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Plagiarism scandal

Armin Himmelrath / csc February 6, 2013

German Education Minister Annette Schavan lost her PhD on Tuesday after a committee at the University of Düsseldorf found sufficient evidence to support claims of plagiarism.

Germany Education Minister Annette Schavan (Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/dpa)
Image: picture alliance / dpa

The irony is hard to top that Germany's education minister has become the next high-profile politician to be found guilty of plagiarizing portions of a doctoral dissertation.

At 351 pages, German Education Minister Annette Schavan's doctoral thesis was quite thick. But, the dissertation, titled "Person und Gewissen" ("Character and Conscience"), published in 1980, has finally caught up with her after months of uncertainty and cautious maneuvering.

In early 2011, the resignation of Germany's former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, after it became known that he had plagiarized large chunks of his doctoral dissertation, had broader consequences for other politicians. Since then, "plagiarist hunters" have taken it upon themselves to look into the doctoral dissertations of well-known politicians and check whether they were plagiarized.

It was the plagiarist hunters who discovered "Person und Gewissen." Even though she apparently did not plagiarize as much as the former defense minister, at least 130 passages of her doctoral dissertation were initially listed as suspected plagiarism on the website (schavanplag.wordpress.com). Schavan herself asked the University of Düsseldorf to investigate the case. She now plans to sue the university for damages.

An image showing Annette Schavan's doctoral dissertation (Photo: Daniel Naupold dpa/lnw)
Annette Schavan's doctoral dissertationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Reviewers speak of "deliberate intent to deceive"

A university committee got down to work and came to a devastating conclusion in autumn 2012. Its chairman spoke of "plagiarizing practice" and of the "deliberate intent to deceive" - accusations that Schavan vehemently denied. Since then, the dispute has been whether the allegation of plagiarism is justified and whether the university has adequately carried out enough evaluation.

In mid-January, there was an interim decision: With 14 votes to 1, the university faculty council decided that the allegations were so substantial that official proceedings should be carried out to rescind the Minister's doctoral title. The result of these proceedings is "open," Bruno Beckmann, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, said at the time. The announcement on Tuesday (05.02.2013) to rescinde Schavan's PhD comes at an awkward time with a national election slated for September.

A woman entering the Faculty of Arts at the University of Düsseldorf (Photo: Marius Becker/dpa)
The Faculty of Arts at the University of DüsseldorfImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Discussion draws other groups

The discussion about Schavan's dissertation had already grown more and more political over the months. Shortly after the University of Düsseldorf published a review attesting to the legally correct handling of the case, the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR), the German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Rectors' Conference (HRK) and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (MPG) criticized the university in a joint statement.

They charged that the investigations against Annette Schavan did not meet academic standards. It was a "one-sided assessment of the plagiarism allegation," Wolfgang Marquadt, the head of WR said.

Education Minister Annette Schavan (Photo: Martin Schutt dpa/lth)
The great irony is that Schavan is Germany's education ministerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

These statements make Bernhard Kempen, the president of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV), angry. He believes the response of the academic organizations constitutes unprecedented interference in the ongoing investigation.

"There is an attempt here to intervene," he said. "It is clear that any attempt to influence the result of this process in any way - no matter whether it benefits or harms the (education) minister - is absolutely damaging."