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.