Plagiarism: German Minister of Education and Science Annette Schavan Steps Down After Losing Her PhD

9 February 2013 by Stephan Schleim, posted in everyday life, politics, scientific fraud

It is already the fifth necessary restructuring of the governing cabinet of Germany within the current legislative period. Annette Schavan, minister for education and science, declared to step down from her function today in order to prevent further damage to her office and the government after the philosophical faculty of the University of Düsseldorf declared her doctoral degree to be invalid on Tuesday February 5. These cases lead to a general credibility crisis of German politics.

Hard times for politics in the Federal Republic of Germany: Today, Saturday February 9 2013, chancellor Angela Merkel and federal minister of education and science Annette Schavan (both Christian Democratic Union) gave a press statement at 14 o’clock in Berlin. Previous Tuesday, Schavan lost her PhD in education science that she had received for her German doctoral dissertation titled “Person und Gewissen” (Engl. Person and Conscience) in 1980. Both politicians had had a confidential conversation on the previous evening and Merkel declared that Schavan had offered her to step down from her ministerial position.

Internet Activists Provided First Evidence

Notably, Schavan herself did not give the loss of her PhD as the reason for her decision but the fact that she will take legal means against the decision. A minister of education and science suing a public German university would be inconceivable and harm the government in general as well as her ministry in particular. Commentators also referred to the imminent election campaign for the Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany, for which such legal action might prove harmful. Indeed, the procedure from the first suspicions until the eventual declaration of the philosophical faculty at the University of Düsseldorf that was responsible for the official investigation has received much media attention.

Schavan’s dissertation first came under suspicion of plagiarism after an internet-based initiative called schavanplag found suspect passages on 97 pages of her text comprising ca. 300 pages. Although members of the overarching network VroniPlag Wiki voted not to investigate this case any further, the University of Düsseldorf started an official investigation. Actually Schavan herself who declared that she had written her dissertation in all conscience asked the university to review the allegations against her.

Allegations of Plagiarism – A Common Topic Recently

Plagiarism has become a sensible issue in German media in recent years. Several members of the currently governing Christian Union-Liberal Party coalition have lost first their doctoral degrees and then given up their political functions within the current legislative period. Before Annette Schavan, the most famous case was that of the former minister of defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who eventually stepped down from all his political functions in Germany on March 1 2011 and moved with his family to the USA where he now works as a political advisor.

Guttenberg, descendent of a noble family – but note that aristocracy was officially abolished in Germany after loss of the First World War –, had had an impressively successful political career until then and was already discussed as a possible future German chancellor in the media. He was very popular in society in general as well as in the armed forces of which he was the politically appointed leader. When confronted with allegations of plagiarism, he first called them “abstruse” – probably meaning “absurd”. By contrast, the internet-based network Guttenplag Wiki identified instances of plagiarism on 82% of the pages of his dissertation, amounting to 2886 lines of directly copied text without giving due references and 2829 lines of concealed plagiarism.

A Broken Word of Honour – But no Intended Fraud?

Guttenberg had first received broad political and social support. For example, chancellor Merkel announced that she had appointed him as a political minister, not as a research associate. However, particularly within academia and law schools – Guttenberg had had a legal doctoral degree – many voices called for harsh consequences. The University of Bayreuth eventually revoked the just 2007 awarded degree on February 23 2011. An important issue within the public discussion was whether he had cheated deliberately or not, thus accusing him more or less directly of lying to the parliament and the public when denying the allegations. The university’s commission actually argued in its decision that Guttenberg had quoted incorrectly and had violated his own mandatory statement, his word of honor, of not using any other means than those referred to but did not make an official claim regarding deliberation or intent (see this German comment in the Süddeutsche Zeitung).

