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Leaked Plagiarism Report Puts German Science Minister Under Pressure

15 October 2012 12:28 pm
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BMBF

Accused. German research and education minister Annette Schavan.

BERLIN—Germany's Minister for Education and Research Annette Schavan is facing serious accusations of plagiarism from the University of Düsseldorf, which granted her Ph.D. in 1980. In a report leaked to two prominent German media outlets over the weekend, a university reviewer concludes that Schavan's dissertation includes many passages that display "the characteristics of a plagiaristic approach."

A university commission is expected to decide this week how to react to the report. If it recommends revoking Schavan's doctorate, most observers say, she would be forced to resign. Schavan, who learned about the report's contents from the media on Friday evening, has strongly denied any deliberate wrongdoing.

The first accusations against Schavan surfaced in May, when an anonymous accuser, "Robert Schmidt," created a Web site that listed more than 50 instances of what he claimed were improper attributions in Schavan's dissertation. Schavan's degree is in education studies, and her 351-page dissertation is titled "Person and conscience—Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences." The University of Düsseldorf quickly announced that it would investigate, but has said nothing publicly since then.

Hunting for plagiarism in politicians' dissertations has become something of a political sport in Germany and several other European countries. More than half a dozen German politicians have lost their doctorates after Internet-based accusers have prompted universities to take a closer look at their work. The most prominent case was that of former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who had copied entire newspaper articles into his dissertation without attribution. He ultimately resigned.

The improprieties found in Schavan's dissertation are not nearly as serious as Guttenberg's. According to the two outlets that received the leaked report, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel, the report's author, professor of Jewish studies Stefan Rohrbacher, found 60 pages with problematic passages. According to the press accounts, many of the passages are cited as if they came from original sources, but upon closer examination are slightly reworded from secondary sources. Rohrbacher's report is scheduled to be evaluated and discussed this week by the university's doctoral commission, which will then make a recommendation about whether the Faculty Council should begin the process to revoke Schavan's title. The university has not yet asked Schavan to testify about the matter, but she would be required to do so as part of any process to take away her degree.

Several media outlets reported that Schavan received the report over the weekend only after contacting the university and asking for a copy. She told newspapers on Sunday that the she strongly disputes the allegations that she intentionally committed any fraud. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung quoted her saying the report "hits me. It hits me at the core. It goes to the heart of what is important to me."

Schavan, who has been minister since November 2005, has generally received good marks from the scientific community. Matthias Kleiner, president of the main German funding agency, the DFG, says he will not comment on the report itself, which has not been made public in full. But he says he was "astonished and irritated" that the report was leaked to the press before the commission had a chance to meet or Schavan had a chance to see or respond to it.

A spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that Merkel has "full confidence" in Schavan. She is an "excellent and successful" minister who "has achieved a lot for education and research," the spokesperson said.

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