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German Science Minister Faces Plagiarism Scandal 166

Posted by samzenpus
from the do-your-own-work dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Germany's minister for science and education, Annette Schavan, faces allegations that substantial parts of her PhD thesis have been copied without proper attribution. According to the Wordpress blog that brought up the accusations(German), 56 out of 325 pages of her thesis contain instances of plagiarism. Schavan is the same minister who called an earlier instance of plagiarism by the former German defense minister to be 'embarrassing.'"
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German Science Minister Faces Plagiarism Scandal

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  • And in other news (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:10AM (#39876323)

    Politics tends to attract lying hypocrites. Maybe at this stage its a self fulfilling prophecy, everyone thinks politicians are lying greedy people, so only lying greedy people apply for the job. Perhaps if we all started talking about how politicians are upright and honourable it might give them something to aim for.

    • by Certhas (2310124) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:25AM (#39876357)

      That's cynicism dressed as realism. The plagiarism in question seems mild and perfectly explainable by honest mistakes. Which was absolutely NOT the case for von Guttenberg, the case she called embarrassing.

      Not a fan of her policies, but it's ridiculous to hold politicians to absurdly high standards and react with cynicism when they fail them. That's not the way towards better politics and politicians.

      • It's plagiarism (Score:5, Informative)

        by fedt (1096053) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:38AM (#39876407)
        http://schavanplag.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/plagiatsdokumentation_schavan_020512.pdf [wordpress.com]

        Starting at page 7 is where it gets good...and definitely not explainable. It reminds me of the elementary school "We have zero tolerance for plagiarism. It's easy not to plagiarize! Change some verb forms, add a few prepositions, and reposition clauses!"
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          It seems to me that plenty of this is perfectly explainable by failed bookkeeping in the notes. I mean, this is a thesis from pre electronic times. Quite possibly this could come about by making handwritten notes while reviewing a text, and later misstaking text that was copied for your own summary of what was written. Which also explains the minor variations that appear. They are of the kind of stylistic alterations you would make when copying your own text, not when trying to change the style to avoid bei

        • by Peter H.S. (38077)

          >Starting at page 7 is where it gets good...and definitely not explainable.

          That isn't good example of plagiarism: She gives full sources for the content including specific page numbers in her foot note. Her (anonymous?) accuser can't find any fault in that, but claims that it is plagiarism anyway. Presumably because her accuser doesn't understand what paraphrasing is, or won't accept it as a useful academic tool.
          Her accuser claims that this text section /may/ be misinterpreted because of subtle wordings

      • by perpenso (1613749) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:59AM (#39876465)

        ... but it's ridiculous to hold politicians to absurdly high standards and react with cynicism when they fail them ...

        Politicians? Isn't this really the case of holding a PhD candidate to a really high standard?

      • by Sique (173459)

        Cynism is realism. Kynismos (greek: ) in the tradition of Aristhenes and Diogenes of Sinope is an attempt to avoid the daily lies and moralisms which distort reality to gain some artificial and superficial cohesion between people. Instead the cynics abolish personal property and rank and try to get back to a natural, real and frugal life style and at the same time try to lift the veil of conventionalism by being provocatively and brutally honest against everyone.

      • by JosKarith (757063) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @04:32AM (#39876603)
        This is what they do to themselves. Any sign of weakness by one is immediately pounced upon by the others, desperate to destroy an opponent or rival, little realising that they will receive as little mercy in return when their time comes. A compromised politician lashes around like a dying octopus trying to grab others for support who in turn desperately try to shrug them off to avoid being dragged down with them...

        It's actually quite beautiful in a Dawinian kind of way, though the creature that will be the end-product of this selection process will almost certainly be a true horror of conscienceless manipulation.
      • by khipu (2511498)

        Let's wait for a complete analysis; right now, we don't whether it's limited to a few isolated passages or more pervasive.

        I have to say though: plagiarized or not, the thesis looks awful. People get Ph.D.'s for that kind of cr*p?

      • by alexgieg (948359)

        it's ridiculous to hold politicians to absurdly high standards and react with cynicism when they fail them.

        How is "put quotes around copied text; add the author name and page within parenthesis after the text" an "absurdly high standard"?

        I don't understand people who don't understand what plagiarism is. It's so simple! Typing while reading? Quotes. Typing entirely from your own mind, with all 3rd party books, articles, reports etc. closed? No quotes. Gray area? Unsure? In doubt? Quotes, and perhaps a footnote. And done!

      • High standards?!

