Plagiarism/Plagiat

Craig Morris has a post on the accusations of plagiarism against Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German minister of defence, and he links to this PDF, containing the German review by Andreas Fischer-Lescano of the published thesis, which from page 4 on has a table showing Guttenberg’s Dr. Iur thesis and the alleged sources:

The attack is obviously politically motivated, with some of the main accusations coming from legal experts with close ties to the SPD – but no matter – if the shoe fits, wear it.

The interesting thing for me is to see how Germany will react to this. Plagiarism, in my estimation, is not taken as seriously here as it is in the US. During my five years as a lecturer at a German university, I found that the idea of failing someone for plagiarism was tendentious; I was told I could also just give someone a stern look and a slap on the wrist.

Despite being invited by Craig, I’m not sure I can add much. But here goes:

First, on the subject of plagiarism, I don’t think the Germans are at all complacent about it. True, I have encountered a lot among German students, who seem to regard it and getting marks as a game. When I marked essays together with others, they were usually British or American and we all came down on it hard. Of course, it is particularly obvious when the student’s native language is not English, but I think even in the native language, the stylistic shifts should be obvious. I can’t say whether German teachers are softer on it, but I certainly don’t think that those marking final university exams or theses/dissertations, or publishers, are any less offended by it than we are.

The German Ph.D. and Dr. iur. theses I’ve seen have often been relatively short – not Guttenberg’s, that is 475 pages long – and very dry, consisting of long recountings of the opinions of others, naming the source, but at the end there had to be an opinion, and that couldn’t be plagiarized, of course. (It is the bane of my life finding a book on translation that is a published thesis and where it would obviously be necessary to read the whole thing in order to find out the author’s opinion).

The subject of the thesis is US and EU constitutions; according to the review, Guttenberg at the end lays emphasis on the lack of God in the constitution, which he claims leaves an opening for fundamentalism. Fischer-Lescano says that this idea is not brought out well and that giving the thesis the mark ‘summa cum laude’ was more than flattering. I am also surprised that the corrector or correctors would not have noticed the plagiarism (perhaps 475 pages wore them down). After all, for example, an article in the NZZ, Gott hat keinen Platz in der europäischen Verfassung, should surely have come to their attention. If a student takes a particular line, is not the first thing one does to ask where he got it from? Bayreuth University is now investigating the matter.

A couple of other things come up: firstly, there are often accusations of people getting their thesis ghostwritten – Helmut Kohl was certainly accused of plagiarism too. An SZ article anticipates this and interviews a ghostwriting agency, which says that any of its staff who use cut-and-paste techniques are dropped. Another point covered by the same article is how much strain Guttenberg was under when he wrote it, which was the first thing that occurred to me: supposing he was getting to the end and noticed he couldn’t wind it up very well, then brought in a lot of extraneous material to shore it up. The article says he was a Bundestag member, chair of various committees and groups and of the local council, and he had two very small children. I can’t help wondering if this thesis was ghostwritten and Guttenberg can’t accuse the person responsible.

But none of this explains 1) why Guttenberg did not rephrase the bits he borrowed and 2) why he got the best possible mark without his apparent borrowings being spotted.

LATER NOTE: There is a Guttenplag wiki, where everyone can find plagiarism in the thesis.
I heard on the radio (18 February) that a criminal information laid against Guttenberg for making a false declaration that the thesis was his own work will not be pursued, because Bayreuth University does not require a declaration of this kind under oath – but surely there can be a complaint for something or other, if worded differently?

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