How to ruin your Academic career with one book, Or: A short history of German Plagiarism since 2011

Germans have a problem with plagiarism. The first big occasion to discover that strange phenomenon remained on the newspapers’ front page for weeks, if not months. That was in 2011, when German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg (who was – until then- one of the most popular and charismatic figures in German politics) was forced to retract from the government when it became public that his PhD-thesis was a page long copy from various other works (not by him!). There is a wikipedia article on the subject (in German) and I remember a hilarious youtube recording of someone reading out loud the introduction to said dissertation (one of the few parts Guttenberg wrote by himself).

After that, plenty of (less important) politicians saw their political career encumbered by plagiarism suspicions concerning their PhD. In a country where your doctor title is part of your identity, it hurts more than you could imagine coming from a country like France in which people with PhDs in other disciplines that medicine are considered as “no real doctor”.

In 2012, it was the turn of Research and Teaching Minister Annette Schavan to be accused of plagiarism in her dissertation. A website named schavanplag was dedicated to tracking the amount and the nature of the copying. All in all, the extent of “plagiated” passages (if you can speak of plagiarism at all, the sources being mostly quoted) was in no way comparable to what could be found in Guttenberg’s dissertation. But the hysteria was there anyway. And the commission which had to reassess her work in the University were she had done her dissertation leaked information to the press before giving it to her. It got so bad that the German Highschool Association just issued a call to all its members to please speak respectfully of this University.

The witch-hunt extends to philology. In the last spring for instance, an assistant professor of the University of Hamburg was accused of having plagiated an existing historical-critical edition of Kleist’s work “Der zerbrochene Krug” for his (cheaper) edition. The press was involved in the discussion from the very beginning on, without coming to any conclusion. Word is now “nobody knows whether there is anything to it or not”. But the assistant professor’s reputation is now irremediably connected to that. Even if there is nothing to it at all, he will have to carry the burden for the rest of his academic life.

The main accusators of the Hamburg assistant professor were two editors, well known for their historical-critical editions and themselves professors: Roland Reuss and Peter Staengle. They were  the ones who had done the 20-volume- historical-critical edition of Kleist they considered had been plagiated. Well, it turns out that they too can eventually make mistakes. A paper in yesterday’s Tagesspiegel shows that the cheaper 3-volume edition they had published as a byproduct of the big 20-volume historical-critical one was full of mistakes – and not just a wrong coma here and there, but real, big text modifications.

The person who could retrace precisely these mistakes is, interestingly, not a University professor, but a Hamburg printer who made it his hobby to find print mistakes and developed a digital collation of the different versions. Roland Reuss being against everything digital, it is certainly ironical that the computer can find the mistakes he has not been able to correct before his edition was actually printed.

Maybe I can’t speak for other disciplines, but I can speak for mine. Philology has always been based on trial-and-error, on several people working on the same source to reach the best results, even if the results can take different shapes. The condition for this to work properly is to be able to have scholarly discussion and exchanges. You would think these things work better nowadays because communication is easier, but I wonder sometimes whether 18th century enlightement and its faith in progress was not the better period to have debates on where to put a coma or a how to read a variant. It could get rough then too, for sure. But it was heading somewhere.


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