Dr. a.D. (or why a German minister of defense might help in the battle against plagiarism)

A few days ago, the story broke that Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, the German Minister of Defense, appears to have plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis (on the comparative constitutional development of the USA and the EU) at the University of Bayreuth . First identified by a reviewer, since a collective wiki has been trying to find different places where the minister copied from newspaper articles and academic sources.
After first denying any wrongdoing, Guttenberg, the dashing and über-media savy minister announced that he would not use his “Dr.” title. It remains unclear whether or not he will have to resign over this affair. While it arguably has little to do with his work as minister of defense (he is also under pressure for a number of incidents in the German army), it might turn out to that he will be untenable. In particular, he is investigated both for breach of copyright and for perjury. Even if the University of Bayreuth decides not to withdraw the title from Gutenberg, the damage to the reputation is done. Had he placed the copied passages in quotation marks, he most likely would have still gotten the title and at worst somebody might have considered a few quotations a bit awkward.
Whatever the outcome, his case helps academic integrity in continental Europe. Unlike in the US and to a lesser degree in the UK, plagiarism is still seen as an acceptable “cheat” (in German the term “Kavaliersdelikt” comes to mind). In the worst case, the student gets a fail and has to re-write the exam or paper and in many cases might not even get caught.
The Gutenberg case shows that even years after graduating (in G. case only some 4 years), you can be caught, even in a non-academic job. It might not increase care with papers during the studies, but raises the bar for thesis, be they for an M.A. or Ph.D. The lesson to be learnt from the case would be for universities to require all M.A. thesis and Ph.D. to be available electronically. This might not only make some otherwise forgotten good research accessible, it will also allow for a more easy identification of plagiarism than if the texts gather dust in library somewhere hidden away.

P.S. a.D. in German stands for ‘ausser Dienst’ or out of service, used for former ministers etc.

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One Response to Dr. a.D. (or why a German minister of defense might help in the battle against plagiarism)

  1. Florian Bieber says:

    An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that the wiki community checking Guttenberg’s PhD found that most of it is in fact cut and pasted together.

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