Monday, 28 February 2011

How weird is that.

It might have come to your attention that the German minister of defense, zu Guttenberg, has gotten himself in a heap of trouble because he did not actually write a doctoral thesis but copied it - he plagiarised. All of it (except maybe a few pages, it seems). Even the introduction was not written by himself, and for that copy-and-paste work, he received the best grade possible, summa cum laude.

Now you might know that in Germany, a Dr. in front of the name, that's something. There's still a nimbus of infallibility and specialness adhering to these two extra letters, and a Dr. in front of your name, spoken or written, might even provide you with preferential treatment or better customer service. (This is not something that I endorse - I'm writing this just to let those of you not knowing Germany well get a feel of what a title here might mean.) This should make it easy to understand why a phd is a good thing to have if you are going into politics, and it also explains why a German might, from time to time, find some weird advertisement letter in the mail promising a doctoral degree (and all the recognition connected with it) for next to no work (and a goodly amount of money).

A fake doctoral degree might exist more often than I wish to believe (or even think about it). And a fake title - buying something that others have worked and studied very hard for - is not a gentleman's crime. Especially not if you are a person of high political rank and should have high professional and personal integrity. Hello? Minister of Defense? Fake doctoral title? No can do.

So I, like a lot of other academics, are now waiting to see what happens. Meanwhile, since the Internet makes it easy to find plagiarisms in comparison to years ago, the community is working hard - not only making an interactive report available where you can compare the Guttenberg thesis and the original, but also with an open letter to Angela Merkel concerning the Guttenberg Affair from doctoral students (but also signable by others, both with and without an academic title). That letter has meanwhile even made it into the Tagesschau.

And then, of course, there's the jokes. Zu Googleberg, Karl Theodor Xerox, the Killer of Footnotes, Dr. ctrl.c. zu Guttenberg,... If you understand German, you might be amused by this joke collection, even including songs about him.

But there is something that should not be forgotten with all this joking: Mr. zu Guttenberg has wrought a lot of damage - damage to his ministry, to his political party, to the German science community, to the University he got the degree at, his faculty there and the professors working there, and possibly everybody else that comes from that Uni for at least a while. He is a fraud and there's no way to deny this (Statement by Prof. Lepsius from Uni Bayreuth, in German). And that fraud has done damage enough to end a few careers, not only his own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The announcement that you're a 'Dr' gets a modicum of respect in Britain too, once the disbelief at what you're wearing under the mud has worn off. It also brings with it people who wish to expose parts of themselves to you to ask about some particularly graphic ailment. I find, "Not that sort of doctor - in an emergency I can build you an aqueduct!" shouted with enthusiasm, then running in the other direction while they work out what I meant, works a treat. But as friends and I have discovered, if you have an unorthodox lifestyle, a title certainly has an effect at the bank.

There's a lot of British politicians with doctorates too. Ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown holds one in political history. But usually it's the medical doctors who use the title in Parliament, as they can still be called upon in that capacity. Being a Member of Parliament is such a specific role and responsibility in its own right that 'Dr' isn't often used with it.

The loudest defender of his PhD I ever met was never awarded the PhD he claimed to have. As Shakespeare says, "The lady doth protest too much". zu Guttenberg may not wish to defend himself too profusely, but instead go quietly to rebuild his reputation while those around him move on.