Academic Plagarism Brings Down German Defense Minister
Dónal O’Sullivan is assistant professor of history at California State University Northridge.
Faced with mounting protests from legal scholars and the public about alleged plagiarized passages in his doctoral dissertation, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has resigned. The University of Bayreuth, where Guttenberg had graduated with top honors (summa cum laude) in 2007, had earlier stripped him of his title as more and more details about copied pages had come to light. 39-year-old Guttenberg, seen as a rising star in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet, had attempted to ride out the storm by giving up his Ph.D., claiming that professional and private obligations had caused him to be “too casual with the sources.” He defended himself by saying that he had written the dissertation over a period of seven years while working as a deputy and being a father of two daughters.
In his legal dissertation, Guttenberg had compared constitutional procedures in the United States and Germany. But apparently, he utilized a range of previously published material without attribution, earning the nickname of “copy-and-paste-minister.” Several authors whose work he used responded angrily, some even threatening lawsuits. His own supervisor, after initially downplaying the accusations, eventually issued a statement in which he expressed dismay at Guttenberg’s lax citation practices.
The straight-talking aristocrat had taken German politics by storm in recent years, appearing on entertainment shows and traveling to Afghanistan dressed in fatigues, a first for a civilian German defense minister. When the accusations started to surface, hundreds of net activists began to search for lifted passages and found literally hundreds of examples where Guttenberg had utilized dubious citation methods. For example, on page thirty-eight of his dissertation, Guttenberg wrote about the tension between the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, lifting the entire passage from the U.S. Embassy website, changing only a single word without attributing the source. Other prominent victims included the former president of Stanford University, Gerhard Casper. Apparently, Guttenberg liked Casper’s speech at the fiftieth anniversary of the German Constitutional Court in 2001 so much that he copied entire sentences into his own work, again without specifying his source.
As scholars, journalists, and even students suddenly discovered their work in Guttenberg’s dissertation, most responded with astonishment and anger. In 2003, Swiss author Klara Obermüller wrote a lengthy piece on the European Constitution. Finding several paragraphs of her own article without attribution in the defense minister’s book was a nasty surprise for her. She called it “pathetic” and added she did not believe in an accident: “It’s not difficult to use quotation marks.” The former Ambassador of the EU Commission in Washington, Günter Burghardt, responded more diplomatically. When informed that Guttenberg had apparently copied parts of a speech on European constitutional developments Burghardt had given in 2002, he replied that this was a matter between the student and his professor. But the former diplomat’s calm response remained the exception.
German academics were especially incensed that Guttenberg had used unpublished papers of the Scientific Service of the German Parliament he himself had ordered in his capacity as deputy. Some even speculated that Guttenberg had used a ghostwriter for his entire 475-page dissertation.
At first, Guttenberg and his supporters had tried to weather the storm, counting on his immense popularity and the support of the leading German tabloid, the Bild newspaper. A Facebook page asking for an end to the “witch-hunt” quickly had hundreds of thousands of “friends.” But as more and more examples of his sloppy work came to light, Guttenberg announced he would not insist on his doctoral title, pre-empting the decision of his university. However, this did not stop the flood of protests, particularly from the academic establishment and the middle-class constituents of the ruling Christian Democratic party, many of whom spent years of thankless toil on dissertations. Guttenberg’s seeming nonchalance with academic standards contributed to his downfall. As defense minister, he also was in charge of two military universities, where faculty and students worried about the impact of the affair on the reputation of their work.
The Internet facilitated the minister’s disgrace as activists used sophisticated search tools to uncover the missing sources. A special wiki website titled “GuttenPlag” (http://de.guttenplag.wikia.com/wiki/Plagiate) invited anyone to help, eventually identifying plagiarized passages in over 75 percent of Guttenberg’s dissertation. More than thirty thousand academics signed an open letter urging Chancellor Merkel to fire Guttenberg. The final straw apparently came on Monday when his own supervisor, 76-year-old Professor Peter Häberle, announced he was deeply dismayed by his former student’s work. Revising his earlier statements, the academic now distanced himself from Guttenberg. According to Häberle, the “deficiencies” of the dissertation were “profound” and “unacceptable,” and were deeply damaging to the reputation of the University of Bayreuth. Häberle’s successor, Professor Oliver Lepsius, put it more bluntly: “A con artist fooled us. Nobody could have imagined the audacity of this kind of plagiarism.”
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Arnold Shcherban - 3/11/2011
In our country even war criminals in White House have been traditionally honored.
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