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‘Cheating a bit’

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A non-bookish rant (I couldn’t contain myself)

I don’t know if non-German readers have heard of it yet, but the German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (from the Bavarian branch of the Conservative Party, the CSU*), has been accused of plagiarising on his doctoral thesis (in Law). A Law professor from the University of Bremen first came up with these allegations, stating that Guttenberg used several passages from other sources more or less verbatim in his thesis and did not cite them. By now, a Wiki called Guttenplag has found  268 pages (i.e. 68.19% of the page total) in the thesis containing instances of plagiarism (count at 11:43 p.m. CET on 19 February). Additionally, it has emerged that he used the information service of the German Parliament (Bundestag) – he was a Member of Parliament at the time of writing the thesis – to get information for the dissertation. This service is intended to help MPs investigate issues related to their parliamentary work.

“Guttengate”, as the affair was quickly dubbed, has become the subject of heated debates, and for the moment, he has decided to temporarily renounce his doctoral title. He has not stepped down. He resigned on 1 March (see Update 2 below).

Despite the allegations, yesterday I had to read in the newspaper that two-thirds of Germans don’t want him to resign. Many people seem to think he has simply ‘cheated a bit’.

This makes me furious, and this is why I’m going on an entirely non-bookish rant today.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I work in academia and am writing a doctoral thesis. If a Federal Minister like Mr zu Guttenberg ‘cheats a bit’, this sends the following signals:

  • To students: “Fudging a bit on a paper isn’t a big deal, and without it I won’t become minister/CEO/whatever anyway. Never mind, I’ll just sign this Declaration of Academic Integrity, because the course instructor is making me. Nobody will care when things come to a head.”
  • To PhD students: “What exactly am I doing here working like crazy for years, when I could be done in a minimal amount of time just copying and pasting?”
  • To the general public:
    (a) “Cheating a bit is perfectly fine.”
    (b) “People only get a PhD because they need the title, and you don’t have to make a real effort to get one. PhD students plagiarise like nobody’s business, and no-one holds them responsible for it. Therefore, a doctoral degree isn’t worth anything and is just a way to advance your career.”

If Guttenberg gets away with this and people actually consider him ‘clever’ for doing what he did, I might actually lose faith in this country. Some people have been accusing the press of campaigning against him. I think this has nothing to do with a campaign or ‘dirty journalism’. It has to do with academic standards and with discrediting a profession many people work very hard to succeed in.

Even more importantly, it also has to do with decency and honesty. The affair is  hardly becoming for the CSU (and its federal-level sister party, the CDU), who are always first to claim ‘German values’ (such as honesty, decency… you get the idea) for themselves. Now would be the time to show how serious they are about them.

* Ironically, the English-language Wikipedia site for the CSU “needs additional citations for verification”.


N.B.: I made a comment along the same lines in German on an article in Die Zeit Online yesterday (before anyone accuses me of plagiarism 😉 ).

Update: The original review of Guttenberg’s thesis in a German legal journal is now available here. Citation: Fischer-Lescano, Andreas (forthcoming): ‘Karl-Theodor Frhr. zu Guttenberg, Verfassung und Verfassungsvertrag. Konstitutionelle Entwicklungsstufen in den USA und der EU, Berlin (Duncker & Humblot) 2009, 475 S., 88,- €’, in: Kritische Justiz, Vol./No. unknown, pp. 112-119

Update 2: Guttenberg resigned today, 1 March 2011. I have to say that after all that happened in the last two weeks, I’m glad he finally did. His reasons didn’t convince me, though. He blamed it all on the media having nothing better to do than initiating a witch hunt against him. While the whole affair did take on the characteristics of a witch hunt at times, I’m still glad it went this way. If someone refuses to go, then you have to make them, and this is what most of the media, the scientists, and other people did. Granted, there were some who were in it for political reasons or because they enjoy berating someone. But most people, I think, were in it for other, more honourable reasons.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

4 thoughts on “‘Cheating a bit’

  1. Look, all this plagiarism debate is leading nowhere. He isn’t even conscious of having plagiarised which is why the general German populace are riding to his rescue!

  2. Thank you for writing this. I think that you are totally right with what you wrote about the Guttengate affair. The whole issue makes me angry, too!

  3. How true!
    While this is definitely better than watching a soap-opera on TV, I thing it’s not just an issue in relation to the message that is being sent to students etc…internationally German degrees have always been regarded as being of a high standard and that there is a lot of good research happening in Germany. If he can get away with writing a Thesis (if he even wrote it himself) that has a higher percentage of copied text in it than his own words, what does that say about the quality of a German degree and the German research climate in general?

  4. @Katharina: Exactly. It almost makes you want the whole thing not to become too well known internationally. What will it mean for people with a German doctorate looking for a job elsewhere? Will they be regarded with suspicion and have to work extra hard to convince potential employers they actually did their own research?

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