German education and research minister Schavan loses doctorate over plagiarism

Annette Schavan, via Laurence Chaperon

Annette Schavan, the German minister for education and research, has had her PhD revoked by the University of Dusseldorf following an investigation into alleged plagiarism.

Der Spiegel reports:

“As a doctoral candidate, she systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own,” [Dusseldorf professor Bruno] Bleckmann said. Large sections of the work, he continued, had been taken from elsewhere without adequate attribution. As such, she was guilty of “intentional deception through plagiarism.”

Schavan, who was in South Africa for political meetings, had denied the charges in October, according to the BBC. This week, she responded through her attorneys:

Schavan’s lawyers argue that the entire process was “error ridden” and “materially illegal.” They claim that the extent of the erroneously cited passages does not justify the revocation of the minister’s doctor title.

The plagiarism allegations came to light on the SchavanPlag blog.

Retraction Watch readers may recall that this is the second German minister to lose a doctorate recently. In February 2011, defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg lost his PhD, and then resigned, because of plagiarism in his 2006 law thesis.

Update, 11:30 a.m. Eastern, 2/10/13: As a commenter and others have noted, Schavan resigned on Saturday. The New York Times reports:

In an emotional news conference, Dr. Schavan said that she would sue to win back the doctorate, but in the meantime she would resign for the greater good. “First the country, then the party and then yourself,” she said.

Thanks to a number of Retraction Watch readers who sent us this story.

29 thoughts on “German education and research minister Schavan loses doctorate over plagiarism”

  1. It is not actually the University ‘of’ Düsseldorf. All public German universities are financed by the state. They just carry the name of the city in which or near which they are located. The correct name is Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. Here are some extra-ü-s for you to copy: ü ü ü ü ü 🙂

    More to the point of this story: The press release of the faculty (in German) can be found here. It’s worth reading

    citation (translated by me):
    (these facts)…result, according to the belief of the faculty council, in the general view that the former student pretended systematically and on purpose intellectual achievements, distributed over the whole thesis, which in reality she did not perform herself. … Therefore, the faculty council decided on intentional deception by plagiarizing. This decision was made with 13 yes-votes and 2 abstentions.

    …ergeben der Überzeugung des Fakultätsrats nach das Gesamtbild, dass die damalige Doktorandin systematisch und vorsätzlich über die gesamte Dissertation verteilt gedankliche Leistungen vorgab, die sie in Wirklichkeit nicht selbst erbracht hatte….. Daher hat der Fakultätsrat Tatbestand einer vorsätzlichen Täuschung durch Plagiat festgestellt. Diese Entscheidung wurde mit 13 Ja-Stimmen und 2 Enthaltungen gefällt.

    1. Thanks for donating some “ü ü ü ü ü” generously, We appreciate it, They are hard to come by in north American keyboards. :))

  2. I’ve checked the Schavan Plag blog and what is listed there as clear cases of plagiarism are not word-by-word passages lifted from the originals. They are re-written. I’m not sure whether it is possible to prove this as plagiarism rather than, say, reading something, having it sunk into sub-conscience and later saying something similar without consciously remembering what the source for these beliefs were and dishonestly not citing them. Will be a hard and interesting fight.

    1. :Did you read the “Anmerkungen” (annotations) of the blog below each case? If you check again, you will see that there are several cases where she also copied mistakes, e.g. in page numbers, years and names, from the source she did not cite.

      1. Us US scientists should be thankful that we have a government agency to help protect us against internet slander, by actually mandating that allegations of research misconduct are kept confidential until actually proven true by means of a thorough investigation of the raw data. But even in this country, we have individuals who take it upon themselves to try and convict persons THEY deem responsible of scientific fraud with out ever investigating the actual data. These people however are lauded by readers of blogs such as this.

        1. : There are two things going one here. One is the official investigation at the university. For the people involved it is a criminal offense to leak information during the procedure. It happened anyway, at one point and with limited extend. The university filed respective charges against ‘unknown’.

