Doctored Dissertation? Education Minister Under Suspicion of Plagiarism

German Education Minister Annette Schavan has been under suspicion of plagiarism since spring. Now, a web activist has published his findings, allegedly showing shoddy citation on almost 100 pages of the over 300-page work.

German Education Minister Annette Schavan stands accused of having plagiarized portions of her Ph.D. thesis. Zoom
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German Education Minister Annette Schavan stands accused of having plagiarized portions of her Ph.D. thesis.

In March 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet went through an unwanted reshuffle. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down after just two years in office as a government minister. As it turned out, he had copied large chunks of his Ph.D. dissertation -- and had finally gotten caught.

This year, it might be the turn of another cabinet member. Annette Schavan, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has likewise been accused of not having strictly adhered to best academic practice in the composition of her dissertation. The allegations first surfaced early this year, but on Tuesday they became a bit more concrete. An anonymous blogger published findings which he says indicate questionable sections on 92 of the dissertation's 335 pages of text.

"I find the transgressions in numerous cases to be inexcusable," the blogger, who goes by the alias Robert Schmidt, told the German daily Die Welt. "In my opinion, it counts as deceit."

The plagiarism accusations against Schavan -- who is, in a twist of irony, in charge of the education portfolio in Merkel's cabinet -- arose this spring, the product of increased attention paid by web activists to the Ph.D. dissertations of prominent Germans in the wake of Guttenberg's fall. Initial indications of sloppy citation were found by activists associated with "VroniPlag," a wiki begun in March 2011 that has since been responsible for eight prominent politicians or professionals in Germany having their Ph.D's rescinded as a result of plagiarism. VroniPlag was founded in the wake of the Guttenberg scandal.

Schmidt told Die Welt, however, that the majority of those associated with VroniPlag did not initially find Schavan's transgressions convincing enough to be published, so he went ahead on his own. Because of his anonymity, it is difficult to determine exactly what has driven him to pursue his analysis of Schavan's dissertation, which she completed in 1980. Most of the questionable passages found would appear to be cases of Schavan having slightly modified text from secondary resources to give the impression that she had read the primary documents -- a far lesser transgression than that of Guttenberg, who outright copied large segments of his dissertation from other sources without citation.

The extensive analysis published on Tuesday isn't likely to immediately increase pressure on Schavan. She has denied accusations of having cheated on her dissertation and the University of Düsseldorf, where Schavan earned her Ph.D. over three decades ago, is currently in the process of reviewing it. It is unclear when they will be finished.

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