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Düsseldorf rebuts criticisms of Schavan PhD review

The University of Düsseldorf’s philosophy faculty has refuted accusations that its process of reviewing the PhD thesis of Germany’s science minister, Annette Schavan, is not objective.

In a statement published on 21 January the faculty stated that it is correctly separating the reviewing, evaluation and decision-making stages of the review process, insofar as this is needed.

“A strict division is not necessary according to review laws, because the faculty council, which has to decide whether or not to withdraw a PhD title, also has to be involved in uncovering misdemeanour and make a decision based on this,” it stated.

The faculty came under fire on 18 January after the German Alliance of Science Organisations said the university was not guaranteeing a separation between the different review stages. The alliance said the university must make sure that a range of independent experts is consulted at each stage to guarantee an objective review.

It also said that the guidelines for good academic work of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany’s largest public research funder, should be used to assess the minister’s thesis.

In its response, the Düsseldorf faculty said it had “30 eyes” involved in the process, and that it would not budge from its original decision to have the faculty council involved in both reviewing and decision-making. It also said that that DFG guidelines cannot be applied to this specific review as they have been created for PhD granting committees, not for those who review existing PhD titles.

The faculty cited Klaus Gärditz, a science lawyer based in Bonn who reviewed the university’s processes at the beginning of the investigation. “The faculty has taken all legal aspects of this process into account,” Gärditz was quoted as saying on the university’s website.

Annette Schavan’s PhD thesis was scrutinised by an anonymous internet community, who claimed in early October to have found incidents of plagiarism on 60 of the document’s 351 pages. The university decided immediately to review Schavan’s thesis, and a report leaked in late October showed there are concerns that Schavan had quoted books she had not read and taken passages from other publications without citing them properly.

Schavan criticised the leak process strongly, and said she felt hurt by both the allegations and the way the university had failed to keep the findings of an ongoing investigation secret. “This hits the core of what’s important to me,” she told the Süddeutsche newspaper.