Wikipedia discovers plagiarism – as a side effect

Centre for Medical Research, University of Münster (CC-BY-SA, by STBR)

In late May 2011 newspapers reported about another case of plagiarism in Germany. It seems that within three years, the Medizinische Fakultät of the University of Münster accepted two PhD theses with huge similarities. This was discovered by a Wikipedian who tells his story on “Wikipedia:Kurier” on Wikipedia in German.

According to him, the introductory parts of theses are useful for writing an Wikipedia article: They sum up the state of the science on a specific subject. In March 2011 he read a thesis from 2006 about a lemma with relation to the prostate (he don’t want to name the specific article for privacy reasons).  As the lemma was unknown to him, he consulted Wikipedia and so he found a PhD thesis from 2009. Same university, very similar subject. Partially the very same text, even the same pagebreak. The same bibliography. The author of the 2006 thesis appears nowhere.

The Wikipedia author, after his discovery, went to bed with an awkward feeling. Nobody hurt him personally, but would it be right to do nothing? He later asked some friends from different universities who all said: Incredible – you must report that!

So he sent an e-mail to the Medizinische Fakultät of the University of Münster. Three hours later he got a reply that the proper institutions will deal with the case, and two weeks later came a preliminary report and a thank you. On May 20th came another interim report with basically what was later reported by the news.

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Doktorvater

'Fraud is not a footnote': protest in Berlin on Saturday, against 'the disgraceful behavior of the minister of defense, the chancellor and the parliament groups supporting the government' (fleeex, CC-BY-SA)

Last one and a half week, when Germany’s academic and politic world was occupied with a minister’s plagiarism, the public response made many of us feeling quite uncomfortable. People unfamiliar with the rules of scientific methods obviously find it difficult to understand what the fuzz is all about. I would like to write about one part in this drama, the unhappy thesis supervisor. In German, we call such a professor Doktorvater (‘father’ of the doctoral candidate).

A Doktorvater is not simply a school teacher you have because you were born by chance in this or other district. When a young scientist has made up his mind and wants to obtain a PhD degree, he is looking for a Doktorvater and presents himself as a doctoral candidate. He hopes to find the optimal support from this specific professor. The Doktorvater, on his side, decides to accept the young scientist because he trusts in him; he desires to pass his experience, knowledge and scientific ethics through to the next generation.

The band between doctoral candidate and Doktorvater is a very special one. Our modern universities have their origins in the European middle ages. Think about the feudal ties between a king and someone he has knighted. They expect consilium et auxilium from each other, advice and help. In this light one must understand the solemnity of the doctoral ceremony. With every scientific activity, I try to do honor to my Doktorvater in Utrecht.

On February 16th 2011, minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has first been accused of plagiarism in his PhD thesis of 2006. His Doktorvater, eminent professor of public law Peter Häberle, immediately renounced the possibility that zu Guttenberg has committed this utmost crime against academic integrity. Zu Guttenberg had been one of his best students, he said.

One might say that Häberle should have waited with such a statement. Maybe he accepted too many doctoral candidates, maybe he was bedazzled by the dashing and eloquent aristocrat. Nevertheless, Häberle was the first and primal victim in this case. His reaction was just too human; he instinctively protected his former student and could not believe in a breach of confidence to this extent.

Häberle, embarrassed in the most extreme way, remained silent and allowed contact only to a small group of friends. It was not earlier than today that he spoke to the press:

The failings discovered in the  PhD thesis of Mr. zu Guttenberg, unimaginable to me, are grave and not acceptable. They contradict to what I tried to live and convey as good scientific practice for decades.

He regrets his early, hasty statement that the thesis was no plagiarism.

And zu Guttenberg? We see no sign of shame. When he smilingly ‘apologized’ in public for the ‘unintended flaws’ in his thesis, he did not find it necessary to mention his Doktorvater at all.