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The Miseducation of Annette Schavan

Yet another plagiarism scandal is rocking -- well, not really rocking, more like poking -- Germany. This time, with exquisite irony, the victim is the Education Minister of the entire country, Dr. Annette Schavan. She got her doctorate in education in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf. Someone got a copy of her dissertation, which dealt with the development of a personal conscience, and began looking for unacknowledged quotations and uncited paraphrase of others' ideas. The results can be found on the blog Schavanplag (g), which contains a detailed listing of all the problematic pages.

The Faculty Council of the liberal arts college of the University of Düsseldorf, after lengthy review, voted 12 to 3 to withdraw her doctoral dissertation on grounds of evidence of sustained, intentional plagiarism. They held (g) that Schavan's dissertation contained (my translation): 'more than isolated instances of word-for-word copies of other texts without acknowledgement' and found that '[t]he frequency and the construction of these word-for-word copies, along with the failure to cite relevant literature in footnotes or in the bibliography have convinced the Faculty Council, after reviewing the entire work, that the doctoral candidate systematically and intentionally, throughout the entire dissertation, presented ideas as her own that were, in fact, not.'

Not precisely the sort of thing you want to read about your country's own education minister. But the withdrawing of her Ph.D. is just the beginning: the program she completed in 1980 led directly to a Ph.D without any intervening steps, so once the university withdraws it, she will have no official, earned academic title at all past high school. The final nail in the coffin is her remarks about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the last conservative politician to have lost his job last year over plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Back then, she announced (g) that as someone who had a Ph.D herself and met with many doctoral candidates, she was 'ashamed, and not just privately' about Guttenberg's conduct. Schavan has pledged to challenge the Faculty Council's decision in court, and to stay in office. But Angela Merkel has professed her 'full confidence' in Schavan, which means she's probably doomed.* One German newspaper calculated (g) that any politician who earns Merkel's 'full confidence' has, on average, 18.75 days left in office.

Whenever people ask me to compare Germans and Americans, I first order them to fill me with booze. Once that's done, then I pontificate as follows: 'The average middle-class American is driven about 90% by a desire for more money, and most of these people will come right out and tell you that. A similarly-situated German will be motivated 40% by money, 20% by job security, and 40% by the desire for officially-bestowed, external signs of high social status -- especially involving education or heredity. However, they will only admit the desire for job security, and will half-heartedly deny or rationalize the other motivations'. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol is the doctoral title which, under German law, can be made an official part of your name. The sacred two letters accompany you through life, surrounding you with a diffuse aura of scholarly dignity and good breeding.

Which is often spurious, of course. The social cachet of a doctoral title (which may also entitle you to higher salaries than your co-workers) drives thousands of ambitious young Germans to seek a title. A minority of these students are genuinely intellectually talented and interested in the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake. A majority, in my experience, just wants to find some way, any way, to bolt those two little letters to the front of their name for status/signalling reasons. They may well turn to dubious 'consulting agencies' which work with shady professors (g). One step above this are people who actually write a doctoral dissertation, but do so 'outside' the university system. In the German system only one professor supervises the actual dissertation-writing process, so if you find one who's relatively lax, you don't have to work up much of a sweat to get the title.

From my inbox:

I couldn’t help reading the story on Schavan today and just thinking “reap what you sow, Germany Bildungssystem”. Years of benign neglect to plagiarism, the discouraging of originality, the lack of substantive peer rigor at the higher academic levels and deference to professors who frequently supervise topics they can’t even evaluate the originality of have just resulted in what for Germans must seem like the End of All that is Good and True. Guttenberg was a case of a ‘friendly’ degree offered to someone obviously on his way to a higher political future than the academy, and I think there is a lot of tolerance for that here (and Schadenfreude when it blows up), but Schavan just struck a crippling blow to the whole concept of there being academic merit in this whole absurd title-chasing complex. If the Ministrix of Education loses her degree, that’s as bad as the Surgeon General being found to have obtained his medical degree at the Sweetrose Nursing Academy or the Minister of Consumer Affairs having marketed Vorwerk vacuum cleaners to math club students.

That about sums it up. Schavan is clearly doomed, and her case throws light on a very weak system. The problem is that all the superficial, crappy doctoral dissertations debase the currency. I haven't thought this through, but I envision something like a 2-tier process: you can either work with one professor to write a short, workmanlike survey of a particular area in 18 months-2 years (which doesn't need to be published), or you can opt for a 'real' doctoral dissertation, which must be more substantial, and which will take 3-4 years, and be supervised by a commission of three professors. In fact, this latter option could then replace the 'Habilitation', another German academic institution which may well have outlived its usefulness. I suppose this reform would end up with the German system looking much more like the American system. But comparing the number of plagiarism and/or fake-doctor scandals each system generates, switching to something more like the US system might be just what the doctor ordered (sorry about that!).

* I'll be adding this to my other maxims of human behavior:

  • Any politician who says he won't resign three times will resign. (M. Kinsley, I think)
  • Whenever anyone says it's not about the money, it's about the money.
  • Any woman who has to emphasize that she's a lady isn't one (M. Thatcher)
  • Any profession that launches a promotional campaign to convince the public that it's important and worth saving is doomed.

Comments

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TJR

Andrew, in my last comment, would you please change "tenure-track fellowship" into "tenure-track-like fellowship", and then delete this comment? Emmy Noether does offer the credentials of a tenure evaluation, and most graduates eventually get a permanent position. But the program itself does not offer a permanent position.

