Friday, November 23, 2007


I tend to have my movie critiques on my private blog, but this German TV thriller shown last week on public television is about plagiarism, so I will discuss it here.

Menschenraub, the theft of a person, is what the word "plagiarism" means. When Martial, a Latin poet in the 1st century, discovered that a fellow poet had taken some of his poems and published them under his own name, he called him a "Plagiarius", someone who steals children. He felt that his poems were the children of his thought.

This "thriller" is not thrilling, possibly because the topic of plagiarism is quite boring when shown on TV. In an institute for forensic medicine and thanatology at the University of Hamburg there are all sorts of plagiarisms being found - and of course, deaths, otherwise it would not be a thriller. A teacher found a plagiarism in a student's work and exposed it in front of the entire class, announcing that she will be ex-matriculated. She kills herself.

This teacher is soon found dead, and it turns out that he has found out that the doctoral thesis of a colleague is a translation plagiarism of a scholar's work in the former Yugoslavia. Another colleague learns of this plagiarism and he too is soon dead. The plagiarist ends up committing suicide during a police interrogation to protect his girlfriend (also a colleague), who was the real murderer.

As an aside, one of the police detectives is "writing" a piece for a criminal justice journal, and he is typing in some other paper to be published in his own name.

Next to this very contrived situation - an entire institute dead within days because of allegations of plagiarism - there are so many details which are just wrong. I know of only one German university that actually ex-matriculates students because of plagiarism, and that does not happen just because a professor writes a letter. They go on at length about how much a professor gets paid, but they use the new pay scale and are using the lowest one (which pays 3700 Euros a month) but saying that this is 7000 Euros. This is the idea many people get of salaries of professors, but it is not true. Most are happy to get 4000. But honestly - who cares?

Plagiarism is an important topic for scientific discussion: what is it, how do we avoid it, how do we handle plagiarism when we find it. But as the topic of a thriller it just does not pack much of a punch.

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