“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?
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 spiegel.de). 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.