Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Plague on your Doctorate

Whew. The International Herald Tribune just published an article about the VroniPlag work on the New York Times site, and it seems this is very widely read. The Philadelphia area Church of God's magazine, the Trumpet, has a broadside by Ron Fraser about the German doctorate plagiarism scandal that is just filled with venom and rhetorical questions. Never one to duck an honest fight, I just sent this response to him.

Hi Ron,

I just found your Trumpet article, and I seem to hear you asking for a response.

By the way, I spell my name without an h and I'm from an engineering college, not the Technical University. And I've not been in hiding at all. I just use a nick in the online worlds, a nick I have been using on the Wikipedia since about 2004. Besides being a professor who works with media and computing, I'm also dean of a rather large business school, a member of the German computing society's working group on Ethics in Computing, and a lay preacher at my local church. So I do have a smattering of knowledge about ethics.

You've asked a lot of rhetorical questions - I'll be happy to answer them. Perhaps you can publish this rejoinder so that English-language readers can understand. I'll put it on my blog as well, just to make sure it gets out.

Why initiate such an investigation? Well, we didn't. It was a professor in Bremen, Prof. Fischer-Lescano, who was in the process of reviewing zu Guttenberg's thesis. He found some plagiarism, and zu Guttenberg - a very public figure - tried to play it down. This angered people who are working on proper doctorates, and they had a look. The current count is 94% of the pages containing plagiarism. It does not matter who he is, this is not science, full stop.

Why choose the doctoral theses of the three in question? We didn't. After zu Guttenberg, an anonymous tip about the thesis of Veronika Saß had some folks take a look. They found a large block of word-for-word plagiarism, and so the VroniPlag split away from GuttenPlag.

Why not choose three high-profile academics rather than three prominent people with such strong political connections? Oh, we have quite a number of more or less suspicious theses around. People are begging for us to look at this thesis or the other one, but since we all have day jobs, we can't do them all. The press loves politicians, so we do politicians for now.

Why not choose three high-profile liberals from Germany’s Green Party? Many don't have doctorates. They don't go in for all the title idolatry that is so common in Germany. We've been asking for tips on a Northern German, left-leaning engineering person for weeks, but nothing has materialized.

What does it have to hide? Many people attack the messenger in anger about the news. Since many of the activists work in serious jobs or are completing dissertations themselves, they are trying to shield their jobs from the fallout. They are working here as private individuals. And the attacks are mighty, there are numerous ugly, viscous, and threatening letters and comments that arrive daily.

Why not set the example and be wholly transparent itself? Our work
is completely transparent. Just point your browser to http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Home - all work in progress is done in public. We are focusing on the plagiarism, not on the people pointing out the plagiarism.

Coincidence? Well, three is not much of a sample for determining a pattern.

You speak of our motives as being "a load of deceitful rubbish" and talk of the "damage done to the reputation of individuals". I think you have your perspective wrong here. It's the plagiarists who have deceived us. They put their reputations on the line in chase of that doctorate that should - in my opinion - only be used in science and education and not in politics and business.

You speak of "this national desire for a newly confident and proud national persona". Not all Germans want to have a reprise of what happened the last time a confident and proud national persona took the stage.

I am looking for truth in science. I object to people using scientific titles as vanity objects, and misusing the scientific process. Have a look at what Robert K. Merton had to say about the sociology of science - start at the Wikipedia and scroll down to the middle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_K._Merton

Germany has been sweeping plagiarism and scientific misconduct under the rug for ages, and it has gotten very lumpy. I think we need to lift the carpet up, give it a good beating to get out the dust, sweep up the garbage that has collected, and get a fresh start. There are so many good scientists in Germany who have to defend themselves against all this bad science.

Don't side with the liars.

I look forward to continuing this debate!

Prof. Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff

Typos corrected 26. April 2011


  1. I was reading a bit in their journals and it seems that these guys need strong "right" politicians in Germany in order to feel supported in their opinion that the Germans will raise together with Muslim states to destroy the three Israel Nations (Israel, Britain and America) in order to fulfill the end term prophecy.

    Whoever does not understand this, just start browsing some of the columns of this Ron Fraser to learn in which weird way some people interpret the bible and try to squeeze current events in some old prophecies (and for those guys Germany is one of THE bad guys)....

    They need their picture of an enemy and a Germany that is democratic and in which people clean up and defend values ... this is simply not a useful picture of the bad guy in Europe...

  2. Hi,

    I believe that the search and publishing of plagiarism of politicians is systematic done by the partisan organisations. It now turned into an effective tool of destroying a political(sic!) career. It is a direct attack to the credibility.

    The questions the author could have asked are:
    1. Are right wing parties less effective on searching?
    2. Are left wing parties less vulnerable (as stated by you)?
    3. Do right wing parties wait for better moment to reveal their damaging information to the public?
    I believe in 3. but let's see what's will happen before the next important elections.

    Anonymous PHD student.

  3. Dear Anonymous PHD student,

    you have, of course, a right to your opinions, but I have been active in the group and I can assure you that this is not a partisan organization. These are for the most part scientists or doctoral students or just people mad about people running around flaunting a "Dr." in front of their name.

    It's actually about values and honesty: if you put your name on a text, it should be from you.

  4. Excellent response! I wonder if there'll be a reaction. You will keep us posted?

  5. Mr. Guttenberg remains still one of the most popular figures in Germany. Time will tell what has been accomplished by his forced resignation from office.
    Rarely are such things done as 'good will' or to route out corruption - political motivation, self glorification, self righteousness come to mind as more likely motivaters..

  6. Anonymous, I find it rather peculiar that other people believe they know more about the motivations of myself and others than I do. We only determined the plagiarism. zu Guttenberg lied to parliament when he said there might be the odd footnote missing. No matter what the topic - lying to parliament is not generally a good idea when you are a minister. YMMV.

    Sabine, of course!


Please note that I moderate comments. Any comments that I consider unscientific will not be published.