Guttenberg plagiarism scandal is blow to German academia (Feature)
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin Feb 28, 2011, 14:21 GMT
Berlin - Germany's plagiarism scandal, in which a university stripped Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of his doctoral degree, has raised questions about why no one noticed his failings as a student.
Guttenberg handed in a doctoral dissertation in 2006 that contained large chunks of copied text without footnotes. The University of Bayreuth, which had awarded him a first-class doctorate, revoked it last week. But he remains a minister.
For now, German academia is preoccupied with his punishment. About 15,000 academics have signed a protest petition to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refuses to sack Guttenberg from her cabinet.
Guttenbnerg grew up in an ancestral castle around 30 kilometres from the University of Bayreuth which was later to grant him his PhD.
He spent seven years completing the doctoral thesis, but was not a full-time student during that time.
Instead Guttenberg, now 39, told parliament last week he was busy with his political engagements, sitting in parliament in Berlin, rising through the ranks of his conservative party - the Christian Social Union (CSU), running businesses and starting a family.
Now a leading US historian, Anthony Grafton, has suggested that the German system may be inadequate to catch cheats, because professors do not closely supervise doctoral students.
Grafton, who teaches at Princeton University, is the author of The Footnote: A Curious History, which describes how perfect footnotes marked 19th century German historians as the world's finest.
In a telephone interview, Grafton explained how US dissertations are often handed in chapter by chapter as they are written.
'In the States, the candidate would have been working every week with his supervisor ... who would have criticized everything, so that the moment of submission would not be the first point where everything was getting judged,' he said.
'We don't like this notion of the 'disconnected' student.'
Grafton, who worked in Germany in the 1990s and knows the country well, pointed to another weakness: the huge number of German students seeking doctorates, often from a declining number of professors.
'That's not propitious to serious supervision,' he said.
The Guttenberg case has reflected badly on both Bayreuth University and the law professor, Peter Haeberle, 76, who oversaw the thesis, which was a comparative history of how the United States acquired a federalist constitution and the European Union did not.
The professor himself has not commented on how he was fooled, but his successor in the same chair has led a furious personal attack on Guttenberg. 'We are the victims of a con man,' said Oliver Lepsius.
In an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung, he accused Guttenberg of 'deliberately collating scholarly sources to plagiarize.'
The newspaper reported that Lepsius was daring Guttenberg to sue him for libel.
The university says the word 'plagiarism' is appropriate for parts of Guttenberg's thesis, but it is still investigating whether he cheated.
'A supervisor has to be able to trust the assurance that work was written conscientiously,' German Education Minister Annette Schavan was quoted as saying by Sueddeutsche on Monday.
University teaching union GEW charged Monday that the plagiarism and the refusal to punish it by Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, threatened the honour system.
'It undermines the authority of the teacher in the school and university who trains students to obtain qualifications ethically,' said Andreas Keller of GEW.
Wolfgang Marquardt, chairman of the German Science Council, said German science was held in high esteem worldwide, but he was worried that it had been sullied by the Guttenberg scandal.
Germany has not been at the forefront of international debate on the honour system and academic liberty, and how to mould them so that cheating students and lazy teachers do not slip through.
'My sense of the German university system when I knew it best in the 1990s was that it was kind of professors' paradise,' said Grafton. It did not offer enough incentives for engaged teachers.
'Except the personal reward of enjoying working well with students and having a sense that you have done your job,' he said.
Few German academics have accepted Guttenberg's declaration in a 35-minute question-and-answer session in parliament in Berlin last week that he had muddled, but never cheated.
'They always use the same excuses, which are that they forgot, or were time pressed, or they mixed up their notes so they couldn't tell what they had copied out and what they had paraphrased,' he said.
'These are formulas. Nobody believes them.'
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