Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Summa cum fraude:” Plagiarism as a (culturally dependent) repugnant transaction

The NY Times discusses the recent resignation of the German defense minister after it was revealed that parts of his Ph.D. dissertation were plagiarized. The tone of the article is bemusement that anyone but academics could take such a crime seriously, but that the German public did: In Germany, Uproar Over a Doctoral Thesis

"A German author, Peter Schneider, even gravely linked the whole mess to Bill Clinton’s impeachment drama, since they both entailed what he called “the same question of honesty.” Leave it to a German intellectual to discern a deep connection between an American president dissembling about oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office and a doctoral student at Bayreuth University cribbing passages in a 475-page dissertation about contrasting constitutional developments.
"The trouble started last month when this country’s most popular cabinet minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a handsome, media-savvy, conspicuously pomaded 39-year-old baron widely presumed to be a leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel someday as chancellor, tried to brush off charges that he had plagiarized parts of his 2006 thesis.

“Absurd,” was his initial response. And many Germans wanted to believe him. “Well-born, well-spoken and well-groomed,” as The Economist observed about the baron, he had “seemed blunt where others prevaricated, principled where they plotted. Alone among German leaders,” the magazine went on, referring to the gray, proficient bureaucrats who tend to run the country, he made “voters’ hearts quicken.”

Ms. Merkel backed him up, even as German graduate students and others, by the tens of thousands, began to organize, signing an open letter of protest that heaped scorn on her. Several hundred protesters hung their shoes on the iron fence outside the Defense Ministry in Berlin in a sly (again, typically German) multivalent allusion both to the now familiar Arab insult of displaying the soles of one’s shoes and also to the missing footnotes in Mr. Guttenberg’s dissertation.
"At the same time, however, Mr. Guttenberg’s troubles thrust into embarrassing national relief the dirty secret that to gain such credentials, many Germans, well-connected ones anyway, apparently cut corners or worse, and universities often look the other way. The minister couldn’t admit to having farmed out his dissertation, because that’s literally a crime here, but he was generally suspected of having hired someone to write the work for him (how else to explain why he seemed so blithely oblivious to the contents of his own thesis?). And to add insult to injury, his advisers had even awarded him a rank of “summa cum laude” (“Summa cum fraude” was another of those protesters’ placards), notwithstanding that the thesis seems to have poached material from one of those very advisers.
"Mr. Poschardt fumed in Welt Online recently that when news broke some years ago about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s plagiarizing parts of his dissertation, Americans hardly reacted. For Germans the nonchalance may seem as odd as it is for many Americans to hear that Horst Seehofer, the married chairman of Mr. Guttenberg’s Christian Social Union, the Bavarian partner to Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, was elected to his post after it was reported that his mistress had given birth to a child. Germans debated his improprieties, but in the end overlooked them.

"And this gets back to the author Mr. Schneider and the Clinton impeachment scandal.

"Despite the cultural gulf, both incidents, the president’s and the minister’s, which were incited by peripheral, if not actually private, affairs, prompted fits of national anguish: for Americans about sex, for Germans about integrity.
"The widespread expectation now is that Mr. Guttenberg, whose popularity has not dimmed but increased, according to the latest polls, will retreat for a while, and, like Mr. Clinton, after an obligatory period of remorse, come back. First he will have to contend with prosecutors, who the other day announced they had opened an investigation. Plagiarism entails breach of copyright crimes here."

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