Friday, January 1, 2010

Frau Dr. and the Bild-Zeitung

The new German Minister for Family Matters (Kristina Köhler, 32, unmarried, no children) has had her lawyers send a threatening letter to the Bild-Zeitung, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports.

It seems that the Bild-Zeitung was looking into some "irregularities" concerning the dissertation of Frau Dr. Köhler. The Süddeutsche had also reported on the amazing capabilities of Ms. Köhler, who managed to write her dissertation while being a member of parliament. She had some help from the national organization of her party to send questionnaires to 180 members of parliament from her party and to select and send the questionnaires to 1000 members of the party. Her goal was to see if the values of the representatives were similar to members of the party.

She also paid someone to put the questionnaire into a computer and to do the layouting, the Süddeutsche reports. The Bild-Zeitung was busy doing some deeper research into the matter, when the editor-in-chief, Kai Diekmann, received a letter from Köhler's lawyers just before Christmas - but it was not Christmas greetings. He publishes the letter in facsimile in his blog. They are threatening to sue the newspaper for damages if they publish anything "wrong" about this topic.

There have apparently been a lot of journalists calling the CDU, the University of Mainz, and her advisor there,  it seems. Her advisor does a lot of quite interesting research in the area of extremist parties and why people vote the way they do.

But word seems to have gotten back to Minister Köhler that all of these inquires were being made by the Bild-Zeitung, and so she had her lawyers write the letter. From the letter (my translation):
The help [she received] was only of a technical nature and concerned the sending of the questionnaires, the optical design of the questionnaire, putting the data in machine-readable form, problems with the software, and doing the layout and formatting of the thesis. [...] The amount of this help was known to the mentor and he accepted it.
Of course. Thank you for setting this straight. She did note in her thesis (it has been reported, I could not obtain a copy to check myself) that she had used this help, so the University of Mainz knew what it was doing when it gave her the doctorate. She did nothing - legally - wrong. But morally? People who have spent years of their life doing everything themselves for their doctorates, perhaps even having their doctoral theses not accepted, may perhaps be excused for being somewhat bitter at this story. It makes one wonder - what exactly does it mean when you have "Dr." in front of your name? And why do the lawyers get active if there is nothing wrong here? Just put the thesis online and let everyone have a look for themselves.

Perhaps this case finally makes it clear that we need a more widely accepted general definition of what exactly constitutes a dissertation, and not just the personal discretion of a professor who convinces his or her department that the results are worthy of conferring a title.

Or maybe we can just quit using "Dr." as part of our names and as some sort of proof of superiority in German-speaking countries. A doctorate is only useful in academia, because it has to do with ability to do research. It should not be of value in business or politics or sports.


  1. Dear Debora,

    I found this story about the German minister so interesting that I have written something in Finnish about it in my blog. I linked your story to mine, and used this title:
    ""Discussions" in the media about a politician's doctoral thesis."

    I have published in my blog in October 2009 a story about a Finnish MP whose proposal for action has been published on the internetpages of the Finnish Parliament. The proposal of action is a word-to-word copy of an editorial in CSCNews 3/2009 "Editorial: Participation in European infrastructures is crucial".

    The proposal for action has the same title and the same text (texts in Finnish). Here is a link to my blog, my title here is "onetooneplagiarism". I have put the two texts side by side in a picture and everyone should see the similarity of texts even if they are in Finnish.

    So far I have received 0 comments to this story. Does that tell us how sensitive the issue of plagiarism is in Finland - or is it just that no one really cares and it is OK to copy texts and present them as your own?

    Best wishes from Finland,

    Erja Moore

  2. I do not agree in two points:
    Firstly, formatting and layouting a thesis means to be able to present your own work in a nice and appropriate manner, therefore IT IS part of the thesis work. If I'd do that, my thesis would not be accepted.

    Secondly, I think that a PhD (or Dr.) should have value in industry as it is an additional qualification. Why should a PhD have not value but a Master's?



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