          Second, some internet activist(s) got themselves a copy of the thesis and compared it to books from the time back then. Next, they put what they considered interesting on the web. The result is said blog. I don’t think such a blog would be illegal in the US, or would it? Sounds like “free speech” to me.

    2. honest behavior also means sorting things out in your mind and remembering where you got them. As we read things, we store not only the ideas but the sources. Occasional lapses are inevitable, but a pattern of lapses is incriminating.

    3. Cryptomnesia has become a common excuse for plagiarism. Even if this is believed to be the culprit here (I do not believe so), it does not dismiss the existence of academic misconduct. Thirteen yes and two abstention (politically motivated I am sure) is pretty damning. Would be suspicious if the verdict was overturned.

    4. A fascinating example of repetition of misunderstanding (not plagiarism at all): the re-use of the term “sub-conscience” from Joachim to OMSJ. Suggest the correct word is “subconscious”…

    5. Rewritten passages are not plagarism. If this is the sort of thing being alledged, then there is some kind of witch-hunt occurring. Since this is all taking place in public, and she is part of the government, and the government is right-wing, there is possibly an attempt to take her out politically. My German is good for ordering beer, but not discussions of plagarism. Can you tell us if there is, at any point in the SchavanPlagBlog, a clear and unambiguous copying directly of 10 or more words from an uncited source?

      1. Who determined officially that plagiarism was the copying of 10 or more words? Why not 6 words, or why not 17 words? Totally ridiculous and irresponsible limits. Set by WHOM? Who is the person or institute behind this 10-word limit? Surely, it makes more sense to use, as I have stated on numerous occasions, and set a percentage of total text, e.g., 1% of total text that is 100% identical, word for word? If in stats, a hypothesis is rejected with a high level of confidence at 1%, then why can’t we adopt a similar measure in peer review and post-publication “witch-hunting”? Can we not start to quantify comments more? It is important to ask who is setting these “rules” and “guidelines” on plagiarism and self-plagiarism. If being established in the US, what moral authority is there of a country that has killed 1 million+ Iraqis to impose “publishing ethics” on the rest of the world? You might hate me for saying this, but publishing is politics, and nothing exists accidentally, out of thin air. I see alot of fraud, but I also see unfair and imbalanced victimization. Surely, we, as scientists, can do better at making quantifiable measures of text and image manipulation and plagiarism? How sad is the community when we are so useless to not even come up with free, open-access, fairly and deeply reflected upon quantifiable measures, but have to rely on industry (e.g., iGuessTheRest) to come up with the solution so that they can then use us to make profits. All frauds aside, I think this “ethics” stuff is all one big fat sham and a new market to expand on profits to please shareholders (hypothesis)…

      2. Rewritten passages may be plagiarism. Close paraphrasing where the overall sentence structure and language is close to the original may be considered plagiarism even if the paraphrased text is cited. Plagiarism can involve attributing as one’s own the ideas of others even if one’s text may be rather different from the original.

        Of course we’d have to look at Schavan’s thesis with the sources at hand (and with an ability to understand German!), before we can comment authoritatively on this; otherwise it doesn’t seem very fruitful to comment on whether Schavan’s been unfairly treated at this point. The Dusselforf investigation concluded that Schavan “systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own”. That sounds like plagiarism by attribution of other’s ideas as one’s own…If we were really interested in this we could do the hard work and find out..

        Robin Hood, unfortunately plagiarism isn’t necessarily amenable to simple quantitative definition. I suspect anyone who works in a University setting knows how difficult it is to define a particular degree of plagiarism in a piece of work and to come up with a fair penalty in any given case. Of course some examples of plagiarism are obvious; the examples of plagiarism in research articles that have been highlighted on RetractionWatch show that some individuals believe that they can get a “free” publication by simply copying all or large chunks of others papers.

        If you wish to understand how plagiarism is defined at the “business end” then why not Google a University name and “plagiarism policy”. You can find dozens of websites giving particular University policies with examples and penalties. You’ll see that these tend to be rather similar across the higher educational sector. Likewise you could Google a publisher’s name and “plagiarism policy” to determine how the publishing sector define and address this.

