Germany’s plagiarism hunter spies victory in war on misconduct

Martin Heidingsfelder, who has helped bring down several political high-fliers, still thinks there are plagiarists at the very top of German politics

March 13, 2019
American football
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Strong values: ‘when you go over the rules, your team is punished… It’s my philosophy. Only weak people violate rules’

After close to a decade of scandals that have felled numerous high-flying German politicians, the war on academic fraud is gradually being won, according to the country’s most high-profile plagiarism hunter.

Since 2011, Martin Heidingsfelder, a former international-level American football player with a passion for sticking to the rules, has helped create several online plagiarism websites that have unearthed fraud after fraud in the theses of Germany’s political class.

Only last month he claimed his latest victim: the Free University of Berlin stripped a conservative MP, Frank Steffel, of his doctorate after an investigation triggered by a tip-off from Mr Heidingsfelder.

This is only the latest scandal in a plagiarism hunting career that has helped bring down the former defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, once tipped as a future chancellor, and former research minister Annette Schavan – although since these successes, splits have emerged in Germany’s plagiarism hunting community, with bitter spats over who exactly founded the sites that examine doctorates.

The subject of countless newspaper profiles in Germany, Mr Heidingsfelder’s fame has now travelled abroad: last year a Spanish newspaper commissioned him to inspect the doctorate of Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, during a plagiarism scandal that engulfed Spanish politics.

Martin Heidingsfelder
Martin Heidingsfelder

Germany has become notorious for academic fraud scandals at the highest level. But Mr Heidingsfelder now hopes that his work, plus the scrutiny of other plagiarism hunters online, is finally discouraging the wrong sort of people from entering German politics.

Politicians now sometimes even go to him, rather than the other way around: several of Mr Heidingsfelder’s clients have been rising stars themselves, who wanted to privately check their already submitted university theses for anything that could cause a future scandal, he told Times Higher Education.

One such client was “on the way to a big career in politics”, Mr Heidingsfelder recalled, but broke down in tears when told the extent of academic fraud in his thesis, sinking his chance of high office. “It stopped his career,” he said.

In German politics, “you only come forward if you use your elbows”, he said, referring to an excess of competition and ambition among the country’s political class.

“I don’t want that. I want...people with intrinsic motivations,” said Mr Heidingsfelder, who has himself entered party politics, first for the Social Democrats, and then later with the anti-copyright Pirate Party.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the country’s president, was in 2013 accused of plagiarism in his doctorate, but was cleared by his alma mater. But Mr Heidingsfelder still fears that there are plagiarists at the very highest levels of the German government.

Some have questioned whether Mr Heidingsfelder’s plagiarism checks are paid for by those seeking revenge against particular politicians. He keeps the identities of his clients secret, but stressed that it was only very seldom, perhaps once or twice a year, that he is commissioned by a politician to investigate a rival. “Fundamentally, I don’t ask my employers why [they want someone investigated],” he explained.

For anyone wanting him to investigate a regional, national or European MP, he offers a discount. “I want political work to be clean – there are so many criminals working there,” he said. He even has a public post box to receive anonymous packages of incriminating documents.

But much of his work is now rather more mundane: students come to him to make sure their work is fraud-free, while academics commission him to see whether their suspicions about a thesis are correct. Less than 10 per cent of his work now involves digging into politicians’ work, he estimated.

Mr Heidingsfelder said that he has no regrets about any of the accusations he has made, even though they have sometimes been costly. He was once heavily fined by a court – his friends had to stump up the cash – after refusing to retract televised accusations of plagiarism against a psychiatrist who was cleared of wrongdoing by his university.

“Looking for justice,” is how he characterises his life principle. As a player for the Ansbach Grizzlies, he learned that “there are clear rules. When you go over the rules, your home team is punished.”

For a three-year stretch during his playing career, recalled Mr Heidingsfelder, he did not commit a single foul, and can still remember the exact infringements (unintentional, he stressed) that broke his clean playing streak.

“It’s my philosophy. Only weak people violate rules,” and they need to be found out, in sport, and in life, he said.

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Reader's comments (6)

It would be important to clarify the definition of plagiarism. Virtually all scientific publications will have a similarity index above zero. Some may have quite a high similarity index, say 20%, but still be on safe grounds in terms of plagiarism. Some disciplines (such as literature, sociology and philosophy) may include substantial quotes from other sources and these will push up the similarity index without raising any concerns about plagiarism, provided citations are in order, etc. Plagiarism is a huge threat to both academic standards in higher education and to the sustained credibility of scientific publishing, but what exactly constitutes plagiarism is not always that clear cut. As previous editor-in-chief of the European Management Journal, I rejected a number of papers because they were plagiarised, but I also accepted some with a high similarity index as they clearly made an independent contribution to new knowledge.
Interesting article, but could you please stop using Google to translate the quotations from German. There are two mistranslations which should be obvious to any native speaker of English, because they don't make sense: 1. “there are clear rules. When you go over the rules, your home team is punished.” The German was probably: "Wenn man die Regeln übertritt..." = "If you break the rules, then your team is punished". 2. 'In German politics, “you only come forward if you use your elbows” '. The German was probably: "man kommt nur vorwärts, wenn man die Ellbogen benutzt." = "You only get on (or progress) if you use your elbows." I am amazed that the author of this piece didn't notice this but, more importantly, are there no sub-editors at the THE?
I find this a bit disturbing. If someone has plagiarised, surely they know what they have done, even if they don't want to admit it to anyone else - so why ask for an external check? But more seriously, is not the problem with academic supervision? Why have the doctorates been awarded in the first place if the research is not original? What does this say about all those doctoral candidates who haven't chosen to go into politics? Or does this fellow have a completely different concept of 'plagiarism' from the standard academic meaning of passing off someone else's work as your own?
'If someone has plagiarised, surely they know what they have done,'. Actually, no. Thesis writing takes years and involves jottings from various sources, copying paragraphs, being persuaded by authors whose POV you adopt for months or years and, of course, paraphrasing stuff you wish you'd written. When it's all over, you cannot figure out what's yours, what's borrowed, what's paraphrased and what you've outright pinched from other, worthier investigators. When I see my own original (I think) insights incorporated into others' published materials I reflect on my own transgressions and take it as a compliment. We need to lighten up.
I too am puzzled by this. In fact I’ve just tweeted my puzzlement. Supervision is to guide the student towards ensuring originality in all parts, especially the research itself. The literature review must of course use previous work. Plagiarism is avoided by correctly citing. The examination process of the thesis, including the Viva Voce, unearths anything untoward. Is it really the case that in Germany every aspect of the quality assurance process is omitted? I find that hard to believe. In any case, as has already been stated, those who plagiarise know what they’ve done. So it’s even odder that they want to ‘unearth’ it...
A useful contribution and comments on plagiarism. This is one aspect of academic integrity being examined further under the Council of Europe's ETINED platform. Do ensure your views are fed back to the Ministry which sends representatives to the ETINED meetings. Currently a working group, to which I belong , is finalising a questionnaire to all 50 participating states.