By Aisha Labi
The bad news keeps coming for the disgraced former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a once-rising star in his country's conservative party. On Wednesday the University of Bayreuth published the full report of its investigation into plagiarism in his 2006 doctoral dissertation in law.
The university's assessment, which Mr. Guttenberg had initially sought to prevent from being made public, was unsparing: Not only was most of his dissertation plagiarized from a range of sources, including newspapers, journals, and the official research service for German parliamentarians, which lawmakers are forbidden to use for personal purposes, but even if the work had been Mr. Guttenberg's, it would not have merited the summa cum laude it was originally awarded.
The revelations of how extensively Mr. Guttenberg had plagiarized came as no surprise to one group of people: an online community of plagiarism detectors that formed since the allegations against him came to light. That loose band of academic vigilantes helped to compile and disseminate the information that eventually brought about Mr. Guttenberg's downfall. Its members have since set their sights on other high-profile figures, and, although they do not work directly with universities, their online sleuthing is having an impact.
Also on Wednesday, the University of Konstanz announced that it had stripped Veronica Sass, the daughter of another leading conservative politician, of her law doctorate. Another politician, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, whose doctoral dissertation is under investigation by the University of Heidelberg, stepped down on Wednesday from her posts as a vice president of the European Parliament and the board of her political party.
Part of the explanation for the apparent proliferation of plagiarism among politicians is the prevalence of doctoral degrees among figures outside of academe. Many German politicians and business leaders have doctoral titles and have few qualms about using them, even if they never set foot on a university campus after they earn their degrees.
"Everybody has their name on their door in bronze and wants to have their doctoral title there, too; that's really important," said Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor of media and computing at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin who has been active in the recent online plagiarism-detecting movement. The attitude toward academic titles, she said, has much to do with the traditional German reverence of learning. "Someone who has a doctorate is highly respected," she said.
Mr. Guttenberg was hardly the only German politician to proudly affix "Dr." to his name, but he was the first to be subjected to the forensic scrutiny of an online examination of his academic bona fides. The allegations against him first came to light in February, when a law professor at the University of Bremen raised questions about the minister's dissertation in a newspaper article. Events snowballed from there, said Tim Bartel, who works as country manager in Germany for Wikia, a for-profit sister company of the Wikimedia Foundation, and an online community dedicated to examining Mr. Guttenberg's thesis soon took shape.
A handful of bloggers began looking into Mr. Guttenberg's dissertation and posting their findings in a variety of online forums. As their output grew, it became clear that they would need a more hospitable venue than so many disparate sites or even the Google document that had been created, which allowed access to only about 100 people. The original creator of the site where they ended up collaborating, GuttenPlag Wiki, was a doctoral candidate with a background in online gaming, through which he was familiar with the collaborative wikia format, said Mr. Bartel. Like many who have been active in the online plagiarism-hunting effort, that person, who goes by the handle PlagDoc, prefers to remain pseudonymous.
At the start, said Mr. Bartel, he and PlagDoc were the only two GuttenPlag participants. By the end of the site's first day in operation, about 20 people were active online. "It's pretty hard to say the exact number of people that are involved," said Mr. Bartel. Because there is no requirement for participants to sign up, some flit in and out of the forum while others are active on a regular basis. "Some people don't come back, some people just sign in to fix a typo, some people join every day and work for several hours."
Max Ruppert, a doctoral candidate in journalism studies at the Technical University of Dortmund, and another doctoral candidate conducted an online survey of GuttenPlag participants during what Mr. Ruppert describes as its "hot phase," when thousands were logging in each day. The results allowed them to form a profile of who was active on the site.
They identified a "hard core" of 140 participants who were coming regularly to the site and taking the initiative in leading and managing online tasks. The successor site that has continued to investigate other allegations of plagiarism, VroniPlag Wiki, has many of the same active users, said Mr. Bartel.
Organizing online work was a challenge, especially since at the outset there was no real-time communication. Soon after an online chat forum was set up, it was drawing around 100 active users at a time, and participants were then able to make sure there was little overlap as they dissected Mr. Guttenberg's dissertation page by page. Site members created a means of identifying which pages contained plagiarized material, assigning a bar-code pattern to indicate plagiarism.
The more bars in the pattern, the more plagiarism a page contained. "White means it was checked and there was no plagiarism, black means plagiarism, and red means plagiarism on this page from more than one source," said Mr. Bartel. By the end, he said, "I think there are only about 5 percent of the pages on his thesis where there was no plagiarism, which was the opposite of what we had expected."
Although Mr. Guttenberg resigned in early March, the university also began looking into his thesis, spurred in part by the avalanche of coverage in the mainstream news media, much of which relied on GuttenPlag's digging. In its full findings announced on Wednesday, it placed the blame squarely on Mr. Guttenberg and cleared itself and Mr. Guttenberg's supervising professor of wrongdoing.
Ms. Weber-Wulff says she believes, however, that at least part of the responsibility for the culture that enabled Mr. Guttenberg to get away with such an egregious violation lies with Germany's higher-education system. There is a longstanding notion that professors own all the work done under their supervision, and many are guilty of plagiarism, she said. "In Germany the professors let their doctoral students write for them and then publish under their own name. Doctoral students then steal from the bachelor's and master's students under them. We end up having plagiarism all the way down," she said.
One way of eliminating at least part of the problem would be to cut down on the proliferation of doctoral degrees. "We need to leave the doctoral titles in academia where they belong," she said.