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MAY 7, 2012 7:01AM

Plagiarism scandal swallows yet another politician

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 Annette Schavan

Setting a bad example to students?
German education minister (Dr.) Annette Schavan
(Source: Wiki)


THE WAGES OF SIN is death, the Good Book tells us, and the wages of plagiarism is now increasingly disgrace and political suicide. Ever since the scandal over former German defense minister and chancellor-in-waiting Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's dodgy dissertation hit the press back in early 2011 (I wrote about it HERE and in nearly a dozen other blog postings), the Schadenfreude hasn't let up for a moment. European parliament deputy Silvana Koch-Merin, political adviser Margarita Mathioupolos, Berlin CDU whip Florian Graf... Legion are the titled politicians and other public figures whose doctored doctorates and phoney footnotes have brought them tumbling down to the workaday level where the rest of us mere mortals struggle to pay the rent.

The latest to go is Annette Schavan, Germany's conservative minister of education. Schavan is not only one of the country's most prominent female politicians, she is also a close confidante of Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the website schavanplag.wordpress.com, Schavan's 1980 dissertation "Person and Conscience: Studies on the Preconditions, Necessity and Demands of Modern Conscience Formation" contains false or at least inadequate footnotes on fifty-six out of its 325 pages. You can see the plagiarism hunters' full documentation HERE.

This isn't just an anonymous accusation. The opposition are demanding that Schavan (who is, after all, in charge of the nation's educational system) come clean. She herself keeping silent as her party allies rally around her - always a bad sign. Now, a researcher identifying himself only as "KayH" has given an interview to the influential Spiegel Online. While Schavan didn't exactly copy from other texts, KayH says, 

(s)he made things too easy for herself by not labelling other people's formulations as such. Moreover, in numerous cases she apparently did not read the original text, or didn't cite it, but instead drew upon the secondary literature without making this clear. This is sloppy, although - even if this can't be our standard - it isn't as blatant as with Guttenberg...

If checking for plagiarism is easy today with digitalized texts (as a history professor, I would regularly run selected passages from my students' term papers through a simple search engine), Schavan's analogue dissertation from the offline 1980s presented the Schavanplag team with special challenges: They actually had to digitalize not only the entire thesis but also the literature Schavan cited in order to carry out their study.

If the plagiarism scandal has been attracting less attention in recent months, that is because the hunters are now focusing on academic plagiarism instead. The website Vroniplag, where KayH spends most of his time, has been taking down one tenured professor after another - and it's not a pretty sight. 

So what's the big deal, you might be wondering? Who really cares if a grad student skimped on a couple of citations thirty-two years ago? (Not to mention the obvious question: Who else besides KayH has ever given a damn about Annette Schavan's insights on "Person and Conscience" since 1980?)

The answer has to do with Germany's troubled social history. For centuries now, struggling middle class upstarts have been striving for equality with the titled aristocracy and the booming bourgeoisie through the acquisition of academic initials and the accompanying privileges. Harvesting where one has not sown - particularly in the case of a fabulously wealthy aristocrat like Baron Guttenberg - is the academic equivalent of stealing from the collection plate. Anyone caught doing it can expect to face the collective fury of all those hapless students who played by the rules and ended up with little more than a bunch of useless certificates and a stack of student debts, along with impeccably documented but certifiably unreadable dissertations that nobody will ever look at in ten million years. And that's what we're witnessing in the Schavan case. The Vroniplag and Schavanplag attacks quite literally represent the revenge of the nerds against the cool kids who made it in respectable society.

Pal Schmitt

Former Hungarian President (Dr.) Pál Schmitt

(Source: Wiki) 

Plagiarism is in no way limited to Germany, of course. Just last month, Hungarian president Pál Schmitt was forced out of office after the University of Budapest stripped him of his doctorate. He seems to have copied nearly every line of his diss from other authors. The same goes for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who also liberally copied his thesis from books he found at the library - perhaps the only "liberal" thing about the man (in his case, though, the issue didn't figure very prominently in his recent election campaign).  And it isn't only "reactionaries" who are guilty of pilfering. Even such a seemingly inspired figure as  Martin Luther King lifted material from other authors in grand style. Of course, Shakespeare and the authors of the Bible did too, but that was before the rise of copyright law.

Plagiarism can be a very serious business indeed. In 2003, the British government selectively plagiarized its notorious "dodgy dossier" (a briefing document with the official title Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation) from other sources in order to suggest that the emasculated Iraqi regime of Sadam Hussein represented a military threat - not only to its neighbors, but also to the world at large. The subsequent Iraq War it was used to justify has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

For the record, if you run my dissertation through a plagiarism checker, I'm confident you won't find a thing. 

As for Annette Schavan, she still has her job for the moment, but her reputation is in the shredder. It may well be too late for her and for PhDs of the predigital generation, but for the rest of you young'uns out there, engaged as you are in the hunt for academic honors, let me repeat my advice:

Use footnotes. Use good footnotes. Footnotes are your friends. Footnotes save reputations, careers, and even lives.





