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Originally published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 9:00 PM

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Resignation over plagiarism highlights Germany’s academic ‘title envy’

The resignation of Germany’s education minister over plagiarism charges has prompted some national soul-searching about the country’s recent flurry of such cases.

The New York Times

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BERLIN — For 32 years, the German education minister’s 351-page dissertation sat on a shelf at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf gathering dust while its author pursued a successful political career that carried her to the highest circles of German government.

The academic work was a ticking time bomb, however, and it exploded last year when an anonymous blogger published a catalog of passages suspected of having been lifted from other publications without proper attribution.

The university revoked the doctorate of the minister, professor Annette Schavan, on Tuesday, and on Saturday, she was forced to resign her Cabinet post. It was the second time a minister had quit the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for plagiarism in less than two years.

At a news conference, Schavan — a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — said she would sue to win back the doctorate, but in the meantime would resign for the greater good. “First the country, then the party and then yourself,” she said.

Standing beside her, Merkel, her friend and confidante, said she accepted Schavan’s resignation “only with a very heavy heart.”

Coming after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down as defense minister over plagiarism charges in 2011, Schavan’s scandal can only hurt Merkel ahead of September’s parliamentary election.

But the two ministers are far from the only German officials recently to have had their postgraduate degrees yanked amid accusations of academic dishonesty, prompting national soul-searching about what flaws the cases reveal about the German character.

Here in the homeland of schadenfreude, digging up academic deception by politicians has become an unlikely political blood sport. There is even a collaborative, wiki-style platform, VroniPlag, where people can anonymously inspect academic texts.

On one level, the exposure of these cases reflects some perceived Teutonic traits, including a rigid adherence to principle and a know-it-all streak.

“I just think that many Germans have a police gene in their genetic makeup,” said Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

But many people attribute the underlying deceptions to an abiding lust and respect for academic accolades, including the use of Prof. before Dr. and occasionally Dr. Dr. for those with two doctoral degrees, which Rieble called “title arousal.”

“In other countries, people aren’t as vain about their titles,” he said. “With this obsession for titles, of course, comes title envy.”

For the plagiarism scalp-hunters, the abundance of titles provides what in military circles is known as a target-rich environment. In 2011 the University of Heidelberg revoked the doctorate of Silvana Koch-Mehrin, former vice president of the European Parliament and a leading member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party.

Another German member of the European Parliament, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, saw his doctorate of philosophy revoked by the University of Bonn in 2011 after the VroniPlag uncovered a number of dubious passages. Florian Graf, head of the Christian Democrats’ delegation in the Berlin city legislature, lost his doctorate last year after admitting to copying from other scholars’ works without giving them proper credit.

In many countries, busy professionals with little interest in tenure-track positions at universities do not tend to bother writing dissertations. In Germany, academic titles provide an ego boost that lures even businesspeople to pursue them.

Professor Debora Weber-Wulff, a plagiarism expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and an active participant in VroniPlag, suggested getting rid of superfluous doctoral titles outside of academia.

“A doctor only has meaning at a university or in academia,” she told German television. “It has no business on political placards.”

But she is originally from Pennsylvania.

Schavan, 57, whose parliamentary district is in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, was granted her doctorate in 1980; her dissertation was titled “Person and Conscience.” Despite that title, she was not shy about chastising Guttenberg, once an up-and-coming star from neighboring Bavaria, when his plagiarism scandal struck in 2011. One of her fellow Cabinet member’s most prominent and outspoken critics, she told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that she was “ashamed and not just secretly,” about the charges against him.

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