        Have integrity and honesty really become "high standards"? Sorry dude, but it should come with the job. To me it seems that all lying jerks that didn't go to law school become politicians these days...

    • Don't know.
      There are upright and honourable people in politics. There's black sheep, like everywhere, and maybe politics has more than its fair share of them.

      But seeing how the media turn and twist every word you utter, and publish them again completely out of context, I imagine it's difficult to be upright and straightforward.

      By the way, in Germany the Pirate Party is very big, at least in the news, these days. Most of them, even those that are in the spotlight, are political amateurs. As such, they dont a

      • by deimtee (762122)
        I think anyone voting for the pirate party is either cynical enough, or idealistic enough, not to be put off by non-PC remarks like that.
        It is only the posturing prats that would make a fuss.
    • Perhaps if we all started talking about how politicians are upright and honourable it might give them something to aim for.

      How important is it that we keep a straight-face while saying that?

    • It's impossible to write anything in the social sciences field without some level of plagiarism. Since it's near impossible to make hard arguments you need to cite other works.
      • by Sique (173459)

        There is a whole world between citing other sources and outright plagiarism. The first one attributes the intellectual effort to the people who actually made it, and the last one just claims other people's work as its own.

      • Citing is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is copying from other works and claiming them as your own. Whether you quote directly, or paraphrase, it is absolutely essential to clearly indicate at each point throughout a work when ideas are not your own. It's not that hard to do. Probably in this instance it was more sloppy work than anything else, which should attract criticism from the supervisors at the university as well as the author of the dissertation.
        • The thing is though, they'd have to put a citation tag after almost every single sentence if they did. Hence they start dropping some of them. Resulting in it being called plagiarism.
          • Yes, that is what you do, you put a citation tag after every sentence that is a citation. If that ends up being your entire dissertation (or >90%), then you need to go back to your supervisors and discuss the fact that you don't have much original to add. The only time you don't need an additional citation mark is when you are quoting sections of an already quoted work the course of an argument.
            • And I'm willing to bet that is the case here. But the fact is, it's common in the social "sciences" for such things to occur.
              Never had to read some of their papers? The quantity of citations made my eyes bleed.
      • by ultranova (717540)

        It's impossible to write anything in the social sciences field without some level of plagiarism. Since it's near impossible to make hard arguments you need to cite other works.

        Of course this also means that the whole field has very little connection to external reality, and should perhaps not be called science.

    • by Grayhand (2610049)
      What disturbs me is how politicized science has become. Science should be a discipline of absolutes. A revelation like this calls into question every decision she has made making her an ineffectual leader.
      • What disturbs me is how politicized science has become. Science should be a discipline of absolutes.

        Not science, but social "science". Which includes the study of politics ('nuff said) and shares its mistaken equivalence of victory in an inflamed debate [wikimedia.org] with factual accuracy. Social "science" is and always has been infested with absurd propositions, bad experiments, misinterpretation of results, paucity of data, appalling innumeracy, and unsupported dodgy inferences dressed as fact. Goal-oriented plagiarism to get a doctorate is just par for the course.

        Those of us actually in science don't regard socia

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      It isn't just politicians. One of my co-workers (now retired) had a poster on his office wall that read "if you copy one work, it's plagairism. If you coipy a whole lot of them, it's research".

    • by tehcyder (746570)
      I think the really interesting news is that at least two German politicians have PhDs.
  • Her Apology (Score:3, Funny)

    by snowgirl (978879) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:14AM (#39876331) Journal

    When asked for comment, she responded, "Der Vorwurf, meine Doktorarbeit sei ein Plagiat, ist abstrus." ("The accusation that my doctoral work was plagiarism is abstruse!")

    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      So she doesn't deny it.

      • by snowgirl (978879)

        So she doesn't deny it.

        I know jokes lose their meaning once they're explained... but maybe a hint will help [google.com]?

      • Well, you should not translate the German 'abstrus' with 'abstruse'. Used in this sentence, the translation would be 'absurd'.

        So she is denying the claim, if a bit weakly.

        BTW, if you want to translate single words or short phrases from English into German or vice versa, I suggest using leo.org: http://dict.leo.org/ende?lang=en&lp=ende&search= [leo.org]

        This offers several possible translations instead of just one that may not be the right one for the given context.

        • by snowgirl (978879)

          Wiktionary lists for abstruse [wiktionary.org]: "remote from apprehension; difficult to comprehend or understand; recondite; as in abstruse learning."

          Honestly, I had never heard of the word in English before...

    • by w4rl5ck (531459)

      Haha, Ok after reading your explanation of the joke two posts below, he'll yes THIS IS FUNNY :^)

      It's hard to belief that this was stupidity.