        But I expect you won’t a quantitative measure; it’s not really possible to quantify plagiarism in this manner. In a publishing setting I would define a serious plagiarism (i.e. one that justifies a retraction) as one in which the author has effectively obtained a paper that s/he would otherwise have been unable to produce without the plagiarism. If an author publishes a 5000 word paper in which a 50 word section is reproduced verbatim without attribution (your 1% definition), I would note that there is a small element of plagiarism in the paper, I would consider that that’s pretty poor practice, as an editor/publisher I might consider it useful to point out to the author that the minor plagiarism has been noted and may even request an explanation. But I wouldn’t consider that a particulalry serious misdemeanour.

        1. This is very difficult. You state “Close paraphrasing where the overall sentence structure and language is close to the original may be considered plagiarism even if the paraphrased text is cited.”. What defines “close”? That is a formula for witch-hunts without end.

          1. Yup, I expect that there is an element of “witch hunting” in this case as a couple of other commenters have indicated. We’d have to look at the actual thesis and supposedly plagiarised source material to establish ourselves the extent to which plagiarism is apparent in this particular case.

            However one can usually assess plagiarism by looking at the actual examples. So, for example, I grabbed a section of the abstract of the retracted paper in Oncogene currently being discussed near the top of the RetractionWatch list of posts.

            Aberrant genome-wide hypomethylation is thought to be related to tumorigenesis by promoting genomic instability. Since DNA methylation is considered an important mechanism for the silencing of retroelements, hypomethylation in human tumors may lead to their reactivation. However, the role of DNA hypomethylation in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) remains to be elucidated. In this study, the methylation status of the LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposon promoter was analysed in CML samples from the chronic-phase (CP, n=140) and the blast crisis (BC, n=47). The above results strongly suggest that activation of both sense and antisense transcriptions by aberrant promoter hypomethylation of the L1 elements plays a role in the progression and clinical behavior of the CML.

            and I plagiarised it using close paraphrasing in which the structure of the paragraph and language is close to the original:

            “There is evidence that genomic instability resulting from aberrant genome-wide hypomethylation may be related to tumorigenesis. Silencing of retroelements may involve DNA hypomethylation; consequently human tumors might be reactivated by hypomethylation. Unfortunately, it is so far unclear whether DNA hypomethylation has a significant role in chronic myeloid luekemia (CML). We addressed this question by assessing the methylation status of the LINE-1 retrotransposon promoter in both chronic phase and blast crisis CML samples. Our results indicate that aberrant promoter hypomethylation of LI elements that results in activation of both sense and antisense transcription is important for the progression of CML and its clinical manifestations.”

            There are very few runs of more than 4 or 5 identical words in the above but I suspect everyone would agree that my version is a plagiarised version of the original. One could paraphrase it further and there may well be a point at which the relationship between the paraphrased and original version would become less obvious. As I indicated in my post there isn’t a way to absolutely quantitate plagiarism….however in many cases plagiarism is pretty clear. Is the Schavan example a clear case of plagiarism? Don’t know since I haven’t looked at the thesis and it’s supposed sources (and don’t speak German terribly well!).

  3. I’m a bit split on that topic.
    On the one hand i absolutely agree, that plagiarism is a serious topic and such a work should not be sufficient to get a PhD.
    On the other hand, revoking her title now is definitely not the best cause of action as well.

    She failed to deliver her own thoughts and used others, without following the right procedure. Yet the university failed to notice this. Two wrongs make no right – since both failed it should not be handled, as if she did not plagiarize – but had the university noted it back then, she may have been able to edit it. If they thought it was willful, they may have forced her to leave and get her title elsewhere, but still, it would have given her the possibility to enhance the quality of her work.

    Now, 30 years later she does not gain these possibilities, because the university failed? Even if she gained these possibilities now, i don’t think she would be able to rework her thesis, with all that time passed. Yet for that failure the university does not get any repercussions? Doesn’t sound right to me.

