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'Germans are fixated on earning titles'

Kristen Allen · 17 Feb 2011, 10:22

Published: 17 Feb 2011 10:22 GMT+01:00

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On Wednesday, daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published excerpts of Guttenberg’s PhD thesis along with sections of other texts that matched almost exactly. The Bremen professor who discovered the similarities accused the conservative politician of “brazen plagiarism” and willful deception.

While Guttenberg has denied any wrongdoing, an ombudsman at his alma mater, the University of Bayreuth, is looking into the claims.

Professor for Media and Computing at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences, Debora Weber-Wulff, is among Germany’s top experts on plagiarism in academia. She told The Local the that true aim of education is sometimes lost amid a rapacity for title-associated prestige and an unclear definition of plagiarism.

What is your assessment of the Guttenberg situation?

The excerpts that the Süddeutsche Zeitung has online are scary, because they are one-to-one copies. And that’s not OK.

What the rest of the thesis is like, and which chapter the alleged plagiarism is in – that’s another question. There are communities here who say it’s OK to plagiarize a little in your methodology section, but not in others. I think this is completely bizarre. Germans have a way of talking the problem down.

Should Guttenberg’s doctorate be rescinded?

At every university there is an ombudsman for good scientific practices, and they are charged with investigating any allegations of plagiarism. That’s what needs to happen in Bayreuth. I’m trying to get the press to calm down, which is not easy. Guttenberg has been in the news for all kinds of stuff lately, so everyone is out to get him, and they want a quick judgement. But plagiarism is a scientific thing, and nothing to do with him as the minister of defence.

What is the real issue then?

This has to do with the German tendency to love titles, they are title-fixated, and people in politics love to have a doctor title so they seem wiser. But it should be about science, for scientists to prove that they can work by themselves – it’s the first proof that they can do research on their own.

Would you say there is a culture of plagiarising and cheating among German students?

I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a download culture. Young people download their music, videos, and why not download their thesis, because they just see it as busy work - something that stands between them and the degree they think they want or need so they can make lots of money and don’t have to work any longer.

Do they understand that it’s wrong?

In recent case studies we’ve noticed students saying, ‘Yeah? What’s the problem?’ They’re missing out on the point of education. They just think they have to have a degree, and Germany is so completely focussed on this. People don’t care if they have the associated skills, they just have to have the degree. This is a very German problem, because in the US, for example, if you have the skills and no degree, it’s fine. But in Germany you must have that piece of paper. People just go through the motions to get it.

How are professors dealing with the problem?

For a long time many were just putting their heads in the sand. Then they panicked and went out to buy software. That’s when I developed a process for determining whether the software actually worked through test cases.

What are the rules for defining plagiarism in Germany?

The US is further along than Germany on this one, because the Modern Language Association has clear-cut rules that define plagiarism. Germany still doesn’t really know. There’s no definition in academia. There’s an idea that it’s just the copying and pasting, but it varies from field to field.

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The grey area is that you have to look at it in context – and it’s not just copy and pasting. It can also be taking ideas without sourcing, paraphrasing, and representing others’ ideas as your own.

How thorough are reviews of doctoral theses, then?

You have to look really closely. I sat on the review committee for one that was a plagiarism from start to finish, and the doctorate was not granted. I’ve also been involved in a case in 2004 where a doctorate was rescinded, and that was a very clear-cut case. But of course the guy just went to another university and did a doctorate there. And they didn’t have a problem with that.

How many doctorates are not granted or rescinded because of plagiarism?

Nobody has statistics on that and people have a tendency to sweep this issue under the rug. German professors have a tendency to want to be the top dog, and they don’t like to credit other colleagues, and that contributes to the problem. It’s an ego trip. And with doctoral candidates it’s the same, they just want the title so they can put it on their mailboxes and their little bronze door plates.

Professor of Media and Computing at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences (HTW), Debora Weber-Wulff, is among the country’s top researchers on plagiarism. She gives seminars for academics on the topic, in addition to blogging and running a plagiarism portal through the HTW. Born in the United States, she came to Germany at age 19 and has been a professor here since 1993.

