Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plagiarism IV - Mr. Guttenberg

As you may know, German Defense Minister Guttenberg asked his university to take back his doctorate because his dissertation is demonstrably a farce. The Wiki devoted to collecting evidence of plagiarism has come up with the wonderful chart you see to the side. The blue bits are the table of contents at the beginning and the bibliography at the end. The white bits are the parts where no plagiarism was found. Everything that is black or red is plagiarized.

Dishearteningly, his admission of "grave mistakes" has not caused popular German sentiment to turn against him. According to polls recently taken, an overwhelming number of Germans across all party lines overwhelmingly think he is doing a good job as a minister.

Personally, he has not given me much reason to complain either. The only question is whether the unbelievable, probably unprecedented level of plagiarism he committed is an indication of a general inability to accept facts and play by the rules – which is why I find this article (in German) the most interesting of any I have read on the matter. The author basically points out a number of times when Guttenberg was caught lying (mostly related to his CV) and, more importantly, the recent cases where people from his Defense Ministry outright called him a liar.

The willingness of the German public to view this matter as trivial – or at least not pertinent to his work as a top politician – surprises me. Some have argued that, since the majority of Germans do not have a college degree (until recently, there was no Bachelor's, so you had to study at least six years to get your first degree at the Master's level), Joe the Plumber might have a hard time appreciating what plagiarism in a dissertation means. But I don't buy that explanation. If Joe the Plumber turned out to have gotten certification to set up a plumbing business not because he passed the exam like everyone else, but because his nephew was the person rubber-stamping the certificates and his great uncle the one administering the exam, I think everyone would agree that we do not want such practices.

For the moment, Guttenberg seems to be weathering the storm well. Who knows how long that will go on?


  1. I'm worried that Guttenberg might become the focus of a new populist, anti-intellectual movement in Germany, the way Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are doing in the United States.

    This has always been one part of the strategy of the CSU, but with Guttenberg it might become really prominent.

    And of course, BILD continues to defend him, which is all that matters for the populist vote... :(

  2. Well, many people in the US also felt that President Clinton's job and the work he was doing should not have been impacted by "I did not have sexual relations with that woman", or other indications of inability to maintain a contract or tell the truth.
    Apparently, in GErmany, plagiarism falls in the same category.
    What I can't understand is how the University doesn't feed dissertations through a filter to catch these: cow colleges in the US subscribe to a service for exactly this reason and even in the US, plagiarism, although perhaps found more quickly, isn't take n as seriously as one might hope (cf the Janet Dailey and Cassie Edwards cases).

  3. The comparison to Clinton is certainly interesting. Back then, I felt that Clinton simply should have refused to answer questions about private matters (like European politicians do see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uQLtsaOhEE).

    The question of whether he should have stepped down after his lie was revealed is a different one. In general, politicians lose face when such infidelities are exposed, but the difference with Clinton was that he was being hounded in official investigations, whereas other politicians – think of the Appalachian hike http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Sanford_disappearance_and_extramarital_affair – were not being hounded by their political opposition to reveal such scandals.

    I don't believe I have called for Guttenberg to step down yet. But I am disappointed that so few people believe he has turned out to be an imposter.