How the Internet Busted Germany's Minister of Defense for Plagiarizing his Ph.D. Thesis

Germany’s minister of defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg plagiarized large parts of his Ph.D. thesis. This scandal would likely have rocked Germany’s political scene even before the Internet, but the massive extend of his academic fraud only became public thanks to a massive crowdsourced effort and the smart use of a Wikia-hosted wiki.

Last Wednesday, a German academic claimed that he had found 8 instances of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s 2006 dissertation about the history of the European and U.S. constitutions. That by itself would have been enough to create a minor scandal, but within four days, the German Internet community found potential instances of more plagiarism on close to 70% of the 405 pages of Guttenberg’s thesis. In total, about 21% of the dissertation’s text is plagiarized in some for or another. There is, of course, a chance that some of these wiki entries aren’t 100% correct, but there can be little doubt about the magnitude of Guttenberg’s attempts to appropriate other writers’ words as his own.

GuttenPlag Wiki

Within a day after the first allegations against Guttenberg became public, an enterprising German Internet user who remains anonymous started a blog to catalog all of potential issues with the dissertation. As the blog could neither cope with the amount of traffic it was getting nor accommodate all of the volunteers who wanted to help, the effort quickly moved to a wiki instead.

This crowdsourced effort found that Guttenberg not only plagiarized from various scholarly sources, but actually copied everything from freshman papers to text on the U.S. embassy’s website. Indeed, it even looks as if he shamelessly used the German government’s research service to write about ten pages for him. There are even some allegations that most of the dissertation was written by a ghostwriter, which would take Guttenberg’s fraud to a whole new level.

The GuttenPlag wiki currently features over 796 pages and multiple new comments and edits are still coming in every minute.

Guttenberg, whose full German name is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester, Baron von und zu Guttenberg and who is married to the great-great-granddaughter of Germany’s former chancellor Otto von Bismarck, decided to strip his academic title from his name for the time being. His alma mater, the University of Bayreuth, is looking into the matter and could strip him of his Ph.D. altogether. A criminal investigation is also currently ongoing.

For the time being, he has not lost his political positions, but as this scandal continues and the extent of his fraud becomes clearer, chances are that he will have to resign from his position as minister of defense sooner or later.

Image credit: Wikipedia