    Either punish both, the university and Schavan, or punish none. The latter may pierce another stone from the pillars, on which our academic system stands, but well – if you look at the lacks of funding for universities, the decreasing quality of education and all the other things, i ask myself if it even matters anymore.

  4. It’s well established that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. plagiarized much of his doctoral dissertation at Boston University. I wonder if the Schavan case will influence BU to re-visit its granting of King’s doctorate.

    1. <blockquote“As a doctoral candidate, she systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own,” [Dusseldorf professor Bruno] Bleckmann said. Large sections of the work, he continued, had been taken from elsewhere without adequate attribution. As such, she was guilty of “intentional deception through plagiarism.”(1)

      Funny thing is, absent finding any information to the contrary, Ms. Schavan seems to have been doing a satisfactory job as Minister of Education. I always suspected that these degrees were just so much ink on paper and that if you know the proper jargon then you could fool the ignorant masses into believing anything.

      As the saying goes:
      BS = Bulls**t
      MS = More of the Same
      PhD = Piled High and Deep

      And none of it really means a thing. LOL


  5. This is a case of both plagiarism and politics. Allow me to lazily breakdown German politics to socialists and capitalists…and things in between. The socialists have been going after the reputations and degrees of the capitalists with different kinds of public scandals. Schavan is just another “victim” of this method. She did plagiarize, but how many other people have had their thesis worked through? How many doctoral titles would have to be revoked in all of Germany if every thesis ever submitted was investigated?

    Should she have her title revoked? Probably, depending on the degree of plagiarism. Should she be drug down the street as part of a socialist party witch hunt? No. The FDP, her party, is much hated rate now and rightfully so. The other parties are trying to effectively kill the FDP forever. This is just another blow. The people that started the investigation could care less about scientific integrity.

    1. Actually, she is with the CDU, Christian Democratic Union, not the FDP. And yes, I would appreciate if one could go after all theses submitted in the last forty years. It is another question whether the resources needed for it are worth the potential outcome and in most cases the answer would be no. But for individuals in the highest positions, why not? Just because many people cheat on their taxes, you don’t need to have one of them as finance minister. Mind you, Schavan still is minister for education and research. No need to invent a witch hunt for explaining that she is asked to step down and I don’t see her being dragged down the street so far.

    2. She is of course not FDP (the “hard” capitalist party) rather CDU (the “soft” capitalists).
      The question is whether this sort of Ph.D. in the social sciences, usually squeezed in in the evenings and inviting people to cut corners is a good idea at all, in the years gone by this was how you did your MA!!

    3. If you look at the list at Vroniplag, you will find several SPD (“socialist”) politicians. The research by Vroniplag has already resulted in about 10 titles being retracted, amongst which those of SPD politicians Uwe Brinkmann and Siegfried Haller.

  6. Where I come from (it is such small country that I would give my identity away if I spelled it!) it is very rare for politicians to boast academic degrees. The voters would not give a damn if you had one or not. It has become more common, in economists foreexample, to show that they have further degrees obtained preferably at the University of Chicago (do not ask me why!). What has become reasonably widespread though is to add PhD(c) after your name. The c stands for candidate and most commonly it means that you did not finish your PhD, after wasting tax payers money living abroad for a few years, and probably will never do. As somebody (Lord Curzon?) said: such is life in the tropics.

    On second thought, though utterly ridiculous, this is a better practise than plagiarising your thesis!

    1. In Schavan’s case, the PhD was actually the only degree she made after her studies. Nowadays you have to get a diploma or masters degree etc., first, but back then this was not uncommon. So if the revocation stands in court, formally she will be a college dropout.

      And then there is the point that a “Herr Doktor” or “Frau Doktor” before the name comes with a certain social prestige in Germany. So, for a politician it may be helpful to have that, some voters probably give a damn around here. (I am not suggesting that this was a reason for Schavan, I don’t know her well enough to comment on that, but in general I believe this to be a reason why politicians try to get one on top of their other degree).

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