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Germany’s defence minister accused of plagiarism

The defence minister of Germany has been accused of plagiarism. Several newspapers say he copied parts of his PhD thesis from their archives.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says the introduction to Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s thesis on constitutional reform in the United States and Europe is an almost word-for-word match with a story the paper published in 1997. An investigation by the Sueddeutsche, which broke the news on Wednesday, has since uncovered several other allegations of plagiarism, some concerning newspaper stories, others scientific texts and books.
Zu Guttenberg, a conservative politician who became defence minister under Angela Merkel in 2009, submitted his PhD thesis to the University of Bayreuth in 2006. He received a PhD with summa cum laude, the best possible mark under the German doctoral education system.
But this week Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a Bremen-based law professor, came across several unlikely text matches with other media when putting parts of zu Guttenberg’s thesis into an online search engine. Fischer-Lescano reported his concerns, and the University of Bayreuth started an investigation on 16 February.
Despite widespread media accusation, zu Guttenberg’s PhD supervisor Peter Häberle denies any possibility of plagiarism. “These allegations are absurd,” he told the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung. “This work is not plagiarised. It was checked by me in several advisory discussions.”
Zu Guttenberg himself released a statement, saying that he was sorry if he had “overlooked” citations in his thesis, which has 475 pages and lists over 1,000 sources. He said he would be happy to rectify any omissions in future editions.
The University of Bayreuth refused to comment on the justification for the allegations, saying it wants to wait for the results of its continuing investigation into the case.
Germany has no central authority to check the originality of PhD theses and research publications, relying instead on a strict peer-review policy. There is also no special court to follow up accusations of plagiarism. However, universities usually have internal committees to investigate cases, and academic organisations, such as the German Rectors’ Conference, are known to provide advice to universities and researchers accused of plagiarism.
Zu Guttenberg, who is turning 40 this year, is one of the youngest members of Merkel’s government. His successful career, family wealth and popularity with the German public have previously led to envy and internal strife among the CDU parliamentary fraction. The rumour in academic circles is that the accusations might be an in-party attempt to damage the minister’s reputation.
While the right wing media in Germany is condemning the case, left wing publications have been more careful, saying that zu Guttenberg should be given a chance to explain himself. The university investigation into the case is expected to publish its first findings next week.