Guttenberg’s Dissertation

“Why is that we always break up our history by the … the wars, not the years of peace? The hundred years war, war of 1812, the first three world wars, the Dilgar war, the war of the shining star, the Minbari war, the Shadow war. Why the war and not the peace? Because it’s exciting, and because on some level people like to see something big fall apart and explode from the inside out. And right now, John, we’re that something.”
Garibaldi to Sheridan in Babylon 5: “A Tragedy of Telepaths”

Note: This positing was written when the first four or five uncited passages were found and the verdict was still out. After writing this posting (17-02-2011), new information came out (one of the disadvantages of writing about a current event). The original posting is unchanged, but you might want to look at the comments for updates. In the meantime, Guttenberg has returned his title.  [Update 2: Now (1.03.2011) he has quit his position as minister of defense — congratulations, Internet & short-sighted scientists and politicians everywhere, you have participated in a political killing, nicely done. :-/] While I agree that plagiarists have to be stopped, I am still unhappy about the way it was done in this case, so I leave the posting here.

So, the defense minister of Germany, Dr. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, is in the news for using paragraphs of other authors in his dissertation without citing them. In other words: He is accused of plagiarism.

There is a lot of news buzz about it — it usually happens when successful people stumble — but I wonder:

How many people, snickering and screaming about his apparent misdeed,
have ever tried to write something similar to a dissertation?

How many of the loudmouths are doctors themselves? Or how many have read anything close to the number of papers he referenced1? Wrote a long and complicated text2?

What annoys me about this kind of news is that they make it appear so easy — just copy-paste a few quotes and you get your dissertation. But I don’t think any dissertation (that deserves the name) is anything close to that. And his dissertation does have a long reference list. In truth, it takes a lot of literature work, a lot of reading, thinking, experimenting, and writing to come up with something good enough to deserve the title. One person wrote something like ‘double quotes are quick to write and don’t take any effort, so it must have be conscious plagiarism’. Sure, double quotes are quick and easy to write, if you (still) know where to put them. In the same vein, anything is easy to write, if you know the order in which to type the letters. 😉

Isn’t it more likely that, during the process of writing, his own notes got mixed up with interesting quotes from other sources? That the source information was simply lost?

To make three things very clear: First, I do not know what happened in this case, I can only speculate. Second, I do not condone sloppy work or bad organization. Quite the contrary, which is one reason for this site. And third, I hate plagiarism — it’s unethical idea theft and one of the worst crimes in Academia.

But I think that this is a non-issue (and a slow newsweek, now that the Egyptians have walked out of the spotlight) and actually quite shameful to make this a top story (it is on the 17th of February at If you got a problem with someone regarding a political topic, beat him in the political arena on that topic — if you dare. We applaud the brave captain who sinks his enemy’s ship in combat at sea, not the rat-pack of cowardly arsonists who try to burn down ships in the harbor.

And regarding text passages that are not cited:

Can it happen without intent: absolutely.

Should it happen: absolutely not.


This is a posting where it is interesting to read the comments.

1No, blogs don’t count!

2No, comments like “me too” don’t count either.


  1. I know that SOME mistakes can happen, yes. But how do you explain the following facts:
    – he copied the WHOLE first paragraph
    – he often changed some words within the plagiated passages – which makes it less likely that this is a simple error

    I can imagine that writing a dissertation is hard. It takes years, and you can get lost within all your quotes and all your literature. BUT that’s part of what a dissertation is about – doing your scientific work properly. Working ethically. If he can’t do this, he can’t have his PHD.

  2. Hello Ellen,

    good points — I don’t know what happened in his case and yes, it might have been deliberate. The question for me would be, whether it could have been a mistake, sloppy work with sources, or whether the key points of his dissertation are copied as well. Or to put it differently: Was the specific scientific contribution his own work? Point is, I don’t know, and until the committee of his university had a look at it, we will not know. And I think there is a lot of opinion floating around without knowing all the facts, something I abhor.

    Hmm, and there is this other thing … if he was a scientist working, for example, in cloning research or with superconductors to name two areas where cheats were found a while ago, I think it would be a topic worth discussing. And public reporting about scientists who got caught fabricating data is important to uphold the integrity of science — not only in the eyes of the public. Science corrects itself — that’s the hallmark of science and that’s important to communicate.

