Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Story of ß - A Plagiarism

The German blogosphere is alive with the story of the German ligature sz (ß) - a book called ß - Ein Buchstabe wird vermisst (ß - a letter goes missing) by Frank Müller.

The first entry is from a printer, Martin Z. Schröder, from his blog SchreibenIstBlei (Writing is leaden). He had written an article for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in May 2007 about this wonderful letter that causes computers and typesetters headaches but is actually quite beautiful.

The publishing house Eichborn Verlag (a large, successful publishing house that puts out many popular books every year) sent him a notice of the book and asked if he wanted to review it. Since the title was similar to his article title he asked for, and received, a copy to review with the request not to write anything about it before the release date, March 3, 2008.

As he began reading it was, as they say, déjà vu all over again. He recognized his article spread throughout the book, and published the bits on his blog before March 3 - seeing as how he had written the paragraphs last year, he didn't see the need to respect this date.

The blog readers pounced on available copies of the book (I tried to obtain a copy, but too late). They found most of the rest of the book in other places: The wonderful book by Judith Schalansky, Fraktur Mon Amour; advertising copy; newspaper articles that are available online; a printer's magazine, SIGNA; a book Falsch ist richtig (false is correct); and anytime the writing is suddenly very clear, the paragraphs are taken from the Wikipedia articles on Fraktur and the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute pages (links are to the WP-EN versions).

Things started happening. This Frank Müller (there are others, who were quick to point out that it was not them) wrote to Schröder by email, saying that the plagiarism was not intentional and had happened through a technical problem and time pressure. Just like the excuses my students bring, although no technical problem can explain this - it is just careless research and use of CTRL-C + CTRL-V too much. Schröder is a good guy, doesn't call his lawyer, but thinks perhaps the book should not be sold.

The publisher agrees, and on February 26 they announce that they are withdrawing the already printed books as had been planned and ask the authors of the plagiarized bits to excuse what has happened. The printers are sad - they hate printing books for the garbage can. But this cannot be healed by an errata list.

The blogosphere explodes. There are articles, comments, analyses, trackbacks all over the place - but not in print media, strangely enough. There are comical discoveries: Amazon misreads the ß (which is transcribed as ss in modern German, not sz) and files the book under " Bücher > Fachbücher > Geschichtswissenschaft > Neuzeit > Nationalsozialismus > SS" (The SS was as Nazi organization).

Three days later, Frank Müller publishes an article UNVERGEßEN (unforgotten) in the Süddeutsche Magazin about the ß. He does not mention his book, but this has a bitter taste to it - why was this not pulled when the book was discovered to be a plagiarism? Why is there no comment on the online version? Parts of this article are taken from his book, and they happen to be plagiarisms...

Bloggers are now writing nasty letters to the SZ, but still no official note of this. If you can read German, here is a selection of blog articles about it: Literaturcafe (they report that literaturkritik.de deleted Müller's entry on his own book, but that can still be found in Google's cache) - Thilo Baum - IGDA - kLog - Fontblog - ....

Update (March 5): Spiegel Online has finally reported on this, that is a well-read, mainstream online medium in German.

Update 2 (March 7): The Süddeutsche has permitted one of the plagiarized, Martin Z. Schröder, to publish an article about the plagiarism, appropriately titled "Der Schamesrote Buchstabe" (The Scarlet Letter).

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