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The weight of academic misconduct in German politics

Academic misconduct has become a sensitive political issue in Germany, the European Union country with the highest percentage of members of parliament that have a doctorate, at 17%. Cases of plagiarized theses have already led to the resignation of at least three cabinet members during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year administration. The most recent example is Franziska Giffey, Germany’s Minister for Family Affairs, who resigned on May 19 after a lengthy scandal related to her academic life. In 2019, she was reprimanded by the Free University of Berlin after an investigation found that she had plagiarized parts of her doctoral thesis in political science, which she defended in 2010. At the time, the university chose not to revoke her PhD, claiming that the copied sections did not compromise the originality of her work. But after being criticized for the decision, the institution reopened the case and completed a new investigation in June. Before the final verdict was made public, Giffey, 43, decided to leave her position. “I stand by my statement that I wrote my work to the best of my ability. I’m sorry if I made mistakes,” said Giffey, who for now is continuing her plan to run for mayor of Berlin with the Social Democratic Party in September.

The reopening of Giffey’s case was sparked by a campaign by collaborative platform VroniPlag Wiki, which has studied nearly 200 German doctoral theses in search of plagiarism and was responsible for reporting several politicians. When it was created in 2011, the project led to the dismissal of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose thesis on constitutional law, defended at the University of Bayreuth in 1999, contained eight sections that were copied from other works without citing the source. Guttenberg was stripped of his position and the title of doctor.

At least seven other politicians also had their degrees revoked in 2011 based on the work of the website. Georgios Chatzimarkakis was one of them. Seventy one percent of the pages of his thesis, defended at the University of Bonn in the year 2000, were found to contain copied text. But some politicians were able to overcome the allegations, such as the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. In 2016, when Leyen was Defense Minister, the VroniPlag Wiki found that 12% of the pages of her doctoral thesis, defended at Hannover Medical School, contained plagiarism. The institution decided not to revoke her doctorate, claiming that the plagiarism was unintentional.

Annette Schavan, the Education Minister, resigned in 2013 when it was discovered that her philosophy thesis, defended at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf in 1980, contained plagiarism. The fact that she wrote the paper, which was titled “Character and conscience,” at a time when the debate on academic misconduct was still in its infancy was not considered a mitigating factor.