The New York Times is Stupid on Plagiarism

The New York Times has an article on the Annette Schavan case and the other political plagiarism affairs in Germany and completely manages to miss the point once again.

Because according to the author, one Nicholas Kulish*, apparently it is in our “teutonic” character to be awed by people with degrees and titles and also feel the need to investigate plagiarizing politicians on the internet. Yes, I know that’s a contradiction, because if people were really that awed by academic degrees they wouldn’t question whether people came by them honestly.

Even worse, not just are Germans gaining more doctoral degrees per capita than most other nations (maybe because post graduate education is actually affordable in Germany, unlike the US), they also insist on using the title in public. And not just medical doctors either, but also people who “only” have PhDs. This alone illustrates that the author does not have either a PhD or indeed a doctorate of any kind, because if he had actually put in the work, he would certainly never dismiss the holder of a PhD or indeed any other doctorate than a medical one as “only”. As for why some people – though far from all – insist on using their title in everyday life, first of all, a doctorate or professorship is an official part of a person’s legal name in Germany and people do have the right (and indeed are required in some cases) to use their full legal name. Secondly, gaining a doctorate is a whole lot of work (unless you pull a Guttenberg) and if you did the work, why shouldn’t you have the right to be addressed by the title you gained? That said, a lot of people with doctorates (including those with medical doctorates) don’t insist in using the title in everyday life. And indeed, there is a saying that the more someone insists on being addressed as Dr. So-and-so, the less they actually did to gain that degree. Our political plagiarists would seem to prove that.

Now I don’t have a PhD (yet) and I certainly wouldn’t use it on plane tickets or hotel registration forms, because that’s unnecessary and only asking for trouble in the form of desperate flight attendants informing you that the gentleman in seat 7b has had a heart attack. But would I use it in a job application or when running for political office? You bet.

This brings us to the fact that a whole lot of German politicians, including most of the current cabinet, have advanced degrees and doctorates. For some reason, this seems to boggle American minds, which in turn boggles mine, because don’t Americans want politicians who are smart and educated? That said, looking at some of the American politicians who cropped up during the recent election season – you know, the sort who consider the Soviet Union a valid threat for the 21st century or displayed profound ignorance about human biology and reproduction – I guess the answer is “no”. Though if you looked at the US congress and cabinet, you’d probably find a whole lot of people with advanced degrees as well.

As for why it’s a big deal and indeed a resignation worthy scandal over here when politicians are found to have plagiarized their thesises, well, plagiarism is theft and fraud. And nobody wants thieves and frauds in political office, neither in he US nor in Germany. Going back to Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg for a moment, I don’t think anybody would have minded if the defense secretary had not had a doctorate, since a doctorate is not a prerequisite for being a good defense secretary. Military experience would probably matter more there. However, it does matter that the man plagiarized his thesis (or rather had someone plagiarize it for him) and even used parliamentary resources funded by tax payer money to generate reports to be plagiarize for his thesis. Because that is fraud. As for Annette Schavan, whose case is far less clear-cut, she was the secretary of science and education. Now unlike a secretary of defense, I would expect a secretary of science and education to actually hold an academic degree. And whether one thinks the decision to revoke Schavan’s doctorate was justified or not, a secretary of science and education who had her own doctorate revoked for plagiarism is just not acceptable, no more than a secretary of finance who was found guilty of tax evasion would be acceptable.

Indeed, I find it shocking that many Americans don’t view academic fraud as a valid reason for a politician to resign, but do think sleeping with someone other than the person they are married to or just twittering photos of rather unremarkable underwear is not just a reason to resign but a shocking scandal. In fact, I suspect that Americans would have completely understood if the secretary of the economy Rainer Brüderle had been forced to resign over making sexist remarks to a female journalist** (and indeed the New York Times was suitably outraged), but cannot understand that having her doctorate revoked over plagiarism allegations is a valid reason for the secretary of science and education to resign.

*Not the first dumb article by that person, I recently read another condescending and stupid article by the same author.

**I’m not defending Brüderle BTW. I do think that his remarks were typical of a certain creepy old man sexism that is still way too common and that the journalist was justified to call him out. I don’t, however, think those remarks are a reason to resign and neither does anybody else, not even the most ardent of feminists.

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24 Responses to The New York Times is Stupid on Plagiarism

  1. Estara says:

    And considering all those teachers who have a state exam and everyone goes bzzzuh if they would add LAss to their names, that already thirds the true academic titles in the country, heh. If I had taken one more course and written 25 more pages I could have applied for a Master of Arts in English. I was too lazy. Hindsight is 20/20 vision.

    • Cora says:

      MA degrees aren’t all that useful, either. I have an English MA and when I was looking for work as a teacher, I frequently got “Oh, but you don’t have a teaching exam”, even though the classes are the same, except for Fachdidaktik and I even took a few classes out of curiosity, though I didn’t have the respective Scheine.

