Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Plagiarism - setting an example

Germany's Defence secretary, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned today. What that has to do with a blog on learning and teaching, you ask? The reason for his resignation was that he plagiarised large parts of his PhD thesis, though he said this was only because he was so busy with his job (MP) and family (two daughters) and he didn't notice that he copied some hundred or so pages. His supervisor (retired) was of course shocked, as he was one of his best students, and he wouldn't have believed any accusations of plagiarism by the so-called "Baron zu Googleberg". There's the old blind trust in 'honourable' people again...

Being a conservative, Guttenberg could count on the support of the conservative press, such as BILD, which ran articles in which it was emphasised that he was a good minister, doing a splendid job for the boys in Afghanistan, and that he shouldn't resign because a couple of academics have lost all sense of proportion and demand his resignation over a piddly little academic infelicity. Those people in their ivory towers, out of touch with the real world of our troops dying in the Hindukush, how dare they ruin the career of this brilliant man... just because of some stupid footnotes!

But he finally resigned; and his PhD was taken away earlier by Bayreuth University, which is none too happy about the PR implications. And now we have a good example that we can show our students: even the powerful can fall if they commit plagiarism! While plagiarism should indeed reason enough to not be fit for public office, Guttenberg himself of course states it was not the only reason... showing that he doesn't seem to bothered about his integrity.

There is also an interesting linguistic side-aspect to this: in English we talk about plagiarism, meaning the process of plagiarising something. In German you talk about the Plagiariat, the product of copying, rather than the process. Of course you can 'verb' it into Er plagiarisierte seine Doktorarbeit, but that sounds rather awkward. The offender, a plagiarist, is also not directly lexicalised in German.

And to end on a happy note, here's a joke I heard on Twitter:
Fragt der Praktikant im Verteidigungsministerium "Wo ist denn der Kopierer?" Antwort: "Auf Truppenbesuch in Afghanistan" (Intern at the ministry of defence asks "where's the copier[*]?" Answer: "Visiting the troops in Afghanistan"). Who says Germans don't have a sense of humour?!

[*] Kopierer in this usage would generally be understood to mean 'photocopier'