Friday, February 18, 2011

Doctor, Doctor

There are many More Important Things going on in the world than the growing fuss here about the doctoral dissertation completed by German defence secretary Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg at the University of Bayreuth in 2007.

More specifically, there have been allegations that various parts of that dissertation were plagiarised.

Unlike those More Important Things I mentioned -- such as the uprisings in North Africa and the Gulf or the turbulence on the currency markets -- I know a thing-'er-two about writing academic articles and books.

That experience, actually, tends to make me a bit more forgiving about honest 'mistakes'. Strange things, I have discovered, sometimes do happen in the writing or editing process. Footnotes get mis-assigned, say, and typos work their way into quotations.

Things like that.

Also, given the amount of things one reads and hears in academic contexts, it's not all that surprising if, perhaps, a particular way of phrasing an idea gets picked up, lodged in one's brain and used without what, in all fairness, should have been an attribution.

Were someone to go through the tens of thousands of words I've published with a fine-toothed comb, it is not outside the realm of possibility that he or she will find some errors of the above-mentioned varieties.

However, you would not find something of a rather different nature: the insertion of substantial blocks of text from other people's writing without quotation marks, footnotes or any of the other things expected when you make use of other peoples' words .

And that, friends, seems to be what we are dealing with in this case.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung has helpfully brought the main relevant passages together with their (unacknowledged) sources.

Like this:

Even if you can't read German, it's obvious 1) that they match, 2) that they are of substantial length and 3) that the problem re-appears on several pages.

(Just how many is unclear. A quickly organised website called Gutenplag Wiki has been formulating a complete listing of alleged instances of plagiarism in the work, but it may be that many of these might turn out to be either red herrings or more ambiguous cases.)

I just listened on the radio to Guttenberg's response, which was pretty pathetic, not least since he didn't really address any of the specific issues while also trying to play on public sympathies by highlighting that he had written the dissertation while also carrying out another job and being a family man.

Poor baby: it's not like many, many other people don't manage to do the same without resorting (allegedly) to plagiarism. (He has said, however, that he will 'temporarily' refrain from using his academic title.)

The University of Bayreuth, which awarded the doctorate in question, is looking into the matter; and from the statements they've made so far, they sound understandably pissed off. Certainly, for an institution that has been advertising itself using Guttenberg's image as one of their most prominent alumni, this is a bit embarrassing.

I do feel for the university (where I used to work -- mainly teaching law students English -- and about which I have many fond memories). Not only is Guttenberg's reputation on the line (and he's made much of being, in contrast to other politicians, a straight-talker) but so is that of the institution that awarded him the academic title.

There is, I admit, something ridiculous and petty and meaningless about this whole thing; however, perhaps because of my own experiences, it bothers me immensely.

I find not only Guttenberg's plagiarism (if true) but also his blasé manner of responding to the charges to be an affront to serious scholarship and to those people who do take the more difficult step of being careful (and of doing their own thinking and writing) on that hard road to the doctorate. Moreover, I've spent several years (on and off) teaching students not to do precisely what has in this case (allegedly) been done.

Not, necessarily, that the German public more generally is going to care much about this. The vox pops I've seen or heard so far have been of the 'Well, I did something like that in school, so it's not all that bad' variety. (I mean, what percentage of the population has ever given serious consideration to footnotes?)

In any case, Guttenberg -- for reasons that have always eluded me -- appears to be one of the most popular politicians in this country, and, probably at worst there'll be some kind of deal where he creates a 'revised' version with all of the correct citations and all will be forgiven.

That, I think, is a shame. And if there are no serious consequences, I think that the reputation not only of the University Bayreuth but of German academia more generally will be (perhaps justly) damaged.

Like most academics, I sweated blood over the details in my own dissertation and in whatever else I've published since (the second book manuscript, as you read this, is wending its slow, steady way toward completion), so it bothers me that someone (let alone a privileged-bloody-aristocrat) might just coast through via a winning smile and some intellectual theft.

Furthermore, I had to go through a certain rigamarole to get my doctorate recognised in Germany so that I could officially use the title 'Dr'. I'm not generally the sort to insist on its use, but it was something that I worked hard for and which is relevant to my employment. (And, yes, given that such things are especially central to Germany's status obsessions, I want to get the most mileage out of whatever markers of respect I can.)

I had a relatively easy time of it; however, the principle behind this procedure is obviously that standards elsewhere in the world might not be as strict as they are here in the land of poets and thinkers.

And, you know, at the moment that proposition is looking a bit doubtful.

[UPDATE] A few years ago, our friend Andrew commented on something relevant to this discussion:

In one way, young members of the European nobility have it worse than wealthy Americans: Europe's state-dominated education system has no real counterpart to America's sprawling network of non-selective private colleges of the dumb rich, who will happily accept giant tuition checks to make sure junior gets some college degree, and will even arrange discreet rehab-clinic stays if necessary. In Europe, a wealthy 19-year old with a glittering title will have to compete against the hoi polloi to get into a state university, because those are the only institutions that confer real prestige.
Especially in Germany, drawing excess attention to your title or wealth is taboo, so in order to establish status distinction, you'll have to sit through a few boring classical concerts, get that precious doctorate (g), and read some books about art and philosophy now and then, just like all your non-titled friends.

Yes, the existence of 'colleges of the dumb rich' is one aspect of Americanisation that I think we can do without.

I hope that the University of Bayreuth also sees it this way.


Geoff Coupe said...

Well, he's a politician, isn't he? Of course he'll get away with it and come up smelling of roses. There ain't no justice...

Feirefiz said...

Have you seen the Bundespressekonferenz? He is toast. Things might have gone differently, but now that he is technically guilty and he has lost so much respect it is over.

John Carter Wood said...

I have to say that I think that you, Geoff, are closer to the truth on this. Guttenberg may have lost respect among the journalistic set (and anyone with an honest Ph.D.), but that's a small subset of the population.

I wish more people took this seriously, but I had a conversation today with someone who argued that the 'personal' and the 'political' in this case were separable.

I think that's the most likely reaction of most people here.

Geoff Coupe said...

Well, I have to say that, in the light of recent developments, my flabber is gasted. There is a smidgeon of justice in this sorry world, after all...

John Carter Wood said...

Geoff: my flabber, also gasted.

There we are.