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Kristen Allen (kristen.allen@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

11:49 February 17, 2011 by Kayak
Well, well... tut, tut, tut!!!
12:57 February 17, 2011 by pepsionice
This reminds me of the episode three years ago when a PhD guy from the US showed up to do consulting work in Germany, and handed out business cards with his noted title on them. The cops came and warned him to stop because an American PhD wasn't the same as a German PhD and he wasn't supposed to claim that status in Germany (this was no joke). This is how stupid the elite in Germany are....about protecting their 'titles'....almost like Prince or Lord titles in some ways.
13:12 February 17, 2011 by Krim
The way Guttenberg plagiarized (copy/paste) can be straightforward quantified using a software called Ithenticate. He is trying to find an exit by mentioning the 1200 footnotes. The way these plagiarized parts are integrated in the thesis can speak a clear language. May be he did not at all know about the copy/paste if someone else engineer the whole thesis. Who knows? This is a common practice in many universities in Germany. You have complete "habilitations" written by others. The so-called CV engineering is well developed.
14:03 February 17, 2011 by Lisa Rusbridge
Plagiarism has nothing to do with rules or (more likely) breaking the rules, getting caught and the threat of punishment. It has to do with personal values and how they extend to academic integrity.

I find it so strange that people would prefer to liars (even if they're the only one who knows it) just to put a name on a mailbox or to have a bronze plate on a door. In the end one doesn't have much more representing them than their name and trust. If you sacrifice those there's not much left.
14:14 February 17, 2011 by derExDeutsche
I would argue that in today's World,

the title you receive at the end of your education is more important than any other single defining characteristic. Maybe, if you're a good looking or creatively talented, you may break out of your Educational 'Caste System'. That being said, often the MOST educated are that way because they are Professional Students, not Professional Workers.

There are several methods of Plagiarism, including having someone else write the Thesis.
15:02 February 17, 2011 by catjones
Plagiarism has nothing to do with rules or (more likely) breaking the rules, getting caught and the threat of punishment. It has to do with personal values and how they extend to academic integrity.

I find it so strange that people would prefer to liars (even if they're the only one who knows it) just to put a name on a mailbox or to have a bronze plate on a door. In the end one doesn't have much more representing them than their name and trust. If you sacrifice those there's not much left.
18:47 February 17, 2011 by Kayak
Cat is plagerising Lisa?

I think it's ok for Germans to help Germans. It's how we do things. Cheating? That's sooo North American!!! They cheat there for themselves!! Collective cheating is so much better. We need the double standard for it makes us German!
20:38 February 17, 2011 by TRJ
Plagiarism is full fledged cheating/academic dishonesty. As I like to say, "I never cheated in college and I have the F's on my transcript to prove it." So while I struggled for a bit in college, at least I have my integrity- which is more than Dr. Guttenberg has.
23:54 February 17, 2011 by milsa
Pepsionice is referring to the following situation:


--BUT-- it's important to note that it has since been remedied! :) The update to the law was nowhere near as sensational as the perversion of Nazi-era laws in the case of Ian Baldwin in 2008, and wasn't well covered in the media.

Currently, PhDs granted in the E.U., Australia, Israel, Japan, or Canada are recognized in Germany, as well as U.S. PhDs granted by institutions classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a "Research University (high research activity)" or as a "Research University (very high research activity)"--and this list includes most reputable universities that award PhDs.

For specifics on the new update, see:


Just wanted to clear that up... :)
00:35 February 18, 2011 by jall
'That¦#39;s when I developed a process for determining whether the software actually worked through test cases'

As someone who has just completed a degree where some of our assignments were run thru a software program to detect plagiarism, wonder what the results of the study are?

Maybe using such technology is the way forward for german unis examining theses...
08:31 February 18, 2011 by authun

Agreed that cheating is much more of a North American occupation, and they have the business pinhead-dominated culture and deteriorating economy to prove it.

