Political plagiarism

Two German politicians resigned from office – in 2011 and 2013 – when their doctorates were revoked because of plagiarism.

User:Christoph Braun, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The happy chap pictured here is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. In 2002 he was elected to the Bundestag, the federal parliament in Germany. In 2007, while still a minister, he completed his doctorate in law via the University of Bayreuth. In 2011, a law journal reviewed Guttenberg’s thesis and discovered some inconsistencies in his writing. Specifically, the reviewer found evidence that passages in the thesis had been copied from other sources… without citing those sources.

Plagiarism – using the work of others without giving them credit and a citation – is a big deal in research and academia. People’s careers live and die on the basis of their unique contribution to the formation of knowledge. Cheating that, taking the contribution of others and claiming it as your own, is a profound breach of the academy’s moral code.

The law journal reviewer alerted a newspaper, who contacted the university, and it all got worse for Guttenberg from there. By 2011 he was the country’s Minister of Defence, so any appearance of wrongdoing was serious business. He offered his resignation within a week of the initial discovery. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, turned it down.

As more evidence of plagiarism came to light (including some from the German parliament’s own research service) he asked the university to revoke his doctorate. Guttenberg claimed that the plagiarism was unintentional, a consequence of intense pressure and a lapse of proper attention. That same day, one of Guttenberg’s fellow ministers – the Minister of Education and Research – added some extra pressure:

Intellectual theft is not a small thing. The protection of intellectual property is a higher good.

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The university officially revoked his doctorate, and amidst mounting political pressure Merkel accepted Gutenberg’s resignation. All this happened in less than a month.

One of the key players in this scandal was an online crowd-sourced wiki called GuttenPlag, which examined the thesis in acute detail. After Guttenberg resigned, another wiki called VroniPlag began examining the theses of other prominent Germans. Two years after the first resignation, VroniPlag found another plagiarised thesis. This one had maximum irony.

The thesis in question was about “character and conscience.” And its author… none other than Annette Schavan, the Minister of Education and Research. The same one that had criticized Guttenberg so harshly two years before. Like him, Schavan’s doctorate was revoked by the university and she resigned.

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