Thursday, February 17, 2011

Freiherr zu Copy and Paste

Every journalist in the country, it seems, needed to speak with me over the past two days. They need to understand plagiarism, now. They wonder why we just can't stuff Guttenberg's doctoral thesis - which appears to have been heavily plagiarized - into some kind of software and let it chug away and tell us how much was plagiarized.

Every newspaper in the country had an article on it, every news station reports hour by hour on new developments. Guttenberg, the conservative German defense minister from Bavaria, has left the country and gone to Afghanistan. They say this was planned, but right now, he's probably safer there than in the streets of Berlin. The opposition is gleefully taking potshots at him (metaphorically, you understand). His supporters accuse the scientist who discovered the plagiarism of being part of a commie plot to undermine the country, if I understand their tone of voice correctly.

No one believes that a professor might sit down one evening at the computer, in the midst of writing a review of a doctoral thesis that had been around for a while, but had a very prominent author, currently under fire for other things. The professor, Andreas Fischer-Lescano of the University of Bremen, poured himself a glass of Argentine red wine, looked over the thesis and put three words into Google: "säkularer laizistischer multireligiöser" (secular lay multireligious - the thesis includes a chapter on putting references to a god in a constitution).

And he got a hit. From an article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung by Klara Obermüller, written a few years before his thesis was published. Oops. He poured another glass and tried some other terms, and some more. Fischer-Lescano wrote a scathing review, and includes as an appendix 24 word-for-word passages that are not quoted and not referenced. The review will be published the end of the month in Kritische Justiz, 44(1), pp. 112-119.

A number of journalists have spoken with me today to question this way of working. How do I look for plagiarists? "Well," I said, "pretty much the same. Except that I prefer Austrian wine."

There is speculation about whether his doctorate will be rescinded. I remind journalists that this is for the University of Bayreuth to decide. They did the granting (top grades, by the way, they might want to rethink how they grade theses); they are the only ones who can take away. Apparently, KT, as he is affectionately known, has 2 weeks to prepare a statement explaining where the quotation marks disappeared to. Meanwhile, a crowdsourcing project is checking all 400+ pages for more sources.

I give top awards to the reporting of the case to the Financial Times Deutschland for their print edition from Feb. 17. Their lead story, "Freiherr zu Copy and Paste1" includes 9 proper footnotes, including the one in the heading and one in the subheading.

In between all of the interviews I also spent an hour on Bayern2 radio on the topic of what a title is worth in Germany (I also explained this in English to "The Local") and spent a good few hours with a camera team from Focus TV. They are going to have a show on Tuesday evening on Kabel 1. But it looks like they have sold some of the shots to other media already, I saw me reading the paper mentioned above (my rings are rather unique).

One does wonder if there is no other real news to report on, but it is nice that people are talking about plagiarism. And our hits are just tremendous:

Tomorrow I will turn off my phones and attend our doctoral students seminar. And I suppose I shall say a word or two about footnotes.


  1. What I am concerned about is that I (and many other foreigners) have been preaching to the Chinese for years that copy&paste mentality is evil, and that - particularly for Germans - the strict and self-imposed adherence to original"ism" (as the opposite of plagiarism) is what made us (Germans) have such great products that everyone in China seems to be wanting. What am I going to say to one of my colleagues challenging me on that issue? It is not about chasing the minister politically - bad enough that people can't keep things separate that do not belong together; I just see the minister as a person, a scientist, a German. Being an ambassador to my home country in China, and having to explain this case to my fellow Chinese colleagues and friends, I expect the German science community to react and make the errant scientist live up to science publishing standards.

  2. "The professor, Andreas Fischer-Lescano of the University of Bremen, poured himself a glass of Argentine red wine, looked over the thesis and put three words into Google" - You are paraphrasing an article published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Feb. 16 (, without referencing it. This is just a blog, but it doesn't help your credibility.

  3. Dear Anonymous, this is a point comes up regularly: in what kind of writing do you need to give sources in what kind of detail? Thanks for the link - that is indeed my source that is was red wine from Argentina. I'll include the link in the article.

    The Financial Times Deutschland had a lead article with footnotes - that demonstrated nicely that this makes no sense in newspapers, although one can, indeed, refer to sources in text.

    I don't really believe that this has anything to do with my credibility, but you are welcome to doubt anything I write. That's part of science: we read other's works and decide on that basis, how much we trust what they are saying.

    We also don't write as "Anonymous" when we write scientifically, but we stand with our names for what we write.

  4. You're right that this shouldn't be about the politician, whether one likes his doings or not: it's about academic integrity and honesty only, and about academia itself: for if it won't stick to its rules, there's no point in claiming to search for the truth only. Yet last year Volker Rieble's book on "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat" showed clearly how little the academic world seems to be willing to take appropriate steps against plagiarists; it's so much easier to turn a blind eye to it. I taught at a British university for a couple of years, and I do believe in the academic values we were brought up with; but we have to be aware that these values are not set in stone, they need to be fought for every day, and the more so with Bologna developments. I think it's worth it.


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