Friday, May 4, 2012


And now the post you have all been waiting for. Sorry about taking so long, but I had a lot of other things planned for the past few days (teaching, research meeting, re:publica). I was offline most of the past three days (although a friend noted that what I call offline would be considered online for most "normal" people).

A fax was sent to press around Germany giving the link to a blog that had been set up during April 2012: schavanplag. The anonymous blog documents fragments in the dissertation of the German Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, submitted to the University of Düsseldorf 32 years ago.

There are fragments on about 17 % of the pages, but some of the fragments are very thin. Page 91, for example, consists of just two words that complete a sentence from the previous page. I counted the number of lines involved, and assuming 30 lines per page on average this is just 6 % of the lines in the book.

But it should not be considered that I am making light of the situation and shrugging it off. When one looks closely at the fragments one sees that there is a good bit of systematic scientific sloppiness in the whole thing.

I've looked quite closely at this, actually, as many of the fragments were hosted in a discreet discussion area of the VroniPlag platform for the past 4-5 months. They were hotly debated, and it was discussed how to proceed with this. When it came to a final vote, there was no majority for putting the documentation out with the author's name on it on the home page. But it was clear to all that the champions for the case were free to take the material and put it on another platform. And that is exactly what was done.

On the "Shitstorm Scale" (developed by the Swiss social media researchers Barbara Schwede und Daniel Graf) we currently have a hurricane level 6 sweeping the country. The press is in a frenzy, radio and TV are reporting, and the blogosphere, which was mostly having a fun conference in Berlin at the re:publica is screaming up a storm.

I have been asked many times what went on, as I am a named and visible member of the group. I have tried over and over to explain the difference between to open discussion of the text and the open naming of the author. I have tried to explain that this was a borderline case that did not have urgency, in my opinion, when compared with the major plagiarisms that are raging on VroniPlag at the moment. But people want a number: 10%, and that's too much, off with her head.

The university will determine if they will open an investigation. The hot-headed bloggers and twitters who have spent a nanosecond or so looking at the material are, of course, demanding that she step down, and are berating VroniPlag for having decided not to press forward on this case.

Sometimes people have to be reminded that VroniPlag is a group of hobbyists, not the Central Plagiarism Agency that has to search and destroy all plagiarism as soon as possible. I do wish the press would not twist my words quite so much. Something I say will be twisted to imply what the journalist in question wants me to say: she's guilty, she's not guilty, the group is fighting, the group is small, the group is larger, the new blog "stole" the material (it did not).  I corrected a radio journalist three times during a live show today, and he still didn't get it right. Oh well - more discussion on plagiarism is good at any rate. And I do hope that some movement in getting something like the Office of Research Integrity set up in Germany will soon be visible.


  1. Liebe Frau Weber-Wulff,

    wenn Sie die Ihnen bekannten Stellen in der Dissertation von Frau Schavan als "systematic scientific sloppiness" (systematische wissenschaftliche Schlamperei) bezeichnen, sagen Sie dieselbe Unwahrheit wie so viele Akteure in den vergangenen Jahren, die Plagiate verharmlost haben. Ich würde das gerne mit Ihnen anhand jedes einzelnen Fragments diskutieren. Als "Expertin" für Plagiate möchte ich Sie nicht mehr ernst nehmen. Sie haben zudem mit Ihren Äußerungen der ganzen Antiplagiatsbewegung enorm geschadet und geben nun den Journalisten die Schuld. Wenn hier jemand schlampig und fahrig gewesen ist, dann Sie.

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen


    Stefan Weber

  2. Dear Stefan Weber, this is an international blog, so I would prefer to have the comments in English if that was at all possible. You must please differentiate between the person and the text to begin with. I realize that you - and other - prefer to attack high-ranking politicians, especially ones responsible for education. My focus is on how we go about defining plagiarism. I have a lot of trouble with paraphrasing, because it escapes exact definition. My example is always: It's like deciding when a man is bald. It is clear when he is, and it is clear when he isn't. But the point at which not-yet-bald turns to bald is not easy to determine.

    I would also appreciate it if you, as a scientist, could leave the personal attacks at the door and concentrate on the issues. I will be glad to go through the fragments bit by bit. I have already left 13 comments on discussion pages about AS since January. My problem is also that this is not my major focus at the moment in VroniPlag. I'm working on Nm and I rather like to decide for myself which cases I work on. Since we are not paid for this work, it is the decision of each individual how much time and effort is invested in each case.

    You speak of an "Anti-plagiarism movement" - I think that is a bit too high for what is happening here. There is a discussion going, but not a social revolution. But I may be wrong.

  3. Dear Debora,

    I do not "prefer to attack high-ranking politicians". I just expect from them that they know (and knew) the basic rules and respect the ethical guidelines of science when they are (later) in a position in which they GOVERN science, in which they DECIDE upon how to spend millions of EURO etc. That's all. It's the same problem I had (and some other had) with Johannes Hahn. Their dissertations are (so far) quite similar, concerning scientific misconduct.


  4. “My problem is also that this is not my major focus at the moment in VroniPlag.”
    It should be your major focus, isn’t it? Please hurry up, concentrating on As, should be of greater concern than any other case at the moment. Best Rumpelstilzchen

  5. Could you please explain why this should be my major focus? I choose what it is that I want to work on. Right now I have a number of things that I am working on, none of which are related to this case. AS has been fragmented and published and is under discussion nationwide. The university is now dealing with the case.

  6. Dear Rumpelstilzchen

    as far as I know, Vroniplag is a group of volunteers who spend spare time to evaluate plagiarism cases without being paid. I am convinced all of them have a life besides Vroniplag.

    As far as I know, anybody is welcome to join their efforts.

    If you think that As is of major importance, why not joining them and working on this case?

    Personally I am very grateful for their efforts and every single case they look at. If I wished them to take a look at a specific case and influence the directions of their work, I would have to join them and participate.

    With my big thanks to Debora and the whole Vroniplag team for their efforts

  7. For those who think that VroniPlag is being "lazy" - I strongly suggest reading the fifth paragraph in the second column of the article by Martin Spiewak on page 37 of the German weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" from May 10, 2012:

    "Dass sich noch viele weitere verdächtige Stellen finden lassen, halten auch die Rechercheure von VroniPlag eher für unwahrscheinlich. Sie haben die gesamte in der Dissertation angegebene Literatur sowie alle in Google Books digital erfassten Texten zum Thema geprüft."

    Since those who have worked on this case have already inspected all of the material listed in the literature list, the only other possibility would be to find a source not listed there.

  8. Here is some coverage of this case in English: