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The Narcissism of the Plagiarist

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by Axel Gelfert

A few years ago the German press reported rumours that a large number of members of the Russian parliament had fake ‘honorary’, or otherwise dubious, doctorates. Few details were given, beyond the suggestion that backbenchers regularly hired ghostwriters to help them brush up their academic credentials, but that did not stop the German public from reacting with mild bemusement and a touch of schadenfreude. Surely, such a thing could never happen in Germany – a country that prides itself on its academic culture and its meritocratic educational system. To be sure, one in six members of the German Bundestag is called Herr or Frau Doktor, but they have worked long and hard to earn their academic titles, or so we used to think. If there is one thing Germans respect even more than academic titles, it is hard work.

But cracks in the veneer of academic respectability have been appearing for some time. Last year, Kristina Schröder, the youngest member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet, came under scrutiny for allegedly having relied heavily on the work of research assistants for her PhD. But while Schröder may have been simply a little too adept at making use of the resources made available to her by the Christian Democrats’ party machinery, this is chickenfeed against the allegations levelled last week against the defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Guttenberg, currently the most popular politician in Germany and, at 39, a rising star on the horizon of German politics, is said to have plagiarised large portions of his doctoral dissertation.

Guttenberg at the 2010 Security Conference in Munich, "going over his notes". (Photo: Kai Mörk, Used under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany License)

When the allegations first surfaced, they centred on Guttenberg’s liberal paraphrasing of newspaper articles and op-ed pieces from various German and Swiss news sources. The very introduction to Guttenberg’s doctoral dissertation turned out to have been lifted, word for word, from an article published ten years earlier in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. Since then, an army of internet volunteers has devoured Guttenberg’s musings about ‘Constitutional Steps of Development in the USA and the EU’, scavenging for ever more dubious passages and documenting them on a dedicated website ‘GuttenPlag Wiki’. By Sunday, around two thirds of the pages of Guttenberg’s dissertation had been found to contain questionable material, and the range of plagiarised sources had proliferated to include 19 authors, a U.S. Embassy document, and at least one ten-page dossier he had requested from the Bundestag’s very own research department. If nothing else, this successful ‘crowdsourcing’ effort marks a first for Germany’s notoriously apolitical blogosphere.

Guttenberg’s initial reaction was defiant: no word of apology, no admission of violating academic etiquette, let alone of wrongdoing. Last Friday, in a haphazard press conference that deliberately excluded much of the press, Guttenberg spoke awkwardly of ‘my doctoral dissertation which I wrote myself’ – as if, by asserting his authorship, he could somehow make the plagiarised passages disappear into thin air. On Monday he spoke of ‘grave errors’ in his thesis, but again refused to accept personal responsibility for plagiarising other authors’ material. Meanwhile, Duncker & Humblot, the academic publishing house that had accepted Guttenberg’s dissertation for publication, pulled the plug on his book – not without irony, given that the mandatory publication of German PhD theses is precisely intended to subject them to the critical scrutiny of other scholars.

Questions abound: Why would a successful politician risk his career by submitting a largely plagiarised PhD thesis? After all, when Guttenberg submitted his thesis, he was already his party’s chairman in the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee. How could extensive plagiarism escape the notice of his thesis committee? After all, the University of Bayreuth, in Guttenberg’s home state of Bavaria, awarded him highest marks (‘summa cum laude’).

And yet, Guttenberg’s reaction – his refusal to accept that his academic integrity has been called into question – provides some answers. For one, it indicates an alarming detachment of those in power from society-at-large, including from those parts of society – the academic community of scholars, for example – they would like to pretend to be part of. As in the case of bankers unwilling to give up their excessive bonuses, we have here a case of real-world success fuelling a sense of entitlement. For those afflicted by this condition it simply becomes inconceivable that they should have to answer to anyone, let alone that it may have all been just one big mistake. Merely being subjected to the same rules and standards as everyone else comes to be perceived as an injustice, with defiance the default reaction to criticism. Such behaviour is, of course, all too familiar: it is the classic sign of the narcissist.

Academic culture, built around the idea of being answerable to one’s peers, is incompatible with the narcissist’s sense of immunity from criticism. Despite their many imperfections, German universities are still today a beacon of academic culture, their scholarly accomplishments, if anything, underrated. No doubt the reputation of Germany’s system of higher education can survive this scandal – despite the damage that has already been done.  Whether Guttenberg’s political career can – or, indeed, should – survive the erosion of his academic credentials, is less certain.

Axel Gelfert is the editor of The Berlin Review of Books. He is an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and currently holds a Visiting Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh.

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