Annette Schavan’s case was different in several respects. First of all, her PhD in education science has been awarded more than 30 years ago, when she was aged only 25. Secondly, the alleged plagiarism was apparently much less dramatic and obvious than in Guttenberg’s case. In the public discussion accompanying the official investigation, several academics defended Schavan, emphasizing the putatively weak evidence, the amount of time passed, or generally low academic standards of the discipline of that time. Even her former PhD supervisor, Gerhard Wehle, said that the dissertation corresponded to the academic standard of that time. In contrast to other countries, doctoral students in Germany are often not members of a graduate school and carry out their research individually and independently, only supervised by a few professors or senior academics.

Systematic and Deliberate Fraud, Dean Says

However, other academics defended the reputation of their disciplines or academia at large by saying that it was clear already in the 1980s and also in education science that references have to be given correctly, that not doing so amounts to plagiarism and has to be punished harshly. Publicly it was also criticized that many of the academics supporting Schavan are members of institutions receiving funds from the federal ministry of education and research and thus were not independent in their judgments. Eventually, the official committee of the University of Düsseldorf made a surprisingly clear and harsh statement when declaring Schavan’s doctoral degree invalid. The dean of the philosophical faculty said in the press statement last Tuesday:

The former PhD student has pretended systematically, deliberately, and distributed over the whole dissertation an intellectual effort that she has not generated herself. (my translation)

Schavan Will Defend Herself Legally

Even though Schavan apparently plagiarized less severe than Guttenberg, the standards for her as minister for education and science were particularly high. The allegations and accusations had harmed her official reputation already before. A particularly sensible side-effect of the revocation of her PhD is that Schavan now has no academic degree at all, not even a bachelor’s or master’s. It was possible at some faculties at German universities in the past to directly strive for a doctorate as first academic degree. Two German universities who had granted her two honorary professorships declared in the meantime that these would be revoked if Schavan shall lose her PhD.

The decision is not yet legally binding. When the committee’s decision was made public, Annette Schavan was on an official political journey in South Africa. She already announced to take legal action against it from abroad and confirmed this in her press statement today. Commentators pointed out that academic faculties who award the degrees also define the rules for revoking them in cases of fraud or plagiarism and that courts rarely contradict their decisions. It is now also discussed whether the possibility of revoking a doctoral degree should become time-barred, because even some serious crimes for which a lifetime sentence can be imposed lapse after several decades.

A General Credibility Crisis for German Politics

However, a more general and politically salient issue is hardly discussed: What such scandals mean for the credibility of German politics. The presently governing cabinet had to restructure its ministries already five times within the current legislative period that started in 2009. The ministers are the most important executive representatives of the German nation, right after the chancellor herself. They take or initiate decisions affecting the lives of millions of people worldwide and affecting billions of euros of taxpayers’ monies. How is it possible that people who take the highest political and social responsibility possible in Germany make such steep and successful careers within their parties and are appointed to the highest functions – but apparently are not adequately qualified for this task?

Guttenberg, who claimed that he did not deliberately cheat in his dissertation, apparently copied dozens and dozens of pages from others ‘without noticing’. I would rather wish that he cheated deliberately than to think that a person with such an putatively faulty attention and knowledge system became commander of the German armed forces and minister for economy and technology before that. I was shocked when his party recently invited him to join German politics again.

Please Help Us!

In the same legislative period, two presidents of the Federal Republic of Germany stepped down, first Horst Köhler in May 2010 after suggesting in a radio interview that economic interests not covered by the constitution might be among the reasons for the military mission of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, in Afghanistan; then Christian Wulff in February 2012 after accusations were made and supported by circumstantial evidence – the prosecution is still investigating into the issue – that he had illegally accepted benefits as a public official during his time as governing prime minister of the German State of Lower Saxony.

It seems like the due control mechanisms of the representative democracy in Germany failed over and over again to prevent that people who are putatively involved in instances of cheating, fraud, dishonesty, or corruption are put into the most powerful and responsible political positions. What can we do in order to improve the control systems such that only people who deserve the highest possible public trust are appointed such functions? Annette Schavan, unlike Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, said that she will keep her mandate in the German Bundestag. Hopefully, she and others in the parliament will contribute to prevent further scandals for German politics and the German nation. What else can we do?


