01 March 2011

The Fall of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

The German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has resigned following the exposure of plagiarism on a massive scale in his PhD dissertation.  The figure above shows the results of a page-by-page Wiki effort to "audit" his dissertation.  The black and red colors indicate text that was directly (black) or partially (red) copied from other sources.  The white parts were judged OK and the blue represents the front and back matter.

Guttenberg's defense of his actions, which were supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel, sought to focus attention on those critiquing him in an effort to downplay the significance of the academic misconduct:
[Guttenberg's] first line of defense, however, appeared to be his repeated insistence that the problems with his dissertation had no bearing on his position at the head of the Defense Ministry -- an effort that Merkel herself had supported, saying last week that she had chosen Guttenberg to head the Defense Ministry and not "as a research assistant."

In his brief statement on Tuesday, Guttenberg once again seemed to blame his critics and the German media for focusing so intently on his dissertation. "If, as has been the case in recent weeks," Guttenberg said in his Tuesday statement, "the attention of the public and the media is almost exclusively focused on the person of Guttenberg and his dissertation instead of, for example, the death and injury of 13 soldiers (eds. note: three German soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last week), then it ... harms the institution I have been tasked with leading."
But in the end, it appears that the presures brought to bear from Germany's substantial academic community made continuation for Guttenberg impossible:
But on Monday it became clear that academia is furious with the way the chancellor has handled the affair. In an open letter to the chancellor, some 20,000 academics from Germany and around Europe said Merkel's support of Guttenberg was a "mockery" of all those who "contribute to scientific advancement in an honest manner."

"If the protection of ideas is no longer an important value in our society, then we are gambling away our future," the statement reads. "We do not expect gratitude for our scientific work, but we do demand ... respect. The scientific community is suffering as a result of the treatment of the Guttenberg case as a trivial offense. As is Germany's credibility."
Even so, I expect that we will again see Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in German politics, and Germany will then re-engage a debate over science, politics, trust and legitimacy.


  1. Those guys should run the same analysis of the various IPCC Reports against the various agitprop releases from Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club et al.

  2. A crime against academia - oh, the humanity!

    What does any of this have to do with policy? Is it unreasonable of me to assume that the drones ferreting out the plagiarism are opposition party members?

    The guy isn't a college professor - he's a politician. Once you get to college, your high school record doesn't matter. And once you get a job, your college record doesn't matter. As an outside observer with no dog in this fight, I don't care. The guy cheated, and he got caught. Shame on him - now move on.

    In the name of transparency I have to admit that I may be giving him a break because of his hot wife - it's not envy, it's respect. ;-)

  3. Roger,

    Given the subject of this post, I'm wondering if you'd care to offer your thoughts on another plagiarism case related to climate change (i.e. Wegman), and in particular your views on how George Mason University has conducted itself in the affair.

  4. -3-Marlowe Johnson

    Can't say that I've followed it closely, and I don't even know the latest (how's that for withdrawing from the climate wars? ;-) but I did put this up a while back:


  5. I'm inclined to agree with Mark B.. It's not that I don't take plagiarism seriously -- it's arrant theft-of-credentials-by-fraud, and cheats all us poor slobs who struggled to cobble our own original thoughts into words and phrases and get them on paper -- but it's so little regarded by anyone outside academia, that it's hard to see this incident as any more than a useful expedient to get rid of a political adversary. Joe Biden, after all, was disciplined for plagiarism in law school, and survived. Various other literary figures have dabbled in it, and write on, reputations largely intact. A certain Climategate figure recently hastily revised an online version of a conference paper after he was caught lifting large chunks of someone else's work. And heck, Martin Luther King's doctoral thesis was little more than paragraph-long sections of other people's writing stitched together with a few linker phrases, yet Boston University declined to rescind his degree, and even mentioning it will usually get one called a racist in short order (...3...2...1...).

    So it seems Herr (no longer Herr Doktor) zu Guttenberg is primarily guilty of violating the 11th commandment. Schade!

