistently provocative towards mainstream Finnish politics.

Huhtasaari came in third place in January's presidential race with 6.9 percent of the vote, far behind the winner, incumbent President Sauli Niinistö who pulled in 62.7 percent.

When the plagiarism allegations were investigated by the university, the institution's rector Keijo Hämäläinen said that Huhtasaari had not followed proper scientific methods and practices, but said the incident was not particularly egregious because the duplicated texts only amounted to some 10 percent of her whole thesis.

However, following a probe by Svenska Yle's investigative unit MOT, the amount of plagiarised text used in Huhtasaari's thesis was far more extensive than the university's investigation had found.

30% copy-pasted from one thesis

According to the reporters, about 30 percent of her thesis text was copied directly from a single source, written by Helsinki University graduate student Tiina Simpanen in 2001. Simpanen's text was later published by the city of Helsinki's educational branch.

The MOT journalists report that Huhtasaari had copied both shorter and longer pieces of text and put them in her own thesis. Some chapters of her thesis appeared to be almost entirely derived from Simpanen's, according to the reporters.

Huhtasaari mostly duplicated Simpanen's work verbatim, including spelling errors, according to the report, an indication that Huhtasaari had access to an electronic version of Simpanen's thesis and copied the texts into her own.

In some parts, Huhtasaari made small changes to the text so it would be contextually correct. The reporters say that Huhtasaari not only copied Simpanen's texts, but also copied her reference citations and presented them as her own.

Simpanen's name was not mentioned a single time in Huhtasaari's thesis, the report states.

The topics of the two theses tend to overlap. Simpanen's thesis used interviews with students, teachers and a rector in order to illustrate a multicultural class at a Helsinki primary school. Huhtasaari's thesis similarly made use of interviews with teachers and rectors at three schools in Northern Karelia.

Simpanen told MOT that she has never met and does not know Huhtasaari and said she does not want to comment on the situation.

Huhtasaari's thesis included reproduced portions of interviews, but the MOT team said it did not find that the interview quotes had been plagiarised. However, some of the texts describing the interviews - and the conclusions drawn from them - were taken from Simpanen's work.

Huhtasaari dismisses new allegations

Huhtisaari dismissed the Svenska Yle report when she spoke with a reporter at the parliament building in Helsinki on Wednesday, and likened it to a "manhunt."

The MP said she followed the rules and guidelines which she received when she took part in the graduate programme.

Before the Svenska Yle report was published, Huhtasaari was also given an opportunity to comment about the fresh allegations. Also then she pointed to the university's earlier preliminary investigation of her thesis.

"The university has investigated the matter and gave its decision. The decision is available to everyone to read and see," Huhtasaari said, according to the report.

Report: Several sources copied

The MOT investigation also found that Huhtasaari's copying did not end with Simpanen's work, and had used several other sources in her work without referencing original sources.

Those duplicated texts came from academic practice works as well as less academic sources that dealt with multiculturalism in schools, according to the Svenska Yle report.

Results from the university's preliminary investigation noted that shorter passages of Huhtasaari's thesis were based on extracts of a thesis by graduate student Henriikka Hoffrén and from coursework texts written by Oksana Myllylä at Jyväskylä University.

There were other texts in Huhtasaari's thesis which were directly copied from several other sources, as well, according to the Yle Svenska report (in Swedish).

One passage in Huhtasaari's thesis included a statement taken from a speech in the year 2000 by Finland's former president Tarja Halonen: "We must ensure that immigrant children are happy in hopes that they can complete their curriculum."

Why didn't the university notice?

Huhtasaari's thesis was approved in December 2003, receiving a grade of cum laude approbatur, or "good;" the fourth highest grade on a scale of seven possible grades. It was the Liberal Party's secretary Tuomas Tiainen who made the first accusations of plagiarism on his blog.

The allegations sparked Jyväskylä University's preliminary investigation of the thesis, which was carried out by professor emeritus Jarkko Hautamäki.

In his assessment of Huhtasaari's work, Hautamäki said the thesis graders should have noted the language errors as well as the sourcing mistakes in the text. He said only a specialist could have noticed that parts of it were plagiarised without the use of an advanced text recognition application.

In his assessment, Hautamäki confirmed the plagiarism suspicions but said he found reason to suspect extensive cheating. When the preliminary investigation was complete, Huhtasaari was offered an opportunity to defend her work. She said that she had been singled out because of her political activities and said that practices regarding source references in academia were unclear in 2003, when she wrote her thesis.

The school's rector decided against opening a full investigation, saying at the time that while Huhtasaari had in some instances not used good scientific practice but, taking into consideration that it was a question of a limited part of a graduate thesis, said that the violations were not particularly serious.

How the research was done at Svenska Yle

One of the two Svenska Yle reporters who investigated Huhtasaari's thesis materials, Linus Lång, said that his interest in the story began when the allegations first surfaced at the beginning of the year.

"The case interested me so I downloaded the thesis and made a few sample tests. Using Google search, I entered sentences from the final chapter of Huhtasaari's thesis, and the search results indicated sources that were not listed in the thesis' source references. I also observed that others had found similar results," Lång wrote.

"I was surprised when the university's preliminary investigation did not find any plagiarised passages, and decided to investigate more systematically how extensive the plagiarism was," he stated.

Lång wrote that he quickly found several sources from which Huhtasaari had apparently plagiarised at a small scale, prompting him to probe the issue further.

Finally, Lång found the breakthrough he was looking for in a graduate thesis from 2013.

He saw that Huhtasaari had copied the same lines of text that were found in the 2013 text. However, unlike Huhtasaari, the writer of the 2013 thesis had appropriately cited the source material, which came from Simpanen's thesis from 2001.

"The breakthrough helped me to find Simpanen's thesis. The thesis had been published by the city of Helsinki's public library unit which specialises in statistics and research in book form, and I soon saw that a large portion of the text was identical to Huhtasaari's. Later I was able to find an archived version of the thesis in a digital format and was able to mechanically compare the texts with each other," Lång wrote.

He said the investigation involved a good deal of work because web search engines do not find materials that are only available on archived web sites.

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