3 Responses to “Plagiarism: German Minister of Education and Science Annette Schavan Steps Down After Losing Her PhD”

  1. Martin Wloszczynski Reply | Permalink

    "Theodor zu Guttenberg who eventually stepped down from all his political functions in Germany on March 1 2011 and moved with his family to the USA where he now works as a political advisor." This is only partly correct, as Guttenberg by now also works as kind of a freelance advisor for the European Union on internet freedom. A farce to many, as he is supposed to deal with questions of copyright and activism - two things that he cannot possibly be objective towards.

    Apart from that, I like the way you portrait Schavan's case in general and compared to Guttenberg's. The general question as to why politics seems to be failing over and over again in Germany is a much more humbling one. As for Köhler, it seems that is statements were meant in a different way than they were interpreted by the press (as often happens). After all he is an economist and his reasoning was probably more complex than what the gist of it was in the end.
    Wulff is also kind of an unfortunate case. You could argue that it seems impossible to reach such political heights without a certain degree of favouritism and that it was maybe simply the fact that Wulff had made some enemies on his way up to the top (see here: http://www.zeit.de/2012/49/Wulff-Affaere). What followed is history.

    The surge in popularity for the pirate party a year ago seems to shed some light on the question as to why politics in Germany is struggling: they appealed to "the people" for a lot of reasons that the old parties apparently did not offer. They seem more open in general, less old-fashioned, they favour direct participation, are affine to today's technology, etc. In comparison, the old parties appear to be so very unaccessible to everyone but the people who have been members for ages. I think that any kind of system lives on active participation of its members and the German system doesn't seem very accessible to me. After all, the pirate party is about to vanish: they are grinding themselves down on their own principles. Despite that, they are probably having a hard time dealing with the German administrative impenetrability and the closed-mindedness that seems to be woven through many instances.

    • Gene Landrum, PhQ. Quantum Theory Reply | Permalink

      I love this subject: "Who said what, when, where, why, and How" any 'readable' understandable, passage of communication, communication of many centuries of spoken, recorded words be pluralized! As pointed, things changed during the 30 years, rules, regulations, educations standards, based on Society Acceptance of the Time!
      We, writers of today, can and do get 'reviewed' by electronic means, based on the 'input' by humans, who 'Never make a mistake' if the price is right! (pun)

      If you take away, all and I mean all, other forms of receiving information, all you have left is 'raw' intelligent, or 'flat out lies'! I like intelligence for intelligent to be able to take, Random 'bits and pieces' of information, and form a 'intelligent' statement, based on 'Language Unknown' to others! Once, understood by everyone, that language will common and will contain plagiarism!

      By Definition; "Plagiarism is plagiarized from some where!" my Quote, My Opinion, my 'origin al' thought(?) and if a plagiarized thought, I apologize now!

      Gene n Landrum, PhQ, Quantum Theory of Everything

  2. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    Thanks, Martin, for this informative comment.

    I would defend my statement regarding Guttenberg, though. That he "advises" – whatever that means – the European Union is not really a "function in Germany", is it? I particularly had his function as federal minister as well as his seat in the parliament in mind (and all the committees that he probably was member of in the Bundestag).

    What you write about Wullf I do not find comforting at all: It rather seems to suggest that the chances of doing honest and honorable politics are poor. But what else should we suspect, though?

    Politics nowadays seems to be a game where the one with the most power and the best talent to make people believe in their promises wins; and even though these promised are broken over and over again, the politicians are voted again and again. Because... well... there is no better alternative?

    What we see now in the pirate party is that the psychology and sociology of power corrupts the pirates, too. But don't become impatient prematurely. They try to develop new power structures and this takes time... Probably the first generation pirates will fail; and they do so in an embarrassing and annoying manner. Others will follow and make it better, I am sure... others will follow. It takes time. Why don't you join the movement?

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