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A plague of plagiarism at the heart of politics

Germany and Eastern Europe rocked by string of high-profile cases within their governments. Paul Jump reports

We’ve fostered an environment in which major ethical problems have emerged with very few people willing to say or do something about them

When Annette Schavan, Germany’s minister for education and research, resigned earlier this year amid allegations of plagiarism, weary sighs could be heard along the length of the Danube.

Schavan was merely the latest in a seemingly endless string of politicians from Central and Eastern Europe to have been accused in recent years of obtaining their doctorates on the strength of plagiarised theses.

Schavan resigned in February, four days after Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf revoked her 1980 doctorate, awarded for a dissertation titled “Person and Conscience: Studies on the Conditions, Need and Requirements of Today’s Consciences”.

Bruno Bleckmann, dean of Düsseldorf’s Faculty of Arts and chair of the investigating committee, said that Schavan had “systematically and deliberately claimed as her own intellectual achievements which she had in fact not produced herself”.

Schavan’s defenders have suggested that her apparently rather lax approach to citation was common practice at the time and have accused Düsseldorf of overreacting. But Bleckmann said it had been made clear to students even in the 1980s that “unmarked literal takeovers of foreign texts” would be regarded as plagiarism and be subject to disciplinary action.

Schavan, for her part, continues to insist that she had no intent to deceive and has begun legal action against the university. It was the requirement to avoid a conflict of interest while doing so that ostensibly prompted her resignation from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research - a resignation that Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself the holder of a PhD in quantum chemistry, accepted “with a heavy heart”.

Düsseldorf had launched its investigation at Schavan’s request after the plagiarism allegations against her were posted on a website called Schavanplag in May 2012.

Such sites have proliferated in Germany in recent years since the high- profile resignation of defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in March 2011.

The aristocratic zu Guttenberg, once tipped as a future chancellor, had been accused of plagiarism the previous month on a website called GuttenPlag Wiki. He initially dismissed the allegations as “abstruse” but an investigation by the University of Bayreuth, which awarded the degree in 2006 on the basis of a thesis on the development of the US and European Union constitutions, upheld them. Bayreuth revoked the doctorate.

The minister admitted he had made “serious errors” but claimed he had not deliberately cheated and blamed his busy schedule for the mistakes. His initial refusal to resign was supported by Merkel, but her remark that she had “hired a politician, not a scientific assistant” provoked a petition condemning her “mockery” of academic values, which was signed by tens of thousands of doctoral candidates and PhD holders.

After nearly two weeks of being ridiculed as “Baron zu Googleberg”, the “minister for cut-and-paste”, he stepped down.

Soon after zu Guttenberg’s downfall, another website, VroniPlag, began levelling plagiarism allegations against other high-profile German politicians. Prominent among the seven whose doctorates have so far been rescinded is former rising star Silvana Koch-Mehrin. She resigned as vice- president of the European Parliament and a board member of the Free Democratic Party - the junior members of Merkel’s ruling coalition - in May 2011 amid allegations that she had plagiarised her 2001 thesis, “Historical Monetary Union between Industry and Politics: the Latin Monetary Union, 1865-19”.

The University of Heidelberg announced in June 2011 that it would revoke her PhD after its own inquiry found more than 120 plagiarised passages from more than 30 sources in her thesis - two-thirds of which were not mentioned in its bibliography.

According to Debora Weber-Wulff, professor of media and computing at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, Koch-Mehrin is among several politicians found guilty of plagiarism who have failed in subsequent attempts to sue their alma maters: precedents, she says, that do not bode well for Schavan.

But those taking legal action “get to keep their doctor title until the last court of appeal’s verdict is final”, she notes. “That seems to be why they are doing it.”

Weber-Wulff is one of around a dozen volunteers who work regularly for VroniPlag. Although she has been warning about student plagiarism in Germany for a decade, she has been “shocked to the core” by recent events.

“How could the advisers accept theses like these?” she asks. “There are even many cases in which the [works of] advisers themselves were plagiarised and they did not even notice.”

She believes that a culture of “cutting corners” has become the norm in German research and “seems to have fostered an environment in which major ethical problems have emerged with very few people willing to say or do something about them. It has shaken my belief in the basic honesty that used to be so firmly connected to German research.”

Weber-Wulff argues that VroniPlag is not politically motivated: 16 academics are among the 45 people whose work it has scrutinised (12 politicians have received the treatment).

So why have so many German politicians been caught out? One reason might be the sheer number with doctorates: common estimates put the figure at around a fifth of the country’s total.

According to François Paquet-Durand, junior group leader at the University of Tübingen’s Centre for Ophthalmology, this is because in Germany and in neighbouring countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, holding a doctorate has conferred huge prestige and respectability since the late 19th century. Its use as a form of address is still widespread.

Despite the number of cases, he is reassured by the fact that those caught cheating typically lose their jobs owing to “overwhelming public pressure” - which he attributes to Germans’ ongoing attachment to the strict moral principles of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

However, it transpires that this is not always the case elsewhere on the banks of the Danube. According to Peter Somogyi, professor of neurobiology at the University of Oxford, the zu Guttenberg case had an impact in Hungary: it taught the country’s politicians - many of whom have doctorates - that they could use plagiarism accusations as a means to attack their opponents.

Early last year, the Hungarian weekly economics magazine Heti Világgazdaság (World Economy Weekly, known as HVG), which is associated with the country’s socialist opposition, printed allegations that Pál Schmitt, at that time Hungary’s president, had committed extensive plagiarism in his 1992 thesis, “An Analysis of the Programme of the Modern Olympics”.

Budapest’s Semmelweis University confirmed the allegations in March 2012 and sent its report to Miklós Réthelyi, minister of national resources and former rector of the institution, who had theoretical jurisdiction in the case. However, Réthelyi denied that jurisdiction and returned the report unopened.

According to a Semmelweis statement, the university’s senate then “considered it its duty to definitively settle” the question of whether to withdraw Schmitt’s doctorate, and voted overwhelmingly to do so.

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