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“In Germany, a doctorate is also a social achievement”

“In Germany, a doctorate is also a social achievement”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Susie Knoll/ Florian Jänicke

What is the matter with the dissertations of German politicians?

MAASTRICHT. Another German politician is suspected of plagiarism. This time it concerns the chairman of the social democrat party SPD, whose thesis allegedly contains 500 dubious references. What is the matter with the dissertations of German politicians? Observant asked German scientists and managers at the UM.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned from his position as Minister of Defence in 2011; in the same year, Silvana Koch-Mehrin retired as vice-president of the European Parliament; Annette Schavan was discredited in 2012 and stepped down from her position as Minister of Education at the beginning of this year; and now chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in the line of fire. In all cases, there were accusations of plagiarism in a PhD thesis.

“There is a huge difference between Germany and the Netherlands, or rather: the rest of the world,” says Prof. Dr. Martin Paul, President of the Executive Board. “In Germany (and in Austria too, but that is about it) a doctorate is not just an academic but also a social achievement. It literally becomes part of your name, and it is included in the municipal administration.”

Paul studied in Germany, continued his academic career in the United States and then returned to Germany. From 2004 to 2008, he was chairman of the Executive Board for the Berlin Charité medical centre.

“A doctorate is even mentioned in your passport. I suspect that it dates back to the nineteenth century. In the rather hierarchical Germany, such a title is considered very important, many people feel that it gives them a better chance in society, even in politics. You will find more titles in the Bundestag than you will in the Dutch parliament. I have followed the discussion in Germany to some extent, and sensible people there are now saying that the permanent link between title and name should be abolished, so that it is no longer in your passport, and that we should go back to a purely academic title.

“When so many people want to write a thesis, this of course increases the chances of plagiarism. But what this Prof. Uwe Kamenz, the ‘plagiarism hunter’, says - that there are five thousand cases each year in North Rhine-Westphalia - seems like an awful lot to me. I know this man, he is trying to sell his plagiarism software to universities and when they refuse, he writes threatening letters about it being bad for their reputation. In Berlin, we were already trying to detect plagiarism in theses, and we used software to do so. We are going to do that here at the UM as well.”

Prof. dr. Thomas Conzelmann, Professor of International Relations at FASoS: “I think that there are two different motivations behind the plagiarism charges: in most cases considerations of academic integrity, but sometimes also the attempt to damage the credibility and standing of politicians. Some accusations of plagiarism that have been brought forward were actually considered unfounded by the respective universities. This could be a sign of there also being political motives behind the charges.  

“Another interesting facet is the power of the Internet, the ‘crowd intelligence’ as it has sometimes been called. The internet gives the possibility to plagiarise, but also to bring together the investigations of a great number of people on platforms such as GuttenPlag, Schavanplag or VroniPlag. The extent to which indications of sloppy referencing and doubtful authorship have been collected on these platforms would not have been possible if individual referees had been checking the theses, at least not at that speed.”

The soundness of science is the most important, says Hildegard Schneider, dean of the Faculty of Law, but it is also good to take into account the culture in which the thesis was written. “Thirty years ago, Schavan wrote her thesis in a field - Education - that did not have a doctorate tradition at that time. Paraphrasing was normal in those days; the rules have become stricter since then. I thought that Zu Guttenberg, a lawyer, was a little more problematic. He should have known that what he was doing was wrong. In Germany a doctorate is good for your social career, there are large law firms that demand a doctorate for getting a job. That is, till now, much less the case in the Netherlands.

Wammes Bos, Cleo Freriks, Maurice Timmermans

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