Taylor Vanderhelm is a JD candidate at the University of Alberta.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down in March 2011 from his position as German defence minister following revelations that he had plagiarized much of his 2006 doctoral thesis.
Referred to as the “Teflon Minister” for his ability to escape from controversy unscathed, Guttenberg’s resignation came as the result of significant media, academic and political opposition; much of which was driven by an anonymous online group’s revelations regarding the originality of Guttenberg’s thesis, which had been awarded the highest grade of summa cum laude by the University of Bayreuth.
The allegations against Guttenberg first gained public attention following a newspaper article by Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a law professor at the University of Bremen, which questioned the minister’s dissertation. From there, an anonymous online group banded together and began dissecting the material while posting their findings on online forums. As the movement grew, the group utilized an online wiki aptly named the GuttenPlag. The wiki was created by a leader in online plagiarism-hunting, a doctoral candidate with a background in online gaming who goes under the pseudonym “PlagDoc.” Along with Tim Bartel, an employee of Wikia, the two have been instrumental in organizing the online effort to analyze Guttenberg’s dissertation, which also paved the way for the establishment of the VroniPlag wiki. The VroniPlag wiki investigates plagiarism in other dissertations and has already been instrumental in the resignation of German politician Silvana Koch-Mehrin.
According to Mr. Bartel, the GuttenPlag effort found only approximately 5% of the pages of Guttenberg’s thesis to be free from plagiarism. The wiki implements a colour coordinated graph to illustrate its findings white pages indicate no plagiarism, black represents plagiarism, and red indicates plagiarism from multiple sources. While originally denying intentional plagiarism, Guttenberg resigned soon after and the University of Bayreuth recently released a scathing statement following its own investigation into the matter. Eyebrows were also raised by the fact that some of the plagiarism resulted from Guttenberg’s utilization of the German parliament’s research service, which is not permitted for personal use.
Guttenberg, whose full name is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, is still one of Germany’s most popular politicians despite the scandal and is considered by some to still have a future in politics. Guttenberg’s popularity is bolstered by his aristocratic lineage and he, along with his wife, have been painted by the media to represent a form of German royalty.
Guttenberg’s quest to obtain a doctorate was likely influenced by the high regard such titles are given in Germany. A 2001 study found that 58.5% of chief executives in Germany had a PhD vs only 1.3% in the US even though both countries have similar rates for overall population participation in PhD programs. As such, a PhD in Germany is often considered a mere career booster instead of advancing academic research.
The proliferation of doctorates in Germany among non-academics makes it likely that many others will face scrutiny in light of the Guttenberg scandal, particularly in light of the early success of the VroniPlag wiki. However, the lack of accountability on the part of anonymous online “plagiarism hunters” has made some uncomfortable. Volker Rieble, a plagiarism expert and law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, questions the ethics of anonymously accusing someone of plagiarism since the accused doesn’t know who is attacking his credibility.
The internet has revolutionized and altered many of the traditional approaches to both life and business, online and offline, and plagiarism is no exception. With the success and attention of WikiLeaks, GuttenPlag, and VroniPlag, it appears that the era of anonymous vigilantes is upon us.