Why Plagiarism is a Big Deal

Today, I was at a family birthday dinner. On the plus side, I got to spend some time with a family member in a difficult situation and had an excellent meal of antipasti, pasta with creamy vegetable tomato sauce and a cup of wonderfully rich hot chocolate. On the negative side, I also had to deal with such annoyances as people who had to complain about the choice of restaurant before even a single bite of food had been served* and people who attempt transfer their own eating disorders to young children**.

During the meal, the conversation also touched upon the Guttenberg plagiarism affair. Someone asked me what I thought about the issue and I replied, “Well, it looks bad. He’s going to have to come up with one hell of an explanation to save his degree and himself.”

The other people at the table – well, at least the three in my immediate vicinity – vehemently disagreed. Oh, but zu Guttenberg was such a nice guy, he had such a lovely wife and family, he was such a wonderful person and clever politician. And anyway, what did it matter? It was just a dissertation, after all, and several years old at that. Why dig it up now? And anyway, footnotes, who reads those? And among more than a thousand footnotes, forgetting a couple is surely forgivable. Besides, footnotes are ugly anyway. And besides, all of those mean people were just being jealous surely*** and of course there was a political agenda behind the whole affair.****

The probably most stupid remark I heard on the Guttenberg case today was: “Well, if he copied all those articles and books, he still put in a lot of work, because he had to read all that stuff first. So he deserves the degree.”

My first reaction, once I picked up my jaw from the floor, was: “Well, I should hope that he at least read the papers he copied. Because it could get even more embarrassing otherwise.”

I did my best to explain why reading all those books alone is not sufficient for a degree, why citing some other text is perfectly acceptable, as long as it is properly attributed, how the unattributed passages in Guttenberg’s thesis were not formatted in a way that suggests that he had just forgotten to set the footnote (and of course, I was the only person at the table who had actually looked at the evidence online), etc… I didn’t get through to them, however. To those people, Guttenberg is a politician they like and plagiarism is no big deal.

The whole conversation and that whole “It’s just a dissertation. It doesn’t matter” attitude made me angry. Because if it really is plagiarism – and the evidence looks pretty bad – then it does matter. Plagiarism is cheating, it is passing off other people’s words and work as one’s own and it’s wrong. Plagiarism in an academic context is not just morally wrong, it is cheating to gain a credit or degree under false pretenses. It is fraud. Every student learns this in his first semester.

I actually used to teach at a university and I hammered the following into my students, “I know you’ve probably heard this before, but you can never hear this too often. If you want to quote a source, always footnote properly. You can never have too many footnotes, but if you plagiarize and you get caught – and you will – then you will fail the course and may even risk your degree. Plagiarism is not worth it.”

If one of my students had handed in a paper with the sort of unattributed passages found in zu Guttenberg’s thesis, I would have failed them and I would also have consulted the university plagiarism policy regarding further steps. If the student in question had been in the first semester, I might have taken him or her aside and given them the chance to remedy the paper with proper attributions. The issue never came up, for the record, largely because the type of classes I was teaching were graded via exams rather term papers.

A cavalier reaction to this very high profile plagiarism allegation (and for the record, I was annoyed at the cavalier reaction to the much lower profile Helene Hegemann case last year) sends the message to current and aspiring university students that plagiarism is no big deal. It devalues the hard work done by everybody who got his or her degree the old-fashioned way, who wrote term papers, BA, MA and doctoral dissertations without plagiarizing.

It’s not just the obvious plagiarists either. Every single career minded politician or aspiring CEO who employs an academic consultancy service to gain a coveted degree is devaluing everyone who does the hard work on his or her own*****. I’m not a fan of pure career PhDs anyway – at least show some interest in whatever it is you are researching. It’s also telling that in general, those who most vehemently insist on being addressed by their title are also those who did the least actual work to gain it. For that matter, I’m also disappointed that Angela Merkel is backing zu Guttenberg without reservations, because Angela Merkel is a scientist herself who came by her own doctoral degree honestly. So her own work is being devalued too.

What is more, this case isn’t about politics, it is about plagiarism and academic fraud. Of course, you have the opposition calling for zu Guttenberg’s removal from office now, that’s part of their job. But plagiarism is wrong regardless of political affiliation. And the fact that a lot of people like zu Guttenberg, doesn’t mean that he cannot have done anything wrong. Never mind that zu Guttenberg has been beset by scandals during his time in office and that he usually dealt with them by firing a supposedly responsible person without even awaiting the results of the investigation. And now he wants the benefit of doubt for himself?

Oh yes, and as for zu Guttenberg’s statement that he invested seven years of hard work in his dissertation, while holding a job and a political office and having a family – well, lots of people wrote their dissertations while having a job and raising a family. And those people did not plagiarize.

*I suspect their problem was that it was an Italian rather than a German restaurant – and they don’t care for Italian cuisine – and that they didn’t know the restaurant and hadn’t recommended it. The reason their behaviour got my hackles up was that the restaurant is in fact very good, much better than the sort of place they tend to prefer. Never mind that complaining about the choice of restaurant before the food has been served is just plain rude. I have been forced to eat at many restaurants whose cuisine I do not care for, but I don’t walk around badmouthing them.

**Growing children have different dietary requirements than adults and can eat enormous amounts of food on occasion. As long as the children aren’t overweight – and this one wasn’t – there isn’t a problem.

***For some reason, anybody having issues with the ultra-popular zu Guttenberg is inevitably “just jealous” of his success, his looks, his title, his pretty blonde wife. Because there cannot possibly be any genuine political reasons to disagree with the man.

****Of course, I had to find myself at a table of steadfast conservatives.

*****I suspect that zu Guttenberg might have hired the wrong service here and ended up with a plagiarism riddled thesis. Of course, admitting that he did not write his dissertation himself would be just as disastrous.

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7 Responses to Why Plagiarism is a Big Deal

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  2. Estara says:

    I keep wondering why he didn’t at least invest a weekend to plug some of the really well written phrases into Google and see if they showed up as a quote somewhere – if he did use a ghostwriter, which I would guess he did.

    I realize how much the fact that I haven’t watched German TV for any length of time, since I got broadband internet in … 2004? … means that all the political and general interest stuff is passing me by. This has the upside of me not caring about storms in a tea-cup, but the downside of not being able to relate to certain stuff in my students. I do listen to the radio in the mornings, but when I want news I look for it on the internet and rarely on German sites – I don’t buy any newspapers or magazines either.

    So I never followed the meteoric von Guttenberg rise, even though he comes from Franconia where my parents raised me and still live (Fränkisches Seenland near Nuremberg). Having fought my way through 1st and 2nd state exam I completely agree with your views on plagiarizing your academic degree (or in general, for that matter).

    • Cora says:

      I also strongly suspect that he did use a ghostwriter and happened upon a lazy one, because Guttenberg doesn’t strike me so stupid that he wouldn’t even rewrite the lifted passages. It’s still strange that he didn’t at least plug some passages into Google, almost as if he never heard of the whole internet plagiarism phenomenon at all.

      I come from a family which follows the news with almost religious devotion. If the news come on on TV or the radio, you have to fall silent at once, in the middle of a sentence if necessary. I am not nearly as fervent about following the news as my parents, but I do listen to the radio and try watch some TV news program at least once a day. I don’t bother with newspapers or magazines anymore, though, except on the internet. If there’s an interesting article in the local newspaper, my Mom will clip it for me. Same with magazine articles.

      I have never really understood the extreme zu Guttenberg popularity either. I guess he’s really charismatic on all of those political talk shows on TV, which I never watch.

      • Estara says:

        When I lived at home we had to be religiously quiet for Heute AND Tagesschau, or my dad would get aggressively loud. My mum was fine with talking and commenting on the news. That might be why I stopped watching those two news shows as soon as I left home for studying.

        • Cora says:

          My parents were very much the same – you had to be religiously quiet for Tagesschau and Heute. I suspect it’s an age thing.

          For the record, the quasi religious veneration of Tagesschau and Heute also left me with a lingering dislike of both programs. To this day, I vastly prefer the news program of RTL and will only watch Tagesschau or Heute, if I missed RTL’s news. Yes, I know, bad teacher.

  3. Marko says:

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  4. Pingback: Plagiarism is not Art – Q.R. Markham, Helene Hegemann and the Excuses of Cheaters | Cora Buhlert

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