      That said, I do wonder how Annette Schavan managed to be approved for a PhD in education, since she apparently never finished any other degree (state exam, diploma, MA) beforehand. Nowadays, I don’t think anybody without a previous degree would be approved.

      • Laran says:

        “Grundständige Promotion” has been part of many Studienordnungen. Nothing weird about it. Nowadays, with Bologna and all, I suspect it has totally disappeared, but ten years ago when I was studying in Freiburg it was still possible in a couple of subjects, e.g. philosophy. A friend of mine thought about it but then chickened out.

        • Cora says:

          I’ve never seen it in the relevant Studienordnungen, at least in my field, in either Bremen or Lower Saxony, which always require a degree in a relevant field, often with good grades or Prädikat. They may well have changed it due to Bologna. I know that some law students, usually the ones who want to work in corporate law departments, gain a doctorate instead of the “zweite Staatsexamen”, but they still need an “erste Staatsexamen”. Come to think of it, I know one double doctor, i.e. a guy with two doctorates, one of which is not in the field he originally studied. However, he did gain a Diplom first. Double doc’s teenaged son recently announced that he’s going to gain twenty doctorates. “That will be a bit of a problem…”, I told him, “…cause there aren’t that many subjects around.”

      • Estara says:

        But an MA sounds MUCH better speaking internationally, and it probably would be doable to sign yourself “Estara Swanberg, M.A.” and have people be impressed. But a teacher?

        Would you believe that two years ago the Bavarian government decided that Realschullehrer are now allowed to call themselves Studienrat Realschule, so as to show that they’ve studied just like their Gymnasium equivalent? I personally can call myself “Studienrat Realschule im Kirchendienst” which boils down to StR. RS i.K.

        • Cora says:

          Well, at least you get a lovely bit of letter salad and a long title that sounds very impressive. Though I agree that the discrimination of people with teaching degrees in Germany is unfair, because all the teachers I know worked as hard for their degrees as MA or diploma students. Several teachers at my school actually do have a doctorate, too, though they don’t use it in everyday interactions. As for treating Gymnasium teachers better than Realschul- or Hauptschul-/Grundschul teachers, that’s not just unfair but completely unrealistic as well, since at least here in Northern Germany, a lot of teachers end up teaching in a different school track than they studied for, especially since most secondary schools combine Gynasium, Realschule and Hauptschule in the same building anyway and many teachers switch between the different tracks. And those who qualified in the time when teaching jobs were hard to come by often teach something completely different than what they originally studied. For example, my cousin studied as a Gymnasium teacher for English and German in the 1980s. However, the only job she could get was as a primary school teacher. By now she’s a primary school headmistress.

          I don’t really know where the low repuration of the teaching profession comes from, but it is very real and very annoying. Could Gerhard Schröder have called all plumbers or all roofers lazy and gotten away with it? But he could say the same thing about teachers. Or take that woman who has written something called The Teacher Hate Book who used to do the talk show rounds a few years ago. Somehow, I don’t think that she could have gotten The Nurse Hate Book or The Podologist Hate Book published. She had no qualifications either beyond being a mother who disagreed with the way the school her kids attended was run.

          • Estara says:

            The whole last paragraph = THIS!!!!”

            • Cora says:

              I suspect that many people had a bad experience with one or two teachers (who didn’t?) and somehow extrapolate these negative experiences to stand for a whole profession. Of course, no other profession is treated that way. For example, everybody had a bad experience with a medical professional sometime in their life, yet few people have a blanket hatred of doctors and nurses. For some reason people also tend to forget the good teachers they had (and everybody had at least some good teachers).

              For example, there is a blog I read for writing and publishing advice. Most of the time, it’s very good, too, but unfortunately the blogger has the tendency to get into rants about clueless English teachers who wouldn’t recognize good writing if it bit them in the nose at times. And whenever that happens, I always think, “Uhm, lots of those who read and comment here are likely English teachers, so why go out of your way to alienate them?”

  2. Laran says:

    How using your academic title is regarded depends a lot on which region in Germany you live in. I totally agree with you that people normally don’t use their Dr. in front of their name unless they really have a small ego. At Freiburg University, where I studied, nobody would address lecturers or professors with their title. There, you just had your PhD and were done with it.

    But now that I live in Bavaria, I notice that things are very different here. At university, I am constantly addressed as “Dr. Lastname”, both by students and other scholars. Many “colleagues” (profs and lecturers from other departmens, even my own age) only started to speak with me after it became clear that I hold a PhD (really!). I still look a bit young für the title, therefore people assumed me a PhD student and therefore not worthy their attention… Not to mention all the instances people thought me the institute secretary or a student research assistant fit to fetch coffee to them…. This pissed me off a lot. But seems normal practice here at a Bavarian university.

    Even outside university title holders seem to be treated differently. Obviously leading people to actually use their Dr. in public. After quite some time I started, too — e.g. in letters of complaint, reader’s letters to the editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (which is definitely more prone to react if you sign with “Dr. Somewhat”), and lately, by recommendation of a physician, I got my doctorate onto my health insurance card. Apparently, physicians will treat you better if it seems like you might be a colleague… said said physician. I hope it will pay out, because in the obstetricial ward of the university clinic where I gave birth to my son some weeks ago, at some instances I was not treated very nicely by the staff — while they constantly and reverently referred to physicians with their full address and title: “Herr Oberarzt Doktor Dings hat gerade keine Zeit für Sie”. Made me angry with no end because their stupid medical doctorate is worth absolutely nothing compared to my humanities PhD and certainly doesn’t make them into better physicians. And why highly trained professionals like midwifes are so in awe of the medical title and belittle themselves by using it in this manner is beyond me. Quite sad, actually.

    All in all, I think at least in certain regions in Bavaria it is very true what this NYT author writes about Germans and their awed relationship to titles.

    • Cora says:

      First of all, congrats on the birth of your son. I hope you and he are both fine.

      At North German universities, even in Vechta which was more conservative in many ways, nobody ever insisted on being addressed as Professor or Doctor. And I was treated very well, even as a lowly Lehrbeauftragte. Some of the older male professors were a bit dismissive of secretaries or female administrative staff and relied on them for everything from typing up worksheets via handling the participant databases to copying handouts. In Bremen we had one elderly professor who was utterly lost when his secretary fell ill and showed up with a barely legible handscrawled list of questions copied on A2 format paper (because he had used the copying machine in the art department) in class, because he could neither type nor operate a copying machine. The upside is that if you treat the administrative and technical staff well and don’t bother them with unnecessary work, they will be happy to help you, if you really need it. In Vechta, I brought the technical staff a plate of homemade cookies once. And when I had tech problems, I never had to wait long for someone to fix them.

      Though the strange reverence of medical doctors is alive and well in North Germany, too, though it’s apparently age dependent. I have an aunt who is constantly going on about “Herr Professor whatever”. And Bremen doesn’t even have a medical faculty, so most of those Herr Professors whatever most likely weren’t. I also used to have an elderly GP who insisted on being addressed as “Herr Doktor” and verbally abused his assistants in the practice. But the younger doctors are mostly better or at least they know how to recognize on whom they can pull rank and on whom they can’t. Though I’ll never understand the reverence fr medical doctorates. Studying medicine and qualifying as a physician is hard work, but gaining a medical doctorate isn’t in comparison with pretty much any other discipline.

    • Estara says:

      Congratulations on the birth of your child and I hope you both do well and have general good health henceforth!

      This whole part:

      “But now that I live in Bavaria, I notice that things are very different here. At university, I am constantly addressed as “Dr. Lastname”, both by students and other scholars. Many “colleagues” (profs and lecturers from other departmens, even my own age) only started to speak with me after it became clear that I hold a PhD (really!). I still look a bit young für the title, therefore people assumed me a PhD student and therefore not worthy their attention… Not to mention all the instances people thought me the institute secretary or a student research assistant fit to fetch coffee to them…. This pissed me off a lot. But seems normal practice here at a Bavarian university. ”

      Is so true. It gets even worse if you go into Austria. I grew up here, although both my parents aren’t from Bavaria, so I can only confirm your impression – which is probably a reason why I’m so annoyed that my 1st and 2nd state exam get thrown under the table unless I happen to be employed by the state (and now by the church) as Studienrat is NOT an academic title but something given to state employed teachers 😛

      • Laran says:

        Reply to both answers:

        It all depends on the state you live in 🙂 My partner did his computer science degree in Oldenburg and his university couldn’t be more different to where we are now (Bavaria! conservatism! titles! old mens’ clubs!). Therefore, I am quite sure that “Grundständige Promotion” might only have existed at the traditional universities more to the South.

        I agree that the Staatsexamen is underrated. At least my M.A. was so much easier to obtain than any Staatsexamen my friends did. They really had to know stuff while I just specialised on my favourite topics, read some exciting books about it and then passed some oral exams… ridiculously easy. Therefore, I normally don’t tell current students about it — they might think me under-qualified, heehee.

        @both of you: Thanks for your gratulations! Today, my son is exactly four weeks old and is currently following his mother’s endeavors from his spot on the sofa (instead of falling to sleep!).

        • Cora says:

          I hope that your son falls asleep soon.

          I almost studied in Oldenburg, albeit English, and was actually immatriculated for approx. 2 weeks, before I got an acceptance from Bremen, which was my first choice. And you’re right that it probably a regional thing, since e.g. Göttingen which is also very traditional does not have “grundständige Promotion”, at least not for philosophy.

          I deleted your double post BTW.

        • Estara says:

          Awww ^^
          From what I gathered from a friend who did both Staatsexamen and MA in Erlangen, he was able to prepare for both his oral exam and written exam in MA with much more confidence as they were administered by the actual professors and created by them, too. If you have are unlucky with whatever the Kultusministerium picks from the offered topics of all the various Bavarian universities you end up with a topic that is so specialised you have to studied with that prof to have a chance at a good grade. And you CAN’T learn everything to the depth that would be needed. *sigh*

          • Laran says:

            A couple of years back one of the Staatsexamen topics in Bavaria was “Spanish Fascism”. How is a Bavarian history student supposed to know enough about such specialized stuff to do well? And how are the randomly picked history professors able to mark for those topics?

            Very stupid system indeed. In Baden-Würrtemberg it was much better organised for all parties. I assume nowhere else is the Staatsexamen as stupid as in Bavaria.

            • Cora says:

              That’s indeed a very specialized topic and not something the average German history student is bound to know a lot about. Nor is Spnaish fascism likely to be a big topic in the Bavarian history curriculum. I actually did learn a little about the Spanish civil war in school, but that was in Spanish class.

          • Estara says:

            I wouldn’t be surprised to find that is true. ^^

          • Cora says:

            MA exams are easier, because at least at my university you could name a choice of four topics and prepare for those. Plus, you could choose your profs to some degree and tailor your choices respectively. You could still get hit with an out of the blue question, but there was less chance of it being something completely unexpected. I don’t think that our Staatsexamen students suffered quite so badly either, if only because Bremen has only one general university and so there was no chance of getting stuck with a prof from some other university who specializes in some obscure topic.

    • Daniela says:

      I used to work briefely at the University of Freiburg and non of the professors or doctors wanted to be addressed by their titles, even the medical ones didn’t.

      Yet I’ve encountered a number of people who put a lot of emphasize on their titles and insist on it. Just like certain companies insist on people having a specific titles or just the papaer. I’ve run into a number of people with degrees in BWL who didn’t know that basics of general sales. So I, the lowly assistant who only has the dual education (dropped out on university before I managed the M.A.) had to teach them how to do their job while being lorded over at the same time. So not fun.

      I also have a friend who’s hit the ‘lack of degree’ glass ceiling when it comes to promotion. He can’t get promoted because he doesn’t have a university degree in BWL (he only has again the dual education). His boss has admitted to him that he would have no problem with doing the job, that he would be better than anyone fresh from university and that’s he’s perfectly qualified for the new job except for the missing paper with the degree. Sounds absolutely weird to me. Instead of promoting a qualified person who knows the company inside and out they have to hire someone new who has the necessary degree but lacks the knowledge. Doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

      I work as a translator and I’m always surprised by how often people emphasize the fact that a good translator has a “diploma” in translation yet none of my customers ever wanted to see one. They were far more interested in my experience where an actual business admin background definitely helped.

      • Cora says:

        I see the “idiot with a degree gets the job, while a more qualified person without a degree is passed over” problem a lot, often when dealing with employees of translation customers who are frightfully stupid, even in their field, in spite of their degree. As a translator without any formal technical qualification I shouldn’t be able to point out errors in some document to some guy with an engineering degree. Some of those engineers get very rude, too, e.g. when I point out to them that running spellcheck or writing complete sentences would really make their German texts easier to understand. Technical writing jobs also tend to go to engineers rather than to people who can actually write, which explains the quality of a lot of technical documentation.

        I actually did the “Staatliche Übersetzerprüfung”, just so I had a piece of paper that proved that yes, I am a qualified translator. Because obviously having an MA in English did not count. The customers mostly don’t care, once they know you can do the job.

  3. Marius says:

    a doctorate or professorship is an official part of a person’s legal name in Germany

    That’s a long-standing urban legend. It’s patently false.

  4. Pingback: The latest political plagiarism scandal | Cora Buhlert

  5. Quixote says:

    It looks like I’m a bit late to this conversation, so I don’t know if you’ll see my comment. I write to point out that not only do Americans consider the plagiarism of politicians unimportant, but they honor alleged academic plagiarists with prestigious department chairmanships or administrative positions and carefully suppress the allegations. For an excellent example, see the documentation of a trial in New York

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    where several academics colluded in criminalizing the anonymous emails of a whistle-blower (some of which were unwisely satirical) intent on exposing allegations that the chairman of the Jewish Studies department at NYU had plagiarized his father. The chairman in question then left NYU in the middle of the academic year and was honored with an even higher position, as vice provost of undergraduate education at Yeshivia University. The allegations were never investigated, because the chairman, as the deans of NYU testified at trial, has a “reputation for honesty.” The criminal case verdict is currently being appealed. Academics are careful to avoid any discussion of the affair.

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