Plagiarism scandals are devaluing doctoral degrees in central Europe


In January, Austrian minister Christine Aschbacher became the latest in a long line of politicians in central and eastern Europe to be accused of plagiarising their academic theses – but one of the few to resign over it. She gave up her cabinet post for labour, family and youth in the wake of allegations that both her master’s and doctoral dissertations were plagiarised and characterised by severe linguistic weaknesses – the latter causing much amusement among Austrians.

Significantly, Aschbacher completed her PhD – which she submitted while serving as a minister – in Slovakia, where various politicians have acquired dubious doctorates. Slovakia’s prime minister, Igor Matovič, confessed last summer in an interview that he had pieced his dissertation together from various unattributed sources and then had a girlfriend type it up – although he denied that he had knowingly committed plagiarism, refused to resign and survived a confidence vote.

Also accused around the same time were the Speaker of the Slovakian parliament, Boris Kollár, and the country’s education minister, Branislav Gröhling – who, ironically, had been tasked by Matovič with coming up with a law to allow all theses to be checked for plagiarism. Kollár apologised but refused to resign. Gröhling admitted his thesis had shortcomings but, backed by his university, also declined to step down (he resigned last week in a row over the government’s handling of Covid-19).

Scandals relating to politicians who allegedly or actually plagiarised or submitted ghostwritten doctorates continue to rock the European political scene. Family minister Franziska Giffey is a major case in point in Germany. The allegations against her, made in 2019, were so strong that she volunteered to stop using her doctoral title. However, for many critics, this was not enough and there were calls for her resignation. The university in question, the Free University of Berlin, said that while there were “problems” with her work, it was still academically sound. The university is now re-examining her dissertation amid allegations that powerful politicians are not held sufficiently to account over their academic records.

EU president and former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has faced similar allegations regarding her medical dissertation, also including allegations of a whitewash by her doctoral institution, Hanover Medical School, whose 2016 investigation cleared her of any intention to deceive.

However, German politicians have been found guilty of plagiarism by their alma maters. Perhaps most famous was von der Leyen’s predecessor in the defence ministry, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned in 2011 after the University of Bayreuth withdrew his doctorate. Education minister Annette Schavan also resigned in 2013 after her thesis was revoked by the University of Düsseldorf.

On the other hand, many contested theses written by politicians were highly praised by the supervising or examining professors. Giffey’s, for instance, was awarded magna cum laude. Grade inflation is one thing – many or even most doctorates here in Germany are awarded cum laude or magna – but how is it that a comprehensive and conscientious supervisor does not detect plagiarism?

The frequency with which high-profile politicians – and others – are accused of plagiarism raises questions about the supposed academic and social value of these degrees. The problem boils down to the fact that in much of central Europe too much attention is paid to academic titles and too little to what they should really be about: namely, making a substantial contribution to the field. The politicians want to signal their intellectual sophistication and dedication to research and discovery. But what they reveal, when they are accused, is their lack of integrity. Other high-profile alleged political plagiarists include Romania’s former prime minister Victor Ponta and former acting prime minister Gabriel Oprea, as well as Hungary’s former president Pál Schmitt.

Even when they are cornered, it is virtually unheard of for politicians to reveal what they really did. They only admit to “making mistakes” or “failing to maintain their usual high standards”, or else they make the rather pathetic claim that “referencing was done differently then”. And if they resign, they typically do it “to protect their family”, not because they admit to any wrongdoing.

It is particularly distasteful that the Austrian investigator who exposed Aschbacher, Stefan Weber, has come under attack for his work, on the grounds that he has become a “self-proclaimed judge” in such cases. He has even received two death threats. Whatever one thinks of such detective work, plagiarism is indefensible, and mechanisms to prevent it must be strengthened and applied consistently. Furthermore, when breaches of standards are identified, the appropriate punitive action must be taken, irrespective of the rank and power of the perpetrator.

It is plausible that many dissertations riddled with plagiarism were, in fact, produced by ghostwriters. Surely only such hired hands would care so little and be so unmotivated and uninformed that they would lift endless chunks from published work and link them together with risible prose. Genuine doctoral candidates may be tempted to keep too close to the original and even sneak in the odd sentence or paragraph unchanged and/or uncited, but they are unlikely to perpetrate plagiarism on a grand scale.

Authorship fraud is probed much less often by investigators – partly because it is so hard to prove. But it, too, needs more attention and greater sanction. The public needs to be able to trust that someone calling themselves an academic doctor has some relevant research and analytical skills. Otherwise, who would bother to genuinely acquire such skills by doing a doctorate the legitimate way?

Author Bio: Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.