Breaking News: German Research Minister Schavan Resigns in Plagiarism Scandal

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

Four days after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate degree, Germany's minister of education and research Annette Schavan has resigned. At a press conference today with Schavan, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she had accepted Schavan's resignation "with a very heavy heart." Schavan said that although she will challenge the university's decision in court, "the office must not be dishonored." Merkel announced that she had appointed Johanna Wanka, minister for education and research in the state of Lower Saxony, to replace Schavan.

Schavan has faced allegations of plagiarism in her 1980 dissertation, first raised in May 2012 by an anonymous accuser who posted a series of questionable passages from the dissertation online. Schavan asked the University of Düsseldorf to investigate and in October a report from the professor tasked with the investigation was leaked to the press. It found roughly 60 passages in the 351-page dissertation that were paraphrased from sources without adequate citation. In January, a university committee decided to start the official process to revoke Schavan's degree. On 5 February the committee voted to do so. At the time Schavan was on an official visit in South Africa. She returned yesterday and offered Merkel her resignation last night.

Schavan has received high marks as research minister. In a statement this afternoon, the president of Germany's Helmholtz Society, Jurgen Mlynek, called her "an outstanding science politician" and said her resignation is "a great loss for education and research in Germany."

Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society, in a statement to ScienceInsider, said he understood Schavan's decision to step down. "The circumstances that led to her resignation, however, leave many questions open—especially with regard to how we deal with people who received particular public attention based on their office, as well with regard to how the proceedings were conducted that ultimately led to the revocation of her doctoral degree."

Some have argued that Schavan's wrongdoing was not significant enough to warrant stripping her of her title and have criticized the University of Düsseldorf for its handling of the matter. In an article in the newspaper Die Welt this week German politician Kurt Biedenkopf (a member of Schavan's conservative party) called the university's decision to revoke Schavan's doctorate "unusual" and "unfair." The leaked report essentially tied the hands of everyone at the university, Biedenkopf argues. "In essence, they were afraid of the judgment of a public they had pulled into the fray with their premature comments," he wrote.

Others, however, said it was right for Schavan to resign. In the newspaper Die Zeit last month law professor Volker Rieble at the Ludwigs Maximilian University in Munich wrote that "There is no true science within the boundaries of plagiarism."

Schavan's replacement, Wanka, is a mathematician who grew up in the eastern German state of Saxony. From 2000 until 2009 she was minister for education, science, and culture in the state of Brandenburg. She is expected to take office on 14 February.

*Correction 11:10 a.m., 11 February: Johanna Wanka is expected to take office on 14 February, not 14 January, as previously reported.

Posted in Education, People & Events, Europe