University Begins Probe of German Science Minister's Degree

Kai is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine based in Berlin, Germany.

The Council of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany has decided to start a formal investigation into whether Annette Schavan, Germany's minister of science and education, should lose her Ph.D.

"The faculty of philosophy has to review whether the doctorate was rightly awarded at the time", the dean of the faculty, Bruno Bleckmann wrote in a statement after a meeting yesterday of the 15-member council, which includes professors, staff members, and students. He emphasized that the council has reached no decision on whether her degree would be revoked.

Schavan has been accused of plagiarizing parts of her 1980 dissertation in education studies. "In the next weeks the members of the council will look closely at the documents of the doctoral commission and the statement of the person concerned," Bleckmann said.

Schavan, seen as a close ally of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, has denied any allegations of deliberate wrongdoing. However, should Schavan lose her degree, observers predict that she would be forced to resign.

Allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced in May 2012, when a blogger using the name "Robert Schmidt" sent a fax to media outlets announcing he had found more than 50 instances of plagiarism in the 351 pages in Schavan's dissertation, entitled, "Person and Conscience-Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences." The University of Düsseldorf opened an investigation and in October a report by Stefan Rohrbacher, professor of Jewish studies, concluded that many passages in the dissertation showed "the characteristics of a plagiaristic approach." The university's doctoral commission recommended formal proceedings to revoke Schavan's Ph.D.

In March 2011 Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned as Germany's minister of defense after the University of Bayreuth concluded that he had copied whole newspaper articles in his dissertation without attribution. The scandal dominated headlines in Germany and led to journalists and the public scrutinizing the dissertations of other politicians. Bloggers set up online platforms to crowdsource the hunt for cases of plagiarism in numerous dissertations. Since then, a number of German politicians have had their doctorates revoked.

Schavan's case has divided the scientific community in Germany, however. Ludger Honnefelder, a philosopher who has worked on the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, wrote in Die Zeit, that it was common practice at the time for authors to paraphrase long passages but only highlight the source in a short "quote," as Schavan has been accused of doing. But other researchers, including Volker Rieble, professor of law at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, have argued that Schavan clearly committed scientific misconduct in the way that she cited material. And on Friday, an alliance of German science organizations, including the German Research Foundation, outlined a set of procedures to follow in plagiarism investigations that indirectly criticized what the University of Düsseldorf is doing.

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