    But I don’t think that this is the reason for all the news buzz here — he is a politician, not a scientist. I think it’s a political mud-flinging. A politician should deal with complex topics and make decisions for the benefit of the people in the country. I seems to me that this reporting is just some kind of payback or success-envy, and a way of getting someone who seems hard to hurt in other areas. I’m not a fan of him personally — I don’t know him, my political knowledge is superficial (I know what I don’t want and I vote to make sure that extremists don’t get a chance) and I don’t care about his reputation.

    But I think this news buzz doesn’t help science, and I get angry when it is suggested that you could simply type a search term in Google and check “Export Results as Dissertation” and be done with it. I think good, careful work is crucial, but I have also written reviews about papers, and while science is self-correcting, few if any papers are free of errors. Maybe he did plagiarize, if he did, they will get him, if he didn’t, they will slap his fingers for any other mistakes he made. But I seriously question the ability of the “wisdom of the crowds” to make this decision. It involves more than finding missing quotation marks and changed paragraphs.

    And it doesn’t look like wisdom, but more like a snickering mob or a pack of piranhas. I think it’s not a rational discussion of the quality of his work, but a lot of emotional reasoning. To put it differently: If I would find out that one of my students did plagiarize, I’d be very angry, yes, but it would hurt me as much as that student to deal with this issue. I would, no question about that, but it would not be fun, for neither of us. I think that criticism is important, but the critics shouldn’t enjoy it so much.

    And yes, I fully agree with your last paragraph — but I don’t think that this is the issue here. I think the goal of many critics is to hurt a person, not to defend science. And I’ve got a problem with that. I like science too much to let it be defiled as a cloak for other intentions.

  3. P.S.: Thank you again for the comment, Ellen, I wasn’t quite sure why I was angry with this kind of news reports, now I know: it’s no way to deal with an political enemy and it’s the misuse of science.

  4. Hmmm, and you’re right that it doesn’t look good for him — has collected a large number of passages that apparently were not cited. Still, it looks like political assassination (GuttenPlag Wiki???).

    I agree that a doctor title must be defended against misuse — and if some people think they can get it per mail order, by copying, or via the work of a ghostwriter, these people have to be stopped. But I doubt that the same ‘enthusiasm’ would have been shown, if it was the dissertation of another law student who was not in politics.

    One of Heinlein’s characters once said: “Some people insist that ‘mediocre’ is better than ‘best.’ They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly. They despise brains because they have none. Pfah!” It think it is suiting in this context. Plagiarists (if he is one) have to be stopped, but not this way.

  5. You wrote: “But I doubt that the same ‘enthusiasm’ would have been shown, if it was the dissertation of another law student who was not in politics.”

    The thing is that a normal law student wouldn’t have been able to use the scientific service of the Bundestag, and he wouldn’t have had the power Guttenberg has to escape the consequences of his “misdeeds”.

    We need one famous person to fail with plagiarism in order to show that there is no shortcut to a PHD, that nobody gets away with plagiarism. We need this discussion – but we’d need it to be more focussed on the ethics of working scientifically than on a politician. (Although I have to admit that I can’t stand Guttenberg).

  6. I agree with the last part — it must be clear that (as you put it) “there is no shortcut to a PHD, that nobody gets away with plagiarism”. But I wonder what will be remembered about this incident. Suppose he did it, suppose he cheated and his university takes back his title (that is the decisive factor for me), what will people remember? That you cannot cheat on a PhD or that you should not cheat on a PhD if you want to become a high profile person?

    Will they remember that the scientific system works by itself, or will they remember that one person found some inconsistencies (don’t know whether it was politically motivated or not) and then the force of the net hit him with all they’ve got? Before they knew that he (might have) used the scientific service of the Bundestag (I think the issue started with four or five wrong citations, the rest came later). What does this mean for Mr. X, ex-MBA and highly status oriented, who is a CEO in a large company? Does he warrant the ‘interest’ of the Crowds when is not a very public person with a very bipolar reputation (some like him, some hate him)?

    And yes, I totally agree that the focus should be “on the ethics of working scientifically than on a politician” — that’s one of the main points here, it’s not about science. Science is just the designated executioner and this is wrong on so many levels.

    Regarding the “(Although I have to admit that I can’t stand Guttenberg).” — I think in this issue ignorance is bliss. I know that he is minister of defense, that he has a highly bipolar reputation, and that he is restructuring the German army (something that was long overdue). But other than that he is — for me — a sample case of all the issues I hate in politics (e.g., character assassination not related to actual political debate) and all that is wrong for me with mass behavior.

    Hmm, and again, thank you very much for your comments. 🙂

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