      May be the same secretary wrote the press report for her, that did it for Guttemberg a while ago?

      Still ROFLMAO...

      • by snowgirl (978879)

        Haha, Ok after reading your explanation of the joke two posts below, he'll yes THIS IS FUNNY :^)

        Yeah, I didn't want to make the joke too obvious, but I think I ended up only making it too esoteric to be readily accessible. :(

    • "Der Vorwurf, meine Doktorarbeit sei ein Plagiat, ist abstrus." ("The accusation that my doctoral work was plagiarism is abstruse!")

      Strange. My dictionary translated that into "My Hovercraft is full of eels." [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:29AM (#39876379)

    What they found in her thesis is that she rightly referenced the authors she quoted word for word, but didn't reference the authors again in following sentences that were in relation to those first quotes in 56 cases.

    • by dvdkhlng (1803364)

      What they found in her thesis is that she rightly referenced the authors she quoted word for word, but didn't reference the authors again in following sentences that were in relation to those first quotes in 56 cases.

      No, what they found is that she copied other author's text including footnotes [wordpress.com]. At other places she reformatted in-line references [wordpress.com] of the original into footnotes of her text. Whether she copied the text literally or not; if you copy references&footnotes, keeping the original order and semantics, it's pretty clear that you didn't think of your own. I don't think reformulating and reformatting skills entitle you to a PhD.

  • by w4rl5ck (531459) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:36AM (#39876405) Homepage

    1. there has not yet been any scientific peer review of the claims. It's all unproven and should be treated as such

    2. the thesis was written in 1980. This is quite a different area regarding both scientific citation rules as well as the abililty to "copy+paste" in today's sense.

    Using ideas and deriving information from former work is not unusual, and from what I have read in analyses of the analyses, it's quite unclear how much of these so-called plagiarized pages will really be named as such by a university committee (that will most likely be instantiated).

    Also worth to mention that the thesis (for all 350 pages!) received an scl grade.

    • by Tom (822)

      1.) The method used to find the unattributed quotations is using a strong peer-review system. It's not the same thing as scientific peer-review, because it's not an experimental science but a document review. It has proven unassailable in previous cases.

      2.) The basic rules broken here haven't changed. This is not a matter of how to quote your source, but that you need to list your source. The claim is that she has copied whole passages from other sources without indicating that fact, passing the text off as

    • The web site lists a bunch of passages and analyzes them; I don't see anything "unfair" about that. It doesn't demand that the thesis be withdrawn and passes no judgment. On the other hand, once people get started, they tend to find more.

      "Peer review" is a mechanism for vetting scientific results for publishing. It has little to do with adjudicating plagiarism claims. A university inquiry may also be held by "peers", but it's a different process. And plagiarism was very much a violation of rules of sci

      • by w4rl5ck (531459)

        The page and it's results are fair, even while they need to be discussed. I completely agree, and never said different (or meant to do so).

        But headline and summary of this slash dot news item is kind of unfair (at least it carries a strong tendency), to begin with, and I'm afraid a lot of people will start talking bull about it without even getting some of the background. Thats the unfairness my headline related to, sorry for not being more clear about that.

        And of course, if the claims proof to be true - wh

        • by khipu (2511498)

          Citation is a pretty complicated business,

          No, it's not; it's a purely formal question: if you didn't come up with it yourself, you have to attribute it. It doesn't matter what academic discipline it is in. You usually don't need to be an expert in figuring out whether a passage is plagiarized or not; while there are some border cases, in many cases, it's pretty obvious. And the identity of the person finding these passages also doesn't matter.

          A few plagiarized passages can be excused by accident, sloppine

    • by aaaaaaargh! (1150173) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @05:00AM (#39876703)

      For all what it's worth, the attitude towards plagiarism was far stricter in the 80ies than it is today. I've studied in the nineties and I'm pretty sure that any student who got caught even just cheating in one exam at my universities (Tuebingen and HU Berlin) would have been dragged in front of an honor comission and expelled from university. Although officially the rules have not changed, I'm not so sure this would happen nowadays.

      Another big difference is that in the 80ies it was demanded and accepted that you have to read all significant literature without any exception in a doctoral thesis. If you weren't able to do that your topic was too broad. Formally, this requirement is still in place, but I don't think that anybody thinks it can be taken seriously nowadays, as the amount of literature has exploded.

      To cut a long story short, even "just" paraphrasing a few pages without mentioning the origin is not allowed today and was unthinkable in the 80ies, and since you weren't able to make copy&paste errors showing that there was intention to plagiarize is much easier in that time period.

