Summa cum stupiditate

Von mb

What is the role model function of Federal Ministers? Are they just elected representatives who can then do as they wish, or do they, perhaps, have a prestigious function?

During the last few days, you could rightly assume that the world has become a little topsy-turvy. In one of the most loved and biggest German newspapers (BILD of February, 17th, 2011), Herr Franz Josef Wagner even gives the advice:  „To hell with doctorial titles”. That is very interesting. It probably has model function.

But it gets even better, because some people now even start telling you that plagiarism is not identical with plagiarism. You can only call it plagiarism if the person who wrote it “intended to deceive”.


Here is a citation (FAZ of February, 17th, 2011):    
„For scientific plagiarism, the consequences depend on whether or not there was an intention to deceive. The speaker of the ombudsman for science, lawyer Prof. Wolfgang Löwer, told the dpa: “You have to distinguish between poor science and deceit”. Löwer, too, warned against a prejudgement of Guttenberg. „It is genuinely a question to be answered according to university law, and the faculty has to answer it“.

Löwer explained: „Plagiarism is if you use another person’s text without indicating that you took it from him or her. As a general rule, it is done by quotes if the text is used verbatim or with a footnote if you just use the gist of the text“. The lawyer said: „But you cannot immediately assume that the academic title should be withdrawn if a footnote is missing. It might just be a lack of diligence, without any intention at deceit“.

Well, isn’t that just great! I only have to use my “copy-paste” buttons and here are my complete texts. I pretend that they are my own achievement, but basically, I am good at heart.  I never wanted to pilfer anything. I simply do not know how to correctly mark citations. That is why neither I myself, nor the professors who graded my work, are aware of my pilfering.

Why don’t you adapt the case to the market place? On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I take a leisurely walk along the nicely arranged tables with all those colourful products. I am happy and think to myself: “How nice that all these tables have been arranged with the colourful products! I can just take what I like!”
So I stroll along the aisles and take what I like. Is that what you would call pilfering? According to Herrn Löwer, it is only pilfering if I had nothing in mind but misbehaving and stealing. But does that make sense? Wouldn’t we even call small children thieves if they just take things that belong to others? Even if they do not even know that it is forbidden?
doktorhutSo, well, let us assume Herr zu Guttenberg was not aware of misbehaving. After all, he says he wrote the thesis himself. What is so tragic about a few pages not being correctly cited! A few stolen apples and pears, so what? Perhaps the owner of an electronics shop will mind if we just take a few smart-phones without paying. Or maybe the owner of a boutique will mind if we allow ourselves a few ties without paying for them. Or maybe the car salesperson if we never come back from test-driving our new vehicle, etc., etc., etc.

What is the value of citations? For people of a certain ancestry, they do not seem to mean much. Good old Franz (Josef Wagner) of next door, who represents the voice of the people, is in the same boat with the aristocratic Baron zu Guttenberg. „I have no idea about doctorial theses. I never graduated from high school and never saw a university from the inside. All I can say from the sidelines is: “Do not damage the reputation of a good man”. (BILD of February, 17th, 2011). Great! This is what you want! Do not damage the poor baron! After all, people working at university are just babblers!

Currently, I am concerned with citations and literary sources every day. I am writing my dissertational thesis. Consequently, the dissertational thesis is part of my world. I honestly ask myself what would happen if I presented a thesis to my doctorial thesis supervisor huge sections of which are just copied from elsewhere. You know, I have no evil intention. No, in fact, I even want to make the world a better place!

I could actually go and see my supervisor and tell him: “Great, isn’t it? I did it all myself!” It would not be a lie, either, because it was a lot of work looking up all those literary sources and copying and pasting them. What hard work and how much of an effort! Wouldn’t my doctorial thesis supervisor say: „Summa cum laude“ –  with the greatest honours!

Summa cum laude – that is how the work by Guttenberg has been graded. Now let us assume Herr zu Guttenberg pilfered, but there was no evil intent. Perhaps he did not know the definition of pilfering, or maybe he was a little neglectful. But how can he then have been graded „summa cum laude“? Is it awarded for ignorance, carelessness or pilfering?

Or maybe it is given for an aristocratic title or for the fact that you are a representative in parliament? Now that is really something we do not want to speculate about. For the biggest German daily, this would probably be a real affront: „To Hell With The Doctorial Title” (BILD of February, 17th, 2011) Exactly!


If Herr zu Guttenberg really is guilty of plagiarism and if he comes out of the affair undamaged, then this will cast a really damning light on Germany as a country of science. To be sure, a minister does not need to have model function. But if their activities throw rules and values of our educational system over board just to promote their personal interests so that, in doing so, they wilfully harm basic principles of the German Federal Republic, is just embarrassing.

It is questionable if people who do not hesitate to sacrifice others on the symbolic throne of righteousness while themselves perhaps consciously breaking laws and ignoring rules and having a super-clean conscience while doing it can live up to the standards of their social role.

(Translated by EG)


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