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University investigates German research minister over plagiarism allegations

For more the seven years, Germany’s research minister, Annette Schavan, has been one of the most loyal – and politically successful – members in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet. Now the 57 year-old education expert is facing possibly the untimely end to her political career over a plagiarism charge which some say is inappropriate.

Annette Schavan

Following previous charges of plagiarism in her thesis, written more than 30 years ago on aspects of education, the University of Düsseldorf has now officially confirmed that the claims are substantial and that Schavan’s doctorate might be withdrawn. Although the final outcome of the university’s investigation into the case is still open, it is getting increasingly likely that Schavan will be stripped of her degree before long.

At its long-expected meeting yesterday evening, the university’s faculty council, a 15-strong body comprising faculty staff, administrators and student, ruled in favour of launching a formal ‘PhD withdrawal procedure’. In a previous report to the council, the university’s vice dean of humanities, Stefan Rohrbacher, said that Schavan had indeed intended to deceive in her thesis by paraphrasing other works without appropriate citation.

“The faculty council has discussed at length the preliminary evaluation of the case and has ruled, in secret vote, that formal proceedings need be opened,” Bruno Bleckmann, dean of philosophy and chairman of the council said in a statement.

The accusations of plagiarism first surfaced last May in an anonymous internet forum and have been thoroughly documented since. Schavan denies the charges, arguing that in her thesis she has paraphrased and cited from the literature in a way that had been common practise in the field at the time around 1980.

In a statement, Schavan said she hopes that the faculty council will now also ask external reviewers to look into her thesis. “I am convinced that the unfounded plagiarism claims will be dispelled,” she says,

Merkel and a number of prominent scientists, including the heads of Germany’s large research organizations, have spoken up in defence of the popular research minister. But most academics insist that suspicions of misconduct must be thoroughly investigated regardless of who is under suspicion and when the incriminated work was carried out.

Plagiarism hunters last year unmasked in the 2006 law thesis of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg long sections which Germany’s then-defence minister had blatantly copied and pasted. Zu Guttenberg resigned within a few weeks and his alma mater, the Univertsity of Bayreuth, later withdrew his doctorate. Since then, a number of other politicians in Germany and other countries – notably Romania – have been accused of academic plagiarism.

The university’s faculty council will meet again on 5 February.


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