22 August 2012 by Pelle Neroth
To be a Doktor is a very prestigious thing in a country that can be surprising in its formality. Work colleagues call each other by their surnames. For people with two higher degrees it is not unheard of to see references to the full title, Herr Professor Dr Dr Muller, for example. In the private sector, doctorates confer prestige, high status and sometimes higher salaries. Business leaders and politicians crave the Doktor title, which can be inscribed in their passports and become part of the name.
Perhaps it was inevitable that their attractiveness should prompt people to plagiarise other's work to get their doctorates, and Germany has recently been rocked by a number of plagiarism scandals - first in politicians' doctorates, latterly in the doctorates of scientists and engineers. The plagiarism has been "outed" by volunteers working through the internet.
The campaigns have become a German media phenomenon. The first doctorate to be exposed was that of the minister of defence, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, last year. Suspicions were first voiced in an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Readers then copypasted bits of his dissertation into Google and found further large sections copied. The number of volunteers quickly grew into the 100s, and collaborative "wiki", based on a Wikipedia-style collaborative platform, was set up involving a complicated structure of moderators, admins and editors. They sliced up his thesis and checked it line by line in Google, in a more thorough approach than current antiplagiarism software is capable of. The final product came in the form of a barcode (see picture) representing the whole thesis, the intensity of lines and colours indicating the parts where plagiarism was heaviest. The once popular minister lasted a few weeks in the face of media outrage and has now left politics.
Organisers fend off criticism that it is a witch hunt and say it is necessary to maintain a high level of academic honesty in the country. Many of the anonymous volunteers rooting out plagiarism are themselves young academics struggling to complete their own theses.
Inspired by the Guttenberg case. a more permanent project looking at other politicians, and scientists and engineers, now exists as Vroniplag*. Suspect doctorates are submitted anonymously, and are "taken apart" by volunteers. About half the plagiarism cases dealt with have resulted in the withdrawal of the doctorates. Careers have been affected. One instance where nothing changed, however, was one senior manager at a large power company, who was cleared by the issuing university despite clear evidence of plagiarism. The power company is a big donor to the university.
Overall, universities have felt very discomfited by this new scrutiny towards doctorates. However, the whole thing is a sign of the times and the anti plagiarism movements are here to stay, according to Prof Dr Barbara Weber Wulff, a Berlin academic involved with Vroniplag. You could compare it to the Arab Spring - where Twitter and Facebook were used to mobilise demonstrators - in that modern technology empowers the "little people" against the elites that rule them. As long as the anonymous tipoffs about suspect doctorates keep rolling in to the Vroniplag site, it is likely there are people in Germany, in good positions, living in anxiety.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 22 August 2012 07:14 AM General
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