Setting a bad example to students?
German education minister (Dr.) Annette Schavan
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.
Former Hungarian President (Dr.) Pál Schmitt
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.