Feb 062013

After many months of public and internal debates and allegations of plagiarism, the council of the Faculty of Philosophy (here’s a nice name!) at the University of Düsseldorf has voted to strip Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate, a mere three decades after it had been awarded in the first place. Obviously, they acted under enormous political pressure from many sides, and I’m very happy to sit on a different faculty board at a different university.

The proceedings were particularly difficult because a lengthy internal memo by the chair of the PhD board that condemned the thesis had been leaked to the press. Moreover, the faculty was criticised for relying too much on the opinion of said chair, who – unlike Schavan – is not an educationist, and for not bringing in external experts. Today, a prominent member of Schavan’s party deemed the university’s ruling “preliminary” (because Schavan can and will take the university to court) and “inappropriate” (because scientists are apparently not competent to make judgements on plagiarism). Such statements show how much respect politicians hold for science <irony off>.

The university, on the other hand, kept its cool and put a legal opinion  (in German) on its website, which states that they have done more or less the right thing.  It’s a long read, but very instructive for academics who might find themselves in a similar pickle as those poor souls at Düsseldorf.

While the memo itself is not (officially) public, the website which brought the matter to the attention of the public is still online. From what I have seen, I get the impression that the author did indeed intend to plagiarise in more than a few instances. Schavan’s lawyers will challenge this opinion, but it will be more than a few months before a court rules on the matter, so the more immediate question is: Can she cling on to her job?

While the chancellor “trusts” Schavan, and while she still has the support of many in her party, the FDP has started making funny noises, and the opposition is calling on Schavan to step down. The minister will soon return from a trip to South Africa and is booked for a chat with Merkel on Friday. The smart money is on a resignation on Monday: It’s difficult to conceive of a federal  Education minister whose Alma Mater deems her a fraud. Given the ever more prominent role in the funding of universities that the federation has played in recent years, this will not work.

The wider question is of course why so many German politicians pursue doctorates, sometimes with dubious means. If/when she resigns, Shavan will be the second cabinet minister Merkel loses over a plagiarised PhD (the first being former defence minister zu Guttenberg). Other casualties include Silvana Koch-Mehrin and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (both FDP and members of the EP), and various politicians working at the Länder-level.

The simple answer to that question is that a PhD – any PhD –  furthers their career. In some branches of the public administration (as well as in some research-driven companies), a doctorate  is a pre-requisite for managerial positions –  sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. More generally,  Germans see academic titles as a (poor) substitute for the aristocratic titles that we abolished in 1919. Many believe (erroneously) that the doctorate becomes part of a person’s name. Heck, they probably think it becomes hereditary. And so we are stuck with a considerable number of mediocre students who have neither talent nor temperament for serious research but long for academic ennoblement. We should therefore be much more selective in admitting PhD students.

Feb 182011

The story has now been picked up by just about every news outlet on the planet: A German law professor was supposed to review a monograph on European constitutional law for a learned journal. He soon discovered that various pages were not properly referenced, to says the least. The twist: This monograph is based on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s PhD thesis. And that man happens to be the German defence minister. The review has not yet been published, but the proofs have been leaked. From what you can read there, you would think that the minister cannot have been in his right mind.

While this is a scientific debate, the internet has of course exploded. I’m not sure how far we can trust the wisdom of the crowd, but it would seem that even the introduction bears an uncanny resemblance with some old editorials and even an essay by an anonymous student, all readily available online. That looks very bad.

But do normal people care? How can you explain that copying text verbatim is very bad while copying text verbatim and adding a name, a year and a page is absolutely ok? How can you explain that rephrasing someone else’s ideas and adding a name, year and page is even better?

Another, not totally unrelated question: If the rules of academia are so opaque to normal people, why is so much social status attached to a doctorate? Why should people who have no ambition to do research (inside or outside academia) strive for a higher degree?

At any rate, zu Guttenberg has done a lot of harm to German science: too many of us have already wasted too much of our time, er, researching the affair on facebook and twitter instead of producing stuff that could at least potentially be plagiarised.