Feb 092013
In case you hadn’t noticed, we are truly living in a world of 24/7 news, although days are a bit shorter over here in Germany, and we tend to shut the country down for the weekend (the unions, you know). Nonetheless, the Chancellor (just returned from Brussels) and the minister (just returned from South Africa) appeared in front of the press on this very Saturday afternoon to announce that the minister is resigning over allegations of plagiarism in her PhD thesis. The chancellor even presented a successor, Johanna Wanka (anglophones, no snickering please), who will take over next week.

Schavan is already the second minister that Merkel lost over scientific conduct, the first being former Defence Minister zu Guttenberg. But the differences with the zu Guttenberg case are instructive. Zu Guttenberg had risen to prominence within a very short time. He was ambitious, allegedly charismatic and very good at promoting himself.

More to the point, he needed a special permit to be accepted as a PhD student because of his low GPA, and his “thesis” was nothing but a collage of material that was in parts presumably taken straight off the internet. Unquoted sources included newspaper articles and legal opinions compiled by the Bundestag’s scientific services at zu Guttenberg’s request. GuttenbergPlag, a collaborative website dedicated to the former minister’s thesis, documented instances of plagiarism on more than 90% of its pages. He was even prosecuted (though not formally charged and sentenced, because he agreed to pay a hefty fine) for copyright infringement. Did I mention that zu Guttenberg’s family donated large sums of money to his alma mater?

Schavan’s thesis, on the other hand, seems to lack synthesis and originality, but from what you can see on schavanplag, her offences are clearly less outrageous than zu Guttenberg’s. Combine that with the fact that she did her political job quietly and mostly competently for many years, and with the fact that she wrote this thesis back in the 1970s, and you see why even many in the opposition feel sorry for her.

And yet there was no doubt that she had to go for reasons of representation and (lack of) trust: You don’t necessarily need a scientist as minister for science and education, but you cannot have person in that job who has been stripped of her academic merits by the system, even if that ruling might be out of proportion and could still be overturned by a court. Her intention to sue Düsseldorf U left German academia divided against itself during this week.  Schavan  said something to that effect  in her brief resignation statement, and I must applaud her for that.

More specifically,  it would have been more than awkward had the minister been forced to explain to university grandees that she had to withdraw  federal funds from this or that institution because it does not meet the highest scientific standards. Stepping down at the earliest occasion is a rare display of political judgement.

Much has been written about the political fallout for Merkel, who faces a difficult General Election (are there any others?) in seven months time, but I don’t think this whole affair will have much of an impact. Schavan may be a close friend and personal ally of the Chancellor, but the matter was quickly resolved. More depressingly, science and education are niche interests in Germany, and Schavan’s name recognition outside academia was low before the affair broke. Much the same will be true for her successor (again, please don’t snicker).


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.

Guttenberg-Gate: When Politics and Science Collide 1