From where I sit - Doctors beware: paper is patient

June 7, 2012

Since early 2011, Germany has been rocked by a series of scandals relating to ethical breaches in doctoral dissertations authored by high-profile figures. These range from huge tracts of work being lifted unacknowledged from other sources, to a ghostwriter doing the entire job, plus various dubious shades in between.

The latest scandal concerns the third category. Of all people, Annette Schavan, the minister of education and research, is in the firing line over her 32-year-old dissertation on individuals and the formation of conscience. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, commented that at the time of the doctorate's submission, Dr Schavan would have signed a statement to the effect that she had done the work to the best of her ability and - appropriately enough - with a clear conscience.

Ms Merkel made the statement in support of her colleague and not ironically.

There are some unique features to this particular scandal. The University of Düsseldorf, where Dr Schavan sat her doctorate, is currently investigating the allegations and the jury is still out. However, the general perception in the media is that they are not nearly as serious as those that were levelled at Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former defence minister forced to resign after allegations of plagiarism about his doctorate, and sundry others since stripped of their titles. But the case is bad enough, and another major embarrassment for a government minister.

There are evidently many pages in Dr Schavan's dissertation that have not been referenced properly (for instance, quotations of quotations). And there are sentences and small chunks that have been only marginally altered from the original, arguably constituting token change.

Another curious element of the Schavan affair is that one law professor is calling for a statute of limitations on plagiarism charges. But it is unlikely that the public will be willing to let it go at that: after all, even if it was three decades ago, if the allegations are substantiated, is this the right person for the job of education minister?

Indeed, it is not easy to check for plagiarism in work printed on paper, rather than appearing in digital format. But digitisation and comparison can and has been done, so that bad academic practice can haunt the (non)-writer decades after the event. And manual checking is also possible. As they say in Germany, "paper is patient".

The matter emerged anonymously though a blog titled Schavanplag. Dr Schavan first tried to defend herself on the grounds that her accuser should identify him or herself before she could confront the allegations. But no one has accepted this argument, and critics have pointed out that it is essential for such whistleblowers to have complete anonymity in order not to jeopardise their own careers.

Yet another revelation, the significance of which the press here seems to have underrated, is the fact that Dr Schavan has no other university degrees. She was allowed to do a so-called direct doctorate, so if this is annulled, she will not even be a graduate.

The direct doctorate and its associated lack of academic experience may at least in part explain the alleged failings in the dissertation. But if the work wasn't any good in the first place, Annette Schavan will look rather like the empress with no clothes.

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