The whiff of plagiarism again hits German elite

April 26, 2011 - 0:0

PARIS (The NYT) -- Weeks after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s defense minister, was forced to resign in a plagiarism scandal, three German universities say they are investigating similar complaints about the academic work of three figures from the country’s political sphere.

The theses of all three have been posted for public scrutiny on VroniPlag, a site run by the same people who posted the Guttenberg work online.
Two of the three — Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a member of the European Parliament; and Veronica Sass, a daughter of former state leader — have declined to comment on the accusations that their theses are suspect. The third, Matthias Pröfrock, a new state lawmaker, conceded that he might have committed unintentional errors and has called on his university to recheck his thesis.
A report by a University of Bayreuth commission charged with investigating the contention that Mr. Guttenberg cobbled together his doctoral thesis from other works without citing them is scheduled to be released this week. He resigned on March 1.
On April 12, Heidelberg University set up a panel to investigate the doctoral thesis of Ms. Koch-Mehrin, an E.U. Parliament member with the Free Democratic Party of Germany. She earned a doctorate in 2000 with a dissertation on historical currency reform.
According to VroniPlag, which presents both the original theses and the sources from which it says the elements are copied, more than 25 percent of the 227 pages of her thesis contain instances of undocumented citation.
Ms. Koch-Mehrin has declined to comment, but, unlike Mr. Guttenberg, who weeks before resigning stopped using his academic title, she continues to use Doctor as a title before her name. Ms. Sass is the daughter of a former premier of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber. Her thesis on the regulation of cellular phone networks has been attacked by the Web site as containing too much unsourced text, some of which appears to be taken from articles on Wikipedia. Julia Wandt, a press officer at the University of Konstanz, confirmed that the university was aware of the accusations and that it was investigating a case of plagiarism of a doctoral thesis.
The university, however, did not confirm that Ms. Sass was being investigated, citing her privacy rights. Ms. Sass, a cooperate lawyer, does not hold public office. Repeated telephone calls to Ms. Sass were not returned.
Mr. Pröfrock, recently elected to the state assembly of Baden-Wurttemberg for the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, is perhaps the least known of those accused of plagiarizing. He is being investigated by the University of Tübingen, where in 2007 he earned a doctorate for a dissertation on energy security in the European Union.
As soon as he was made aware that the Web site was investigating his academic credentials, Mr. Pröfrock, who was to start work in the Baden-Württemberg assembly in May, contacted the university to ask for an investigation.
Both the politician and the Web site called the university on April 4. The special commission to investigate the claims was formed soon after.
“Mistakes while citing sources were in no way made knowingly,” Mr. Pröfrock said in a statement. By mid-May the university will have decided whether he can keep his doctorate.
The “Germans have been sweeping the plagiarism problem under the carpet for many years,” said Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor for media and computing at the applied sciences university HTW Berlin and one of the few contributors to VroniPlag who was willing to divulge her identity.
“And it’s gotten very lumpy,” she added, explaining that the system needed to be changed.
The universities identified by the Web site said they would have their committees investigate the theses in question before announcing a course of action.
Individual examiners, meanwhile, said they would start using anti-plagiarism software to guard against fraud. Heidelberg University is considering implementing a mandatory affidavit that could criminalize cheating on academic work.
The universities, however, warn against a general culture of suspicion.
“We can’t let a few special cases ruin the trust relationship toward our doctoral students,” said Marietta Fuhrmann-Koch, spokeswoman for the University Heidelberg.
A German doctorate is used as a form of address in professional and political spheres. Like Mr. Guttenberg, the two politicians named in the latest instances used their doctor titles on campaign posters and advertisements.
“In no other country, expect for maybe Austria, is a doctor title so well respected,” said Tobias Bunde, a doctoral candidate and a fierce critic of the government’s handling of the Guttenberg affair.
Mr. Bunde wrote an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel accusing her, in her steadfast support of her beleaguered defense minister, of mocking the very fabric of the German culture of scholarship.
The “treatment of the Guttenberg case as a minor offence damages both Germany as a place of scholarship and Germany’s credibility as the ‘Land of Ideas,”’ he wrote.