Earlier this month, Prof. Andreas Fischer-Lescano (professor for municipal, european and international law at the University of Bremen) published a critical article in the magazine “Kritische Justiz” about the PhD thesis of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg  who currently serves as the minister of defense for the Federal Republic of Germany. In this article Mr. Fischer-Lescano stated and referenced, that several pieces of the thesis were likely to be not written by the author but taken from other works without proper citation. Meanwhile, a wiki project  was launched that attempts to analyze the work based on recommendations of Weber-Wulff und Wohnsdorf  and—in my humble opinion—does a serious job. Up till today the found abuse of foreign work on as many as 73 % of the pages, excluding index and appendices.
After denying he had done any fault at the beginning, Mr. zu Guttenberg quickly had to admit that he did make significant mistakes in his work and asked the University of Bayreuth to withdraw his PhD, which did so yesterday. However, he firmly rejects to have cheated intentionally .
The University confirmed the work violating their scientific standards but refused to give a statement on whether or not Mr. zu Guttenberg plagiarized. The rules for dissertation of the University of Bayreuth  state
§ 16 Ungültigkeit der Promotionsleistungen
- Ergibt sich vor der Aushändigung der Urkunde, daß sich der Bewerber im Promotionsverfahren einer Täuschung schuldig gemacht hat, so erklärt die Promotionskommission alle bisher erworbenen Berechtigungen für ungültig und stellt das Verfahren ein.
- Wird die Täuschung erst nach Aushändigung der Urkunde bekannt, so kann nachträglich die Doktorprüfung für nicht bestanden erklärt werden. Die Entscheidung trifft die Promotionskommission.
- Waren die Voraussetzungen für die Zulassung zur Promotion nicht erfüllt, ohne daß der Kandidat hierüber täuschen wollte, und wird diese Tatsache erst nach Aushändigung der Urkunde bekannt, so wird dieser Mangel durch das Bestehen der Doktorprüfung geheilt.
Number 2 and 3 are of special interest to me since they clearly distinguish between a candidate unintentionally producing poor scientific work, in which case the PhD can’t be withdrawn once the final document has been passed to the candidate and intentional fraud, which makes it possible to do so. From my point of view the university indeed would have been obligated to check if intentional plagiarism was handed in to decide whether or not to withdraw or not the PhD. The minister can’t just waive his PhD just as he can’t give it to himself. Attempting to do so means mocking on the university’s authority.
Even worse, Mr. zu Guttenberg thinks that this affair is no reason to stand down from his occupation as minister but asks the parliament to excuse this mistake due to personal exhaustion.
I’ve never been a political opponent of Mr. zu Guttenberg and I’m really convinced that he indeed served the country well as a minister and appreciated the refreshing style of politics that came with him. Even more, I’ve already made my thoughts about him eventually becoming the next chancellor. But speaking as a scientist, I urgently call him to stand down from his office. The university avoided taking a clear position on the question of plagiarism or not, which I think would have been their obligation. Nevertheless, one doesn’t accidentally copies two third of his thesis after spending seven years writing it. This is almost certainly a case of intended cheating. This is unacceptable for a states official for several reasons.
First of all, our modern societies are based on the ideals of the enlightenment and a scientific view on the world. A person who represents our state built upon these principles must pay a minimum amount of respect to them. I simply can’t trust a person who was cheating on such elementary questions any longer. Secondly, an official not only does his job but also represents the state he serves. And I do not want to be represented by a gambler just as I don’t want to be represented by someone who steals or a drives drunk. (Two examples mentioned earlier in the debate by other commentators.) And last but not least, his behavior counteracts any effort on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany to strengthen scientific accuracy and respect of intellectual property. What should his colleagues tell Chinese officials to convince them to protect intellectual property better? What should a soldier in Germany’s army think, who is struggling hard to get a higher degree but fails? What should I tell a student whom I catch upon cheating on an exam?
Science is not the exclusive club of infallible gurus but an open society of honest hard working people making and correcting their mistakes. Being wrong is natural as can be. But being dishonest is an unjustifiable misbehavior. If zu Guttenberg’s thesis was just bad in the sense that he did poor work, it wouldn’t need a word of public comment. But his work wasn’t bad. (As far as jurists tell me these days.) It was dishonest. I never liked it when lab supervisors checking student’s reports only had an eye on their results (which unfortunately happens too often). I always encouraged my colleagues to hand in their actual results and never ever manipulate anything and often fought for that. (See a prior blog on this issue.) My results were often bad, the conclusions I drew were often wrong and perhaps my own PhD thesis will some day become a real disaster. But I do claim that I have always been honest on what I was saying which frequently was to my own and other’s disadvantage.
Withdrawing a PhD is not something that happens every now and then. It is an ultima ratio in cases of severe misbehavior. Please, Mr. zu Guttenberg, be honest enough now to admit your fault, stand down from your office and prevent further damage to the scientific community of Germany. I don’t believe that dishonesty can be justified in any way. But I do believe that people feeling truly sorry for their faults some day should and will get a second chance.
P.S. No matter what end this political story will take I deeply hope that it will finally convince any German university to routinely use anti-plagiarism software to double check anything handed in to them. This is state of the art and really should be used. It could prevent a lot of unpleasing things.
 Weber-Wulff and Wohnsdorf; Strategien und Plagiatsbekämpfung. Wissenschaft & Praxis, (2) 2006, pp. 90–98
 Uni Bayreuth kassiert Guttenbergs Doktortitel. Financial Times Deutschland, 2011-02-23 — http://www.ftd.de/politik/deutschland/:plagiatsaffaere-uni-bayreuth-kassiert-guttenbergs-doktortitel/60016403.html
 Promotionsordnung für die Rechts- und Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Fakultät der Universität Bayreuth in der Fassung der Achten Änderungssatzung Vom 10. August 2010 — http://www.uni-bayreuth.de/universitaet/leitung_und_organe/Universitaetsverwaltung/abt1/amtliche-bekanntmachungen/konsolidierteFassungen/2010/2010-058-kF.pdf