Wednesday, 23 February 2011

To Copy and Paste or not to Copy and Paste: that is the Question

It has been a week where I was once again confronted with cultural differences in interpreting core social values.

A popular, key Minister in the Cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel is caught out: a great chunk of his summa cum laude doctorate of Law was plagiarised. A scandal!

Der Spiegel this week on the plagiarism scandal surrounding Germany's Minister of Defence
But what shocked me most is not the fact that his doctorate was plagiarised. What shocked me was how the general German public viewed his plagiarism and how they urged him to stay on as a Minister. Worse still how his popularity rose with each passing day of this scandal week.
Der Spiegel article


A Facebook page was set up in support of him and it is growing rapidly day by day; the mass circulation red top newspaper Bild seems to support him. And a political survey shows that nearly 75% of the population thinks he is doing a great job, compared to 68% at the beginning of the month, before the scandal broke.

In my day, when I studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, cheating during an exam could certainly see one expelled from University and deprived of a Certificate of Good Conduct that was needed to change universities. Wits was no exception in this, it was and is general practise at elite universities all over the English speaking world, to act decisively against such deception. However the easy access to information on the internet has changed the game world-wide.

A few hours each semester I teach Business English at the University of Trier. Year after year I struggle and battle and plead and have angry debates with non-plussed German students about plagiarism and copying from each other in exams. We have different interpretations of the same act: I see it as cheating; they see it as a minor misdemeanour. 

While marking exams this week I can clearly see who copied from whom and there is not much I their lecturer can do. There is no system of invigilation like we had at Wits; a single lecturer is supposed to sometimes invigilate classes of 200 students while they write. An impossible task. 

Even if I can proof they cheated, there is little support from the University authorities. In this country primary school children already learn that copying in exams is a mere trivial offense, without any serious action taken against them. The wonderful German word Kavaliersdelikt.  As a mother I battled to tell my kids that it was wrong to cheat when all around them it was being done on a regular basis. Only fear of my ire, kept my older daughter from cheating and being caught. So whenever I have raised this issue, professors shrugged their shoulders and I get the sense that I have not arrived in academic Germany.

Even is there is proof, universities are reluctant to act. Officially universities warn against plagiarism; in practise they do little to curb it.

I have failed students who wrote essays in the journalistic style of The Economist or The Financial Times. I simply argued if I,as an English journalist, struggle writing in that style, how come they can with such ease write such flowing sentences? Only to then go on and fail the next English grammar or Business English vocabulary test? But as I quickly found out when they complained to the department: that is certainly no argument. And trying to catch them out is time-consuming work, for which we freelance lecturers are not paid. So we all tend to turn a blind eye.
Stern Cover July 2009

In the case of Merkel’s most popular aristocratic Minister, Baron Karl-Theodor zu und von Guttenberg started off arrogantly defending his thesis against the "audacious" accusations that he plagiarised. It took a couple of days after a Law professor pointed out that there was  plagiarism in his doctorate, and that he should not have gotten the degree conferred on him, before hundreds of volunteers took a closer look at his copy and paste master piece on Guttenplag Wiki website. By last Monday (21.2.2011) they had found plagiarism on no less than 286 pages of his doctorate. Statistically 72.77% of the 475 page thesis was copied and pasted without any reference to the sources. Therefore three quarters of his “first rate” doctoral thesis was NOT his own work.

By Monday evening, with overwhelming evidence against him he pre-empted the University of Bayreuth stripping him of the title, by voluntarily returning the title. In return he hoped to stay on as Minister of Defence. 

Unrepentant he argued there are more important issues at stake, than forgetting a few hundred sources. In my opinion the University in Bayreuth, only got active because of the bad publicity. It is the heartland of his CSU (Christian Socialist Union) party, where zu Guttenberg’s grandfather was already a key politician. Normally this baron could do as he wished here.

Zu Guttenberg's doctoral thesis that he got summa cum laude

In some ways his summa cum laude doctorate underlines what again and again is shown in OECD  (Organisation  for Economic Cooperation and Development) studies: That in Germany, like in no other OECD country, academic success depends who and what your parents are.

Today Bayreuth University has moved to the top of their website the heading how they deal with academic transgressions. And on Wednesday evening (23.02.2011) merely a week after the accusations first surfaced, the University acted swiftly and stripped him of his doctorate.

Der Spiegel summarised what has been happening in German society when it wrote today that “Guttenberg’s honour: Lying has become suitable for ministerial office”.

It is a blow for academic standards.

And what values do we give our children and students in this country? Are we telling them that it is okay to plagiarize but don’t transgress the 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not be caught”

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