Regarding the "Title Fight", I feel that the skepticism should be turned around, at least nowadays for Godsakes. The technical "expertise" I've seen passed off as PhD research around here is much more equivalent to a Master's degree with two or three years work experience. Completing a big mundane project and writing a bit about it is considered "research" here. This is not to mention the "PhD" Neuroscientist who was incapable of determining the distance between a point and a line - in two dimensions.
09:15 February 18, 2011 by catjones
Give me someone who's done the work over someone who's studied the work anytime.
15:58 February 18, 2011 by ECSNatale
Bankers who cheat, investment brokers who cheat, real estate and mortgage brokers who cheat, why is anyone surprised that the politicians and so called educated class cheats? Cheating and lying brought the world economy to its knees last year and no one has done a thing about it.

Let some low class worker cheat by 100€ on his taxes and you'll have dozens of people knocking down his door.

This world makes me sick.
09:33 February 19, 2011 by Tom II
A B.S. Ph.D. degree in America has always stood for Bull

Sh!t Piled High & Deep and what Americans won't stand for they will always fall for.
15:35 February 19, 2011 by Bruno53
Well, I can understand: Herr Doktor, Herr Kapelmeister, Frau Mutter, Herr Apothek, and Mein Fuhrer. Cultural thing.
18:50 February 22, 2011 by Surferjoe
I'm sure this is awful for the academic community.
14:56 February 23, 2011 by Leonard k
Copy and paste..a serious crime! it would be easy just to regard the author of the said idea.

In principle, the credit MUST go to the one who unearthed the 1st idea not to those who convince the leute!

Pole sana!
22:31 February 24, 2011 by cheresherri
Kayak & Authun: Cheating is absolutely not "sooo North American" and not "more of a North American occupation". My spouse and I read international news online everyday for years, have traveled for decades throughout Europe (and spouse speaks French and German) and can assure you it is no more prevalent in the USA than anywhere else. We have read about it many times in UK news outlets, but perhaps they just report on it more frequently. Do you have recent, verifiable statistics as proof of your assertions against US students?

By the way, most US universities require students to submit all papers to anti-plagiarizing software before turning them in to professors to be graded. Kind of stops most plagiarizing these days...

I would also like to see what proof the author of this article has that degrees do not matter so much in the US. I have lived in many different US states over my 49 years and have witnessed that obsession with degrees and titles is very prevalent here. For example, let's take Proctor & Gamble, where my father worked for decades. They would hire an Ivy League grad with absolutely no work experience over someone with 10+ years of experience, and continued to do so even after their own stats showed the latter saved the company much more money through their work (not salary savings). Eventually, P & G dunderhead CEO Durk Jager, who implemented this "strategy", resigned after even he could no longer stand his own incompetence. Perhaps some of you Germans have heard of him?
12:14 February 26, 2011 by alexagainstalex
I agree with cheresherri´s point that degrees are indeed valued (or even overvalued) in the US. Further, in the US you have the "ivy league" fixation...which is arguably even worse than the german "degree" equivalent. Ivy league education can inherently open SO many doors, regardless of actual skills that one has.

The US capitalistic education system has developed a "good education=cost of it" concept, which has resulted in a quest for getting into "better" universities instead of actually learning something in them. Of course, the education offered by the ivy league has many advantages. Whether it is "better" lies always in the hands of the students.

In this world, there are many ways of getting social stature. If you are not wealthy, getting a degree is one of them. It's not a problem to value this a lot. The problem of plagiarism, from which this whole debate emerges, is not huge. There are a lot very good PhD´s graduating as well...ones with true knowledge in their field and ability to conjure new ideas. I would say the majority of graduates posses some advantage over undergraduate counterparts.

If we have to give value to something, I´d rather put it on education (degree) and not looks and family heritage. Although you can´t cheat your way out of bad looks... :)
06:56 March 5, 2011 by Lex
To copy from one is plagiarism... to copy from many is research.... ;-)

I was mystified when I first came to Germany to see that our Company was lead by a 'Herr Professor Doctor Doctor.....'
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