      To cut a long story short: Yes, we shouldn't judge her prematurely, but if there is any passage longer than a paragraph in her thesis that has been copied, then there can be no doubt that she intentionally plagiarized and the time period only makes things worse.

      The real problem is that it's pretty clear that the politicians who have been caught didn't actually write their thesis, but paid a ghostwriter for doing it. Guttenberg is the best example, he inadvertantly revealed at press conferences that he didn't have a clue what was in his own thesis! These people are crooks and imposters and have no place in politics. (The ghostwriters couldn't talk even if they wanted to, because their acts likely fall under criminal law and their principals would, of course, do everything to stab them in their back.)

      • That matches my experience as a US college student in the 80s. But I don't buy the claim about inadvertent copying and pasting. "Oops, I stumbled, the mouse flew across the screen with the button down, and then my nose and forehead hit CTRL and C at the same time, as I struggled to get up, my ear and my tongue collided with the computer once more, likely hitting CTRL and V. I can only explain not noticing this with the confusion caused by my head injury."
  • Was she just not using absolutely complete citations, or was she ripping off another author? Usually, when we get these stories about someone famous it's the former sprinkled with embellished headlines to attract more eyeballs.

  • german politics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tom (822) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @03:56AM (#39876453) Homepage Journal

    What american readers probably don't know is how much politics and politicians have changed during the past 20 or so years.

    Initially, the "new" West Germany after WW2 had a functional (not without faults, but functional) representative democracy. People with vision, connections and public support would rise to power. We didn't have the pseudo-aristocratic US system of clans and super-rich. In fact, none of the chancellors were very wealthy.

    Then, the political elite started to close and shut out insiders. The majority of the people in positions of power today are career politicians, people who have worked a small part of their lives - if at all - outside of their political parties.
    For all the flaws they had, the old guard was a different kind of human. They were sometimes arrogant, often egomaniac, but they were in it for their vision of the future, not for the paycheck and the nice kickbacks from the lobbyists.

    Our current government is just the worst of that kind. It has no vision whatsoever, no plan whatsoever and is purely reactive. We have satire magazines commenting the current political theatre with sentences like "sometimes I wonder why we are even doing satire anymore". You could take some of their talks straight from the protocol of the Bundestag (our parliament) and if you published it in a humor magazine, you'd love about it and applaud the author on a brilliant piece of mockery - except that they're serious.

    There was indeed a former minister and hopeful to be next chancellor, a "superstar" of politics (which, these days, is about the same as being the winner of "Britain's Got Talent" or "American Idol") who had to drop out of politics because his Ph.D. was basically fraudulent. The affair damaged on of the most respected academics in his field, who had fallen for the young man's charm and trickery and issued the Ph.D. to him.

    What was most telling, however, was how the political elite dealt with it. Basically, the MOTD was that it's not a big deal. Only massive and sustained public pressure finally made them carve in, one by one, until the guy had to step down.
    These are the people who want to lock you away for 5 years for downloading a DVD. "Shame" was the rallying cry at some demonstrations asking for the guy to step down.

    Oh yeah, did I mention that he tried a comeback earlier this year? The political class mostly welcomed him back. The public didn't. He went away again. I have no doubt he'll be back.

    Yes, shameless about sums up the assholes that currently rule us. And it doesn't matter which party.

    • by khipu (2511498)

      The majority of the people in positions of power today are career politicians, people who have worked a small part of their lives - if at all - outside of their political parties.

      Worse than that, they usually had their education and their post-doctoral work financed by public funds, and by that I don't mean competitive scholarships, but public funds specifically allocated to each political party to pay for raising the next generation of party officials. Parties have also been trying to get more power over

    • by cpghost (719344)

      Oh yeah, did I mention that he tried a comeback earlier this year? The political class mostly welcomed him back. The public didn't. He went away again. I have no doubt he'll be back.

      And let's not forget that this guy [wikipedia.org] has actually got a position within the European Commission, yet another political aristocracy that is quite immune to public criticism and scrutiny. Quite fitting.

    • They were sometimes arrogant, often egomaniac, but they were in it for their vision of the future, not for the paycheck and the nice kickbacks from the lobbyists.
      Sort of a today Germany, tomorrow the world mentality?Yeah, we will all miss those guys.
      • by Tom (822)

        You're a presumptuous idiot and someone had to say it.

        Germany after WW2 was one of the most humble major countries in the world. Not a big surprise after being as completely demolished as it was. The visions of politicians of those times were mostly inwards, into building a society. Something modern politician sell-outs have forgotten: That human life doesn't happen in the market alone.

