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The education of Dr. Googleberg

The Local · 17 Feb 2011, 12:25

Published: 17 Feb 2011 12:25 GMT+01:00

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There are a lot of ways to get a doctorate in Germany. And that's where the problem starts.

Depending upon the subject, an academic here can face wildly varying criteria for a dissertation that affect both research time and how a scholar’s insights are presented.

Humanities students spend months or years ploughing through piles of literature to find parts they can quote in their theoretical work in order to formulate new ideas. Scientific dissertations, on the other hand, are normally based on practical applications. And those studying medicine frequently test a new device in a clinic, log the results and eventually knit together a thesis out of it.

Between these extremes, there are almost infinite variations available to academics hoping to receive a doctorate in Germany.

The motives for a doctor title are equally diverse. There are those whose soul is possessed with their subject – either a zoologist consumed with their passion for the migration of butterflies or a literary scholar obsessed with 18th-century French literature. Such people are addicted to the intellectual challenge of being intensively immersed in their chosen subject.

But such obsessives must be in a minority among the doctors that leave university in their mid-20s with summa cum laude – the highest academic distinction. Nowadays, German doctoral theses are written opportunistically, for a variety of reasons: for a medical doctor or an architect, the title is essential, for a chemist or a pharmacist, doctorates have become an unofficial part of their training. Moreover, in many companies only lawyers or people with MBAs are promoted to managing positions.

A doctorate also helps in a lot of less traditional "career jobs" – among archaeologists and philologists, for instance, those putting a “Dr.” in front of their names certainly have better odds when applying for research posts.

We don't know what motive drove Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to write his law doctorate. We also don't know why he may have failed to correctly attribute some of the quotations he used.

On the question of guilt, which the ombudsman at Guttenberg’s alma mater the University of Bayreuth must now determine, it's also of no consequence whether someone is pursuing a noble research project, or whether he's just trying to improve his career prospects. But cheating is unacceptable in either case.

Still, Guttenberg’s case could come to illustrate what our achievement-orientated society means for higher education and academic research. A society that makes its universities more efficient, its graduates younger, and its teaching more practice-orientated will promote the more calculating kind of doctorate.

Story continues below…

Making mistakes, working longer on a dissertation, changing topics half-way through, getting mediocre grades – today's young, success-oriented generation doesn't permit itself such things anymore. But good research needs time, space, and the freedom to fail.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of ZEIT ONLINE, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

08:02 February 18, 2011 by annan1063
Ha Ha! The title of this article made me laugh out loud. Brilliant!
17:18 February 18, 2011 by SockRayBlue
A Doctorate in "cut and paste"? Such is the realm of the younger generation....no original thinking (that makes sense).
09:30 February 19, 2011 by Tom II
"...students spend months or years ploughing through piles of literature to find parts they can quote in their theoretical work..."

This is why just about all B.S. Ph.D. degrees actually stand for Bull Sh!t Piled High & Deep. What people won't 'stand for' they will always 'fall for'.
16:40 February 19, 2011 by DrStrangelove
"This is why just about all B.S. Ph.D. degrees actually stand for Bull Sh!t Piled High & Deep. What people won't 'stand for' they will always 'fall for'. "

There are honest people, and there are fakers like Guttenberg. The same goes for PhD theses - there is garbage like this, but there are many very worthy and substantial works.
20:53 February 19, 2011 by A South African Lady
All theoretical work is built on previous theories. Before the net, books were used, which took more time. What is the big deal? The Libs must have dug long and hard in their pathetic and desperate attempt to discredit him. A storm in a teacup. What a joke!
13:49 February 21, 2011 by freechoice
honestly law isn't a appealing subject to invent and create...

hey it's the law!!!

PHD also stands for Permanent Head Damage!!
08:46 February 22, 2011 by Lucid57
Sadly this is highlights a slippery road we are heading, a case of extremes and any kind of failure is deemed 'Your out!' In Germany the education system is brutal for the kids so and a stigma is attached to those whom only got a Hauptschule certificate. Becuase of the pace the Real and Gynasium go at the kids are encouraged to plagarise. Though in the UK we are softer, we encourage plagarism to so in total we have allowed the education system to dilute the value. Yes its funny but only in an ironic way. I believe we should learn and understand the powerful message in the last paragraph.

Guess you can view this as some fuddy-duddy spouting the old ways were better, well I am not. I am saying our trend is leading us to a below-standard values and we need to stop it.
20:15 February 23, 2011 by fryintl
I am not sure if I am an idiot or il-informed, but have they proven his omission of Attribution was intentional? I had problems with my thesis. Getting the format straight, meeting the foot note criterion and the bibliography, doing the right format for the Table of Contents and then having to remember to quote and attribute every part that was required to be attributable. You see, not all parts must be. If you are quoting data, you have one rule, if you are just spouting generally known information yo umay not need to.