  6. Marlowe,

    The Wegman report was not an exercise for academic credit - it was a report for congress. The delicate sensibilities of academia do not apply - the pragmatic rules of business apply.

    Under the pragmatic rules of business there is no story.

  7. @Roger
    Fair enough, although I'm now curious to know if you're suffering any withdrawal symptoms :)

    are you suggesting that the norms for Congressional testimony aught to be lower than they are for academia? It would seem to me that if anything one would expect the standards to be higher rather than lower when testifying to Congress...

  8. I think this measure of academic integrity, if applied to the AGW promotion industry, will be a very illuminating experience.

  9. 1. Is there a lesson to be learnt about "peer review" of the academic supervisor of this thesis?

    2. And of course, we may have a similar situation with the LSE and one of Mr Gaddafi's sons


    3. Maybe the challenges posed by climate science are just part of an endemic problem with scientific exploration and endeavour.

    With government spending under pressure, perhaps the academic community should examine its own moral compass and justify its raison d'etre to both taxpayers and sponsors despite the undoubted benefits that they provide society?

  10. Roger:

    "I expect that we will again see Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in German politics...".

    If American politics is any indicator, Herr zu Guttenberg might even become the German equivalent of Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, later Vice President, and White House overseer of the nebulous criteria, "jobs created and saved".

  11. Marlowe Johnson,

    A report to Congress should be judged primarily on relevancy and accuracy, not whether the work was original to the author(s). By that standard, it's not clear that the social networking part of Wegman's report should have been included at all, properly referenced or not.

  12. -7-Marlowe Johnson

    Haven't missed it a bit ;-)

  13. Too bad Mark B, despite everything else about your blog to the contrary, assumes you keep a dingy man cave here where he's free to expose the darker regions of his mind and make revolting, misogynist remarks. (Plagiarism is just wrong, and doling out respect based on the hotness of a wife is creepy.) I did wonder why his comment wasn't shuffled off to the rejected section, but am quite sure you have your reasons.

    Now, off with this comment to the rejected section, or deeper.

  14. How can one blame a representative of the German Aristocracy, married to the Bismarck legacy (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_zu_Guttenberg). “Mehr Respekt und Anstand”, please!
    In contrast to Climategate, the traditionally very un-political (value free) and fragmented scientific community came up with such clear-cut statements in such a short time, mainly driven by weblogs.
    What is striking and embarrassing to me , is the reluctance to hold Guttenberg responsible.
    Our political shooting star tends to present plagiarism as “trial offense” and himself as a victim of the media hoax. The University of Bayreuth (=“buy right”) systematically excluded the critical question - sloppy or “with intent.” Finally, it is still open until now who the author really is and to which degree/ amount von und zu Guttenberg used the scientific services of the German Parliament.

  15. When do we reach the point where people realize that it's now almost as easy to search for text as it is to copy & paste?

    Apparently Gaddafi's son also used a ghostwriter. That sort of thing can be harder to pick up:

  16. A quick check on Google maps indicates that there are streets in Bonn, Berlin, Hanau, Munich and Münster named after a man whose doctoral thesis was more heavily plagiarized than Guttenberg's.

    It does seem it's more a matter of who he is, than what he did.

  17. The ability of academics to get huffy about the creds of people they do not like, while ignoring the same problems in their pals is not confined to Germany.
    But God help anyone pointing out that one favored by academics has issues. Being ignored is the best you can hope for then.

  18. It does seem it's more a matter of who he is, than what he did.

    I see we have genius in the room.

    Of course it is about who he is. Unless you belong to the group of people who think it is acceptable to have your country run by known liars and cheats.

    I take a gift from a parent without informing people (I'm a teacher) it's all good. A politician takes an unacknowledged gift, and things look more serious. Clinton was pilloried for something that would be a trivial matter in many other positions.

    Guttenberg cut serious corners about something important. People can be expected to take the line that people who cut corners should not be running the country. Who's to say what other unfortunate laws or precedents he might find a bit too awkward?

  19. For the German speaking/ reading audience, there is an interesting article on the role of science in the Guttenberg affaire: