Charles University vice rector stepping down amid plagiarism charges filed by PhD students

Martin Kovář, photo: Jan Bartoněk / Czech Radio

The head of the Institute of World History at Charles University is stepping down in the wake of accusations of plagiarism, lodged by three doctoral students at the philosophical faculty. Professor Martin Kovář – who denies any wrongdoing – will also be resigning his position as vice rector, in what is seen as an extraordinary case of students holding a prominent academic to account.

Martin Kovář,  photo: Jan Bartoněk / Czech Radio
Prof. Martin Kovář, a renowned expert in Czech academic circles on British history, in particular of the Stuart era, has led the Institute of World History for more than fifteen years. He rejects the charges of plagiarism but is resigning due to what a Charles University spokesman characterised as “sustained personal attacks – especially on social networks – which have had a devastating impact on his family”.

In a 24-page complaint dated 5 December, the three PhD students cite extensive passages from three publications by Prof. Kovář on the Stuart Age, published in the years 1998, 2001, and 2017, which they charge plagiarised the work of the late British historian Barry Coward.

Specifically, the graduate students say – and present compelling evidence – that in instances the Charles University professor copied the thematic structure of Barry Coward’s work, paraphrased passages from it without citation, and listed the same primary sources in his own footnotes, and in the same order.

The jury is officially still out as to whether Prof. Kovář committed plagiarism. The Academic Senate met on Thursday and the Ethics Committee at Charles University has received the official complaint but not yet announced its conclusions. As such, no one in academia is eager to comment on the merits of the case.

However, in an interview for Czech Radio, Tomáš Zima, the rector of Charles University in Prague, said there appeared to be enough evidence to justify an inquiry, and whatever the outcome doing so sends an important signal.

“I believe that everyone should be held to the same standards. Whether the person is a rector or a student, the approach must be the same. This means that such a charge, regarding this content relating to the standards of academic work, should go before the Ethics Committee. I will ask the experts to make the determination and deliver their opinion.”

Tomáš Zima,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
In early November, Charles University – which was founded more than 700 years ago – announced that for the first time in its history that it had stripped a student of his academic titles, for having plagiarised parts of his theses. It was Tomáš Zima, the university’s rector since 2014, who took that historic step.

Under the prevailing interpretation of current law, a university cannot revoke a student’s degree more than three years after it has been awarded.

However in the wake of plagiarism scandals this summer that resulted in two government ministers resigning their posts, Palacky University in Olomouc and Masaryk University in Brno, among others, have begun a systematic check of digitised using plagiarism-detecting software.