Everyone here has condemned teh poor guy but after talking to my in laws, Germany is still in love with the guy overall, and his credibility hasn't suffered much. Of course you may have a hotbed of liberal people in Berlin, or some other towns where an entire city may think he is crap, but, overall, Germany still loves him. It seems, and I could be wrong, that many of the comments here are from people who are opposed politically to Herr Gutenberg, so I will take the comments with a grain of salt.

PHDs are not often required, so why get them? Who is going to teach the next Generation of PHD's? Also, since the PHD came out, people have wanted one, but like a black belt, very few actually get there. A small percentage of those that do got there inappropriately, but it is just a piece of paper. Everyone will know who the real person is after they hire them.
02:29 February 25, 2011 by Rant&Rave
You raise some sound points, fryntl. Here on my armchair, I have noted that there is another point that has not been raised at all amidst all the outrage.

Notwithstanding the fact (?) that he supposedly got a subordinate at work to do some of his homework, he isn't the only 'sinner' in all this in my humble opinion. He should sue the university for having wasted his time too. Between the time a thesis is submitted and the degree awarded, a whole bunch of people have to read it. How come none of those dons spotted the citation errors? Methinks they were too busy using his thesis as a door stop instead of doing their jobs. Whilst drawing fat cat salaries, no less. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The cat is out of the bag now: the University of Bayreuth issues worthless degrees where the supervisors, internal, and external examiners don¦#39;t even bother to read the material they are awarding degrees for. Whether or not he purposefully cheated throughout his work, someone should have spotted it along the way. Typically, a student submits various chapters to his or her supervisor throughout, and feedback is offered continuously. While it might be harder to spot text that¦#39;s copied without citation, how come his supervisor or other peers in the department didn¦#39;t ever notice that the footnotes weren¦#39;t adding up? I find the simple control F function works wonders when you are double checking that each entry in the bibliography has been cited in text. And with a hard copy, any astute peer reviewer would be consciously paying attention to the type and validity of the sources used.

Even after initial submission, it¦#39;s not necessarily over. It¦#39;s not unheard of for students to have to go back and rework a section, say clarifying the methodology, or perhaps reconsidering whether the conclusions are actually supported by the findings. Someone should have called him out on his errors (initially giving the benefit of the doubt), and he would have had to shape up before the thesis was submitted for final evaluation. The department where he studied is WACK, as are the people who granted the work not just a degree, but Cum Laude at that.
17:31 February 25, 2011 by fryintl
Rant & Rave, you made me remember my committee. I forgot about that. I had to have two PHD's as the board and one person as my supervisor. I was hounded a great deal to fix the format, to properly place the footnotes and to ensure everything was in order. I am not sure how I forgot that mess.

You are right. The reputation of the universoty is in question. But, once again, the question is not so much the plagerism, as everyone is guilty of it in one way or another- ever quote some famous quote and then not state who it was from, or even know who it can be attributed to? Isn't that plagerism too?

The importance is what has he done since the thesis? Has he done more good than bad? Has he done any bad? Is he just guilty of having an aristocratic last name and history, and being married to quite a hot lady? Is he trying to improve Germany or hurt it?

What we do in school is one thing, what we do and who we are after is much different. I also graduated Cum Laude, too bad it wasn't Summa Cum Laude, but that is the breaks. He didn't get that grade entirely based on his Thesis. There had to be a great deal of studying and classes and tests that got him most of hte way there, right?

Man I miss Germany and wish I was back. The brats, curry wurst, Rene Walker Band, my friends, my old life. All who live in Germany, or in Europe are quite lucky.
11:02 February 27, 2011 by Kennneth Ingle
In Germany ( for some reason or other), it would appear to be very important, to be spoken to with title. Even the wives of doctors, who themselves have no claim to an academic honour, often expect to be called Frau Doctor.

In the case of Herr Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, there are however many questions left open. Why did he not seem to know what he had written? Surely if it had been his own work - as claimed - he would have at least some idea of where his information came from.

Nevertheless, he is most certainly not the only liar in European politics! I remember years ago the saying in the British army " you don't get punished for committing crimes, you get punished for being caught." Governments obviously have a similar way of thinking.
14:21 February 28, 2011 by Krim
My feeling is that people are focusing more on one individual than on a complete system. The German university and the BMBF do not want to take seriously corruption from well organized groups and this according to disciplines. The case of Henrick Schön, the case of the medicine professor (Friburg) the case of the law professor in Hanover who was making money selling PhD's. I have been witnessing how scientists are forced to add people as co-authors on their publications. Those who refused for obvious ethical reasons to play the game, had and have no chance in getting support for their research. The notion of intellectual property is strange in many research Institutes.

Heads of Institutes are expecting to be authors on publications or Patents automatically. You better add their names if you want to keep doing research and getting support.

This is well accepted and cultivated by the directors of the institutes.There is a kind of tyranny inside these institutes where mediocrity is cultivated every day.
05:37 April 7, 2011 by neunElf
If you look hard enough you will find that this investigation was orchestrated from the chancellors office. Angie knows hardball!
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