This week, the German Minister of Defence Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg lost his doctor’s degree owing to plagiarism. His Ph.D. thesis was apparently put together with borrowed text without references to the originals. The plagiarism was not sporadic but extensive and systematic.
The case raises several issues that are worth reflecting upon:
At the political level, the discussion has revolved around the question of whether Guttenberg can keep his job. According to the polls, the majority of German citizens are willing to forgive him: it does not follow from his behaviour at university, or so the argument argues, that he cannot do a good job as minister. Who needs a minister with a doctorate? Moreover, Guttenberg never intended to cheat. This is also the position adopted by the governing coalition of Christian and Liberal Democrats and the Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The above argument is flawed in two principal ways. First, there is the question of intentionality. I doubt it is possible to cheat to this extent without any bad intentions. What is possible is that Guttenberg lost the overview or began to believe that what he was copying and pasting was his own text. This, in turn, raises the question whether it is better for a member of the political class to know or not know when he is cheating. In any case, Guttenberg has lost credibility and is now a ‘dead man walking’. Even if he keeps his job in the short-term and has still the electorate in his favour, the moment he commits a mistake it will all come back to haunt him. What he can very likely forget are his dreams for becoming Chancellor.
The second way in which the political argument is flawed is with respect to the proposition that his past behaviour does not correlate with his current performance. Well, yes, people do change; and yes, everyone deserves a second chance. (Especially Guttenberg, it would seem, since he has charisma and the Germans were glad to finally have someone among the political class who was more sympathetic than Angela Merkel.) But a second chance needs to be earned, and Guttenberg’s reaction to what has happened is not terribly convincing in this respect. Here is a guy who has cheated in order to gain a title and who now says, he did not mean it. Aha! That sounds like the argument children make when caught being naughty. That kids are given a second (and third, and fourth) chance is evident; that a grown-up man who is Minister of Defence should be treated the same way is not. That he might be good on his job is another matter. Sure he is. Cheating to this extent is also quite a performance!
At the science policy level, the Guttenberg case highlights anew an old problem which has been aggravated by the emergence of the Internet. In Central Europe many students are apparently not very serious about research and writing and are relying on copy and paste instead. Yet, the question that needs to be asked, is how comes they get away with it? This is only possible because they receive poor supervision. A professor who takes a student seriously will be familiar with that student’s analytical and writing skills and will, therefore, be able to recognize when that student begins to come up with thoughts or expressions that are different from those usually displayed. That professors do not realize can only mean that they do not bother to read their students’ texts on a regular basis. Plagiarism is, therefore, a good indicator of university teaching and supervision standards. Overcoming the problem necessitates improving teaching and supervision. Paying more attention to writing classes is also important. This is a standard in the U.S. but practically absent in Europe. To achieve this, implies investing more in university education and, specifically, human resources. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what is currently taking place.