        I do not agree with all of the politics of early post-WW2 Germany, but simply by listening to an interview with Helmut Schm

    • by nairolF (315683)
      I haven't posted on /. for years (though I've been reading it...), but I simply wanted to share this. I was recently at a conference (attending mostly by academics who have been funded/supported by Germany) where Schavan gave a speech. It was utterly horrible: pompous, pretentious and condescending, half the sentences were grammatically correct but devoid of information, the other half contained mostly bullshit, wild hyperbole designed to sound grand, and misinformation. I was literally writhing in my seat
    • by Asic Eng (193332)

      This is a bit too much of the "good old times" for me. Yes many German politicians today chose politics as a career. Name one country where that isn't the case. Whether it was all that different in the 50s is a bit doubtful. Sure there were some good guys, but there were many old Nazis in government positions, the political system was basically static. A lot of stuff then didn't come out because Germans just couldn't handle it anymore, and because the press didn't do a great job. Later there was the support

      • by Tom (822)

        Name one country where that isn't the case.

        You are right, it's a world-wide trend. That doesn't make it one inch better.

        I wouldn't even mind - my other criticism of our current democracy is that most of our politicians, despite being career politicians are really amateurs in both the business of politics and whatever their ministry or other subject area is.

        So, we get the worst of both world. People with almost not real-world knowledge, who are also quite bad at just being politicians.

        Then think of how dynamic the German system is

        Not as much as I'd like. The green party has been assimilated into

  • "The dissertation was written 32 years ago, and I will be happy to give my account to those who are looking into the work; but it is difficult to deal with anonymous allegations," Schavan said

    I don't see how knowing who makes the allegations of plagiarism makes it "difficult" to respond to the substance of the allegations. Who dug out these passages is not relevant to whether they are plagiarized.

    Germany seems to have a serious problem with anonymous speech; it's already somewhat restricted, and politician

  • by Peter H.S. (38077) on Thursday May 03, 2012 @07:06AM (#39877003) Homepage

    Remember that this was written in 1980 probably using at typewriter handwritten notes. It was an absolute nightmare in those days to keep track of sources with small paper cards or notebooks (notebook as in paper notebook).

    Errors in major academic works when it came to sources was probably more common in those days, simply because of manual errors in handling stacks of paper-notes. As a rule you will also find far fewer foot-notes in works before electronic word-processing became common, because the workload associated with the footnotes was so high. It was much more acceptable to give general source notes for a chapter instead of placing a foot-note after each paragraph.

    I haven't looked at all the claims of plagiarism, but those I have seen seems very minor, like she could have quoted a source from page 14 instead of page 15. Most of claims seems very vague or downright wrong, like claiming 1-2 citations per paragraph is plagiarism when paraphrasing. That is simply absurd.

    I haven't seen even one example of substantial plagiarism in the dissertation, in fact, looking at the very few accusations they call "exceptional" all I see is errors likely to be caused by simple mistakes, or outright absurd claims because her accuser doesn't seem to know that paraphrasing with full sources given, is an acceptable and useful academic tool. It is, and especially was, acceptable to paraphrase eg. an academic theory by stating the source used once, instead of after each and every paragraph.

    I don't see any pattern of cheating. Her foot-notes are plentiful, she seems to have both read and understood the cited works, the paragraphs allegedly quoted without sources seems more like trivial error than cheating because they seem to contain banal information, not her conclusions. Most of the rest of the accusations seems to bickering about citation standards. Of course, one can discuss when a paragraph should be a direct citation or how much word changing is necessary to call it a paraphrase, but as long as full sources are given for that paragraph (which she seems to do) so that no one can be in doubt where the informations stems from, it is way over the top to bring forth accusations of plagiarism.
    There is simply no comparison to former defence minister "Guttenberg"'s wholesale copy-paste cheating (I doubt he even wrote a single word of it, he probably paid a hack to do it for him).

    • I was a student in those days. Yes, it might have been more difficult to keep track of paper. May have been; I'm not actually ready to concede that, as I had no trouble with my paper notes. We could talk about the f-ing typewriter, and how I always failed to notice I'd reached the end of the page and typed a solid black band.... But if I did concede that shuffling paper was somehow harder than shuffling computer files, I would say that such difficulty was minimized by the fact that there was far less materi
  • There are probably a good number of plagiarized papers out there that have launched careers. No doubt some of their authors have a pucker factor worrying that somebody with too much time on their hands will examine their paper.

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