Friday, February 18, 2011

Plagiarism II - how will Germany react?

Margaret Marks did me the favor of commenting on the case of plagiarism that Germany's Defense Minister currently faces. I was hoping in particular that she, as a legal expert, might have an opinion on whether his dissertation is as flimsy in general as his critics now charge (aside from the plagiarism accusations), but as she points out, 475 pages probably even wore down the people who had to read it.

She does bring up some interesting other facets, including general ghostwriting, which leads her to state, "I can't help wondering if this thesis was ghostwritten and Guttenberg can't accuse the person responsible." Yes, he may have given his word of honor (my bet is on Mitterrand in Kohl's bribery case). Having said that, there are certainly other members of parliament who managed to churn out a new book every four or five years – think of the late Hermann Scheer. I know from the man himself and from people who worked with him on a daily basis that he spent the evenings writing these books.

Nonetheless, I think Margaret – and the article she refers to – may be right, and I don't think the excuse exonerates Guttenberg in the least (Margaret does not say it should, either). The list of plagiarized passages apparently continued to grow over the course of the day according to this article in Die Zeit, and this website has been set up for anyone who wishes to help find copied passages in his dissertation. The search is crowd-sourcing now, and the swarm has found one spot of possible plagiarism every five pages on the average across the 475-page dissertation. I would not want to be in Karl-Theodor's shoes at the moment.

Margaret wonders "why he got the best possible mark without his apparent borrowings being spotted," and the terrible answer is all too obvious – in all likelihood, no one looked.  To paraphrase Finance Minister Sch√§uuble: the accusations of plagiarism are unjust to the character of the dissertation, everyone makes mistakes, and I read the dissertation myself. See, if you read it yourself and you like the guy, you don't need to check whether he plagiarized.

Guttenberg was already a prominent politician when he got his doctorate, and although Germany officially has no nobility, people's fascination with blue blood may even be greater in countries like Germany and the US, which are free to fantasize about aristocracy without any embarrassing flesh-and-blood royalty around to mar that fantasy.

And hey, when Guttenberg became Economics Minister in 2009, we all wanted to have our own Obama over here in Germany. Guttenberg fit the bill – suave, attractive, well spoken, and surprisingly young for all his achievements. I wonder if I would've checked for plagiarism if I had been a reviewer of his dissertation, or if he would've just blown me away. But that would only excuse the reviewers, not the submitter.

Whatever the case, unless Guttenberg has a really good excuse – a damn good excuse – here's the deal: if you are a budding politician with a pedigree but still lack a PhD in law as a shingle on the wall (as my dad would put it), don't worry – the professors would not insult you by questioning authorship. Just make sure the dissertation you throw at them is far, far too big for them to actually read. And remember to dress up nice for the orals (as my mom would say).

But if you are a working-class kid with a head on your shoulders, and you want to get into college-track prep school in Germany (Gymnasium), be on your toes in elementary school, because you will be required to be better than the offspring of the privileged.

Just for the record, I really liked Guttenberg myself until yesterday despite all of the recent mess-ups in his ministry, but this little mess is clearly on his shoulders and cannot be delegated. The most likely explanation for Guttenberg's predicament provides further reason to doubt the fairness of our society. The way Germany handles this matter could change the way I feel about this country. Judging from reader comments on news websites, the good news is I'm not alone with that sentiment.
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  1. I see someone tried to start criminal proceedings for false swearing, but Bayreuth doesn't require the candidate to swear. I think at most universities the candidate has to swear the thesis was all his own work - precisely this ghostwriting charge.

  2. According to the GuttenPlag Wiki, plagiarism has now been discovered on 176 pages, or 44.8% of all pages.

    My opinion: Nobody can be that stupid when writing their own thesis, so the Ghostwriter hypothesis certainly is compelling - after all, why should such a person care when this is discovered a couple of years after the fact?

    Though I should point that PhD theses in Law (as well as in the Social Sciences) generally are that long - as the research they do can't be compressed into a few neat equations and graphs, they generally tend to be very, very wordy...

    In my opinion (and as someone with a PhD himself), there is no way the University of Bayreuth can let him keep his PhD without becoming the laughingstock of the entire scientific community - so they will probably disown him. If they don't, this will have major repercussions for Bavaria at least...