Thursday, March 10, 2016

German Defense Minister to keep doctoral degree

The Medical University in Hanover held a press conference on March 9, 2016 that was broadcast live on German television. They announced that the dissertation submitted in 1990 by the current German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen does indeed contain plagiarism (as documented by VroniPlag Wiki), but that they do not see an intention to deceive and thus they are not rescinding the doctorate. They see most of the plagiarism in the introduction, not in the results portion of the thesis. The president of the university stated that there are "errors, but not academic misconduct." The VroniPlag Wiki documents plagiarism on 27 out of 62 pages (43.5 % of the pages in the thesis affected), not only in the introduction, but also in section 3 (Thematic Background and Pathophysiological Fundamentals) as well as in the discussion.

RP online quotes law professor Gerhard Dannemann, one of the VroniPlag Wiki activists, as stating that this decision is irritating because plagiarism is academic misconduct, as has been decided time and again in the German courts when persons who had their doctorates revoked for plagiarism took their universities to court.

The Berlin daily newspaper Tagespiegel notes the close connections between von der Leyen and the MHH. Her husband is an adjunct professor at the MHH and director of the Hannover Clinical Trial Center GmbH that is affiliated with the medical school. She herself is a founder of the school's alumni association.

Since this case was published, VroniPlag Wiki has documented extensive text overlap in five additional dissertations (Acb, Bca, Lcg, Wfe in medicine, Cak in dentistry) and a habilitation (Mjm) from the MH Hanover. It will be interesting to see how these cases that affect people who are not politicians play out. In particular one would hope that these cases would also be dealt with in a timely manner and the results announced to the academic world.

In my opinion the MH Hanover has chosen what they think is a pragmatic solution. They split an academic publication into two parts, an important and a non-important part. Many biomedical researchers fall into the same trap: If the data is falsified or fabricated, they are quick to find fault, but do not find plagiarism to be a problem. This is, however, in direct contradiction to German court decisions that only see a dissertation as submitted as a whole. There is no "scientific core" that is okay, although the rest is tainted. The NSF in the USA is very clear on this topic:
„(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, carrying out, or
(2) Reporting results from activities funded by NSF; or retaliation of any kind against a person who reported or provided information about suspected or alleged misconduct and who has not acted in bad faith.“
This is how I see it: When entire pages are taken word-for-word without appropriate citation (for example the VroniPlag Wiki case Go with more than half of the pages containing plagiarism, among them 11 pages taken from the Wikipedia without reference) and passed off as one's own work, it is plagiarism and thus academic misconduct. It is also plagiarism (and thus academic misconduct) when throughout a text words or ideas are presented as the author's own when they are actually taken from another person. There is not a question of intent to deceive inherent in a definition of plagiarism, that can only have an effect on potential sanctions.

The MH Hanover deliberated and tried to find a way to have it both ways: The thesis contains plagiarism, but it is not serious enough to warrant rescinding a doctorate. I suspect this will provoke much discussion with current and future students who do not understand why they are given a failing grade for much less plagiarism.

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