TJR

@Johannes:

Every serious job candidate amasses as much academic currency as they can: papers, grants, networking. So the differences between top candidates will be very small. That is largely why the tenure-track market is so unpredictable.

In this environment, a whiff of Guttenberg-Schavan can be very damaging.

(To return your snark: as an academic you certainly know this already. For those who don't, the executive summary of the 2008 evaluation of the Emmy-Noether-Program for tenure-track fellowships contains this gem: "Ähnlich sind sich beide Gruppen aber nicht nur in der Selbsteinschätzung: Auch die Analyse der Publikationen der Antragstellenden und der Zitierungen dieser Publikationen ergab weder vor noch nach der Förderung klare Unterschiede zwischen Geförderten und Nichtgeförderten. Beide Gruppen publizieren auf hohem Niveau." The report acknowledges self-selection bias of applicants.)

Johannes

You prove that you are the real deal by having some peer-reviewed papers in decent journals or conference proceedings. In the natural sciences a "big book" like a PhD or a Habilitationsschrift (which is all but dead in these fields) is not as important as journal papers. (As a math PhD you certainly know this already.)

And this is of course also important in the social sciences and humanities. Not every journal there is peer-reviewed, but many are and in any case there is more peer quality control if smaller portions of one's research are published/presented to an expert audience who will usually realize whether you are a hack or a decent scholar/scientists.

You can fool all people sometimes etc.

One problem with the German "Doktor" is its history. During the 19th century it became for some reason the standard exam in most fields of study (before that it had been more similar to a Habilitation, in the medieval universities the professors were called "doctor"). In the 1920ties and '30ties students often studied for 6-8 semesters, then they wrote a doctoral thesis of less than 100 pages in about one or two semesters, passed a doctoral exam (often the first real examination in their studies) and they were done. Anyone who wanted to get into research had to do a Habilitation (which often was a big book already back then) anyway. And there were far fewer students at this time and most of them were, at least for the humanities, extremely well prepared for scholarly work by an elite "Gymnasium" with a heavy focus on Classical languages and history
At some stage intermediate degrees were introduced (I do not know the details) and dissertations got longer and more involved as the PhD was no longer the first real degree. Although as the Schavan case shows it was still possible at some universities and in some subjects to finish with a PhD as a first degree until recently (90ties), it was extremely uncommon.

So today we have the somewhat unfortunate situation of involved PhD theses with lots of original research and rather shallow ones satisfying mainly the vanity, and probably lots in between.

Andrew

All of these are excellent points. I'm familiar mostly with the law, where the problem is, perhaps, at its worst. I am definitely willing to assume that the greater transparency and objectivity of the criteria in math and the natural sciences probably makes the problem less acute there.

TJR

As a fresh German maths PhD, how would I signal to American universities that I'm the real deal, without looking unprofessional? I obviously did do all the best practices you outlined.

Mison

While I have to agree with most of your Germany-bashing, I think it mainly applies to the social sciences.

In natural sciences, I would see other motivations:
1. Engineering: You will earn a lot more with a Dr., so your professor applies you as a lab technician for three years while paying you close to nothing and putting his name on your results.
2. Chemistry, Biochemistry: You won't find a job at all without a Dr., otherwise the same.
3. Physics, Maths: You don't know what to do with your life after the Msc and so decide to spend some more years in cosy academia.

All in all, most if not all research in the sciences is done by Doktoranden, so I would consider these phds as extremely valuable.

Of course, scientific misconduct is also possible, but at least not in the forms you mentioned.

Johannes

I think the Schavan case is being exaggerated. She was more being sloppy than actually plagiarizing original ideas. What she basically did was the following: She summarized ideas on consience by people like Freud giving the impression of having work with Freud's original text, but actually paraphrasing secondary literature on Freud without giving sufficient credit to these authors. Of course that is bad scholarship and formally wrong, but no way as "criminal" as Guttenberg's copy&paste.

Certainly the criticism on (parts of) the German system is on the mark, but it is not all that likely to change all that much. There are of course many theses which are good and rather tightly supervised, but without changing the system completely and both more funds and less PhD candidates (because the professors would actually have to do some serious supervising) there will still be a few weak theses going through.

In most cases it is no big deal, because nowadays everybody has to have some pre-PhD degree (usually M.A., Diplom or Staatsexamen). As theses have to be published it is extremely unlikely that someone with a weak thesis will have a scientific or scholarly career.

I do not think it makes sense to have to options, because they would have to be distinguished somehow. They should skip the thesis for MDs at all (as Austria has done, I believe) and the ones who do a research thesis in medical science should receive a different degree (like Dr. rer. nat. med.)

In all the other subjects we should in the long run only accept serious theses with two or three supervisors. For anything else the Master should be sufficient.

Thomas

Nice diagnosis of the German psycho. Having a doctorate in Germany (I am not a fan of comparing it with a PhD, since I wrote my thesis (law) in less than a year and would wholeheartedly deny any academic quality) does not only provide you with respect, but also with economic benefits, by the way. I got the financing for my apartment for somewhat better conditions since I had a doctorate.
Oh yeah, and speaking about plagiarism in Germany - let's not forget about Martin Luther King, who plagiarized a substantial part of his dissertation and is officially only considered "Dr." King since his thesis is supposed to be so excellent that only the non plagiarized parts would merit a doctorate. Which is about as ridiculous as the pomposity of German academic degrees, in my opinion.

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