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In another story, the Pirate Party won 8.2% in the Schleswig-Holstein state election yesterday. This matches the result of the coalition Free Democrats and brings the Pirates into the state parliament for the first time. Despite their recent problems (cf. my blog), they are likely to win in the upcoming election in North Rhine-Westphalia and eventually sweep into the Bundestag. Truly "the revenge of the nerds"!
You Germans and your freaking footnotes! LOL
Oswald Spengler didn't get a Ph.D. for a lack of enough footnotes, and yet, like Lenin, and unlike Norman Angell, he predicted WWI was coming down the pike. Everyone has his obsessions, Jerry the Shepherd being orders and details and thoroughness of the job. Jerry the Shepherd, plus ca change c'etet la meme chose.
Plagiarism is SOP for politicos, and for academics who play the political game... BTW almost all research data is washed before it's published... I know this from first hand experience as an undergrad lab assistant for microbiology grad students at the University of Texas... broke my heart and destroyed my misplaced faith in science.
Theft is never to be condoned, but theft is even worse when it is used to circumvent the law. Take the the mitigation "plans" thrown-up by Big Oil to satisfy government regulators. Not only did they copy each other, they copied from themselves. Thus their "plans" for dealing with an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico laid out ways to save walruses, but they had no way to deal with the spill itself.

What's the connection? Both kinds of "plagiarism" are a consequence of sloth; and as I recall, Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Let's hope the slothful are sent packing, but if they are, I'm betting they'll enjoy a soft landing.
Anybody checking Merkel's work....? She probably copied it point by point from Milton Friedman, like everything else about her "ideas."

Question: Students whose dissertations pass committee, the committee either didn't read it either, or chose not to make the "student" edit their work. My profs would have nailed me on uncited material.
Oops, indeed! R
Silly Biden and devious Guttenberg are strange cases. Why didn't such accomplished politicians simply hire competent ghostwriters? I suspect the answer lies in their desire to believe they were the great statesmen and scholars they very definitely were not. Truly pathetic.
@Tom Cordle
Yes, the Seven Deadly Sins are as alive as ever nowadays!

I'm not sure the Vroniplag people have checked out Merkel's dissertation yet - or maybe they're saving it for election season? Virtually her entire cabinet consists of PhDs. More of them may be biting the dust.

Yes, you'd think so, wouldn't you? In Guttenberg's case (I mean, the guy actually copied his introduction straight off a news article by a well-known professor, who later sued him), his quick passage through the dissertation committee - with a "summa cum laude," mind you! - may have had something to do with the fact that he had recently donated a quarter of a million dollars to the university from his own foundation. Perhaps that greased the wheels a bit?
I'm with you on the schadenfreude Alan. I know academics who stew, slave, revise and agitate about how to compose their papers and it cuts against every grain to see the cheaters prosper. I still get a chuckle out of the nickname given to the first big name found out - Googleberg.

Aren't you being a little hard on Shakespeare? He used storylines from Plutarch and others but the language, dialogue and characterizations were all his own, no?
I'm with you on the great Shakespeare, who regularly lifted banal storylines (like Romeo and Juliet - not much there at first glance) and transformed them into some of the most moving poetry ever penned. But the great Googleberg? Not so much.
Just another reason for a big sigh. Humanity is flawed: always was, always will be. The key is how we react to the flaws and how willing we are to accept them or not. Seems plagiarism has been pretty much accepted. We need regulations and accountability here as well as in most human endeavors.
OMg I thought this kind of thing was over but I guess not.
[r] Alan, I appreciate your balanced sensibility on all of this. Footnotes are your friends message made me smile. Yeah, there is technical accountability mainly because of the "cover ups" as we have learned, especially from Watergate era!

Are the people cleaning up the ethics infractions ethically-balanced themselves I always want to ask. Though I believe anti-ethics behavior does deserve to be called out. Cronyism and circling the wagons pile on is not good since it fights accountability. Look what it did for the financial crisis and the continuing economic terrorism continuing thanks to Obama regime.

I remember my sophomore year in college writing an essay on Beowulf. I got quite excited by a pattern of imagery I noticed in the work and turned in my paper. When papers were passed back to the class I had no grade on top, but big bold red square letters saying SEE ME. When I approached the professor, short, older, with steel gray short hair to match her personality, she demanded to know whose ideas I had taken. "Those are my ideas" I defended, dumbfounded. She began to interrogate me. She thrust the paper back to me and said unpleasantly, "Well, you need to get these ideas published!" as if she resented the fact that I had apparently written something impressive enough for her to challenge. Then she dismissed me. I tried to publish the paper somewhere (and enjoyed the excitement of having the imagery perspective validated by her) but it didn't get published. The professor would not mentor me further but did have a grudging respect for me. Could have used more support and guidance but there you go. Upperclassmen who worshipped her treated me respectfully for at least a new york minute. I enjoyed critical thinking in most of my college English classes and had some more demonstrably appreciative teachers, too.

I remember doing research on the Indians for an American history class and became so obsessed with the outrages on the American Indians I defied that teacher's warnings to narrow my focus. I could not. Seeds of libbyliberal muckraker. After spending 100X more time and emotional energy on the semester project I got a C on it much to my horror with the chastisement too emotional and too over-reaching. Well, I was not sorry for the consciousness raising! But it was a lesson for me.

I bet you are a really good teacher!

best, libby
the importance of footnotes in the age of "truthiness"?