Lederhosen on Fire

Why are there so many plagiarism scandals in Europe?

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

As if their countries’ ledger books weren’t distressing enough, over the past year European leaders have been caused no small amount of stress by the contents of their old college papers. As psychologist Dan Ariely notes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, politicians tend, as a whole, to be considered dishonest, well out of proportion to the amount they actually lie. The latest string of plagiarism scandals striking politicians around the world is unlikely to improve that image.

In June, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta became the latest prominent European politician caught up in a plagiarism scandal when the science journal Nature accused him of copying more than half of his 2003 Ph.D. thesis on the origins of the International Criminal Court from books by other Romanian law scholars without any attribution.

Nature had also taken aim at Romania’s newly appointed education minister just a few weeks earlier, accusing him of extensive plagiarism in at least eight of his papers on computer science, but going after the prime minister raised the stakes somewhat, particularly after a national academic panel confirmed the allegation. The plagiarism charge has become a subplot in the country’s ongoing constitutional crisis, with Ponta describing it as a trumped-up charge by the country’s president, whom he’s currently trying to impeach, and ordering the panel to disband.

Ponta’s case may be the most dramatic plagiarism scandal to hit a political leader in the last few years, but it’s not an isolated incident. Iran’s science and transportation ministers were both caught plagiarizing in 2009. Thailand’s innovation chief and the Indian government’s chief science advisor have also been exposed.

But Europe, in particular, seems to have gone on something of a plagiarism-busting frenzy in recent months. The first victim of the current wave of academic-dishonesty policing was German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was stripped of his doctorate in early 2011 after the University of Bayreuth confirmed news reports that he had copied substantial portions of his thesis. Guttenberg, who was once voted Germany’s most popular politician and frequently mentioned as a possible future chancellor, claimed that he had copied the text inadvertently — he was already a legislator at the time he received his degree — but the damage was done. The media had already dubbed the onetime golden boy "zu Googleberg," and he submitted his resignation to Chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2011.

The next to fall was another German, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, who stepped down as a vice president of the European Parliament and parliamentary chairwoman of the German Free Democratic Party in May 2011 when an investigative website raised doubts about the sourcing of her 2001 thesis on the history of currency unions. Koch-Mehrin didn’t comment on the allegations but said she would step aside to "make it easier for my party to make a fresh start with a new leadership team."

On April 2 of this year, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt resigned several days after being stripped of his Ph.D. by Budapest’s Semmelweis University. Schmitt, a former Olympic fencer, had written a paper on the history of the Olympic Games that contained dozens of pages of text, tables, and charts that were identical to the work of previous authors, though he continues to deny cheating.

Plagiarism allegations aren’t necessarily a political death sentence. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently named the popular and controversial nationalist historian Vladimir Medinsky as his minister of culture. Even the normally reliably pro-Kremlin newswire RIA Novosti reported at the time that Medinsky had been accused of "massive plagiarism" in his dissertation thesis on foreigners’ accounts of Russia from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

Putin has faced plagiarism charges himself. Brookings Institution economist Clifford Gaddy alleged in 2006 that the Russian president had ripped off large portions of his 1997 dissertation, "Strategic Planning of the Reproduction of the Resource Base," from an American textbook. Gaddy thinks it’s quite possible that Putin — then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, simply paid someone to write the paper for him, a common practice in Russian universities at the time. (Perhaps he should have paid a bit more.)

Americans might chalk up the fact that Medinsky and Putin appear to have gotten away with plagiarism to Russia’s autocratic and often corrupt political culture, but they’d be letting themselves off the hook too early given that an admitted plagiarist is currently a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. While running for the Democratic nomination for president in 1987, Joe Biden, now the current vice president, was forced to admit that he had plagiarized a law review article he had written when he was a law student. He was also caught using part of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without attribution. On their own, these might have been relatively minor offenses. The law-school copying had been caught and punished at the time, and Biden went on to finish his degree without other incidents. Biden had credited Kinnock most of the time he used the line in speeches, but was caught one of the few times he didn’t. Taken together, however, they reveal a man with a fairly lackadaisical attitude toward attribution.

There are two very different types of political plagiarism, academic and rhetorical. (Biden appears to have been guilty of both.) Plagiarizing speeches is embarrassing when the perpetrator is caught, but not necessarily a career ender. This might be partly because there’s already an inherent dishonesty in most political speeches: Politicians are passing off the work of teams of speechwriters and consultants as their own words and insights. The world’s op-ed pages are stocked with articles under the bylines of politicians who may have contributed little more than an approving glance to their creation.

When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was found in 2008 to have lifted a significant portion of a speech supporting the Iraq war from former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, it was a speechwriter who lost his job rather than Harper. When Australian Transport Minister Anthony Albanese was caught stealing one of Michael Douglas’s lines from the movie The American President this year, it was humiliating, but no one suggested it was grounds for dismissal. And when Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused Barack Obama of borrowing phrases from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick during the 2008 Democratic primary, the charge didn’t really stick and Patrick said he and Obama were friends and frequently traded ideas.

Academic plagiarism is a different thing entirely, implying to voters that the perpetrator is lazy or conniving rather than simply another truth-bending politician. It doesn’t help that in many of the recent cases, the offenders obtained their bogus degrees as a way of gaining gravitas while they were already well on their way to political careers.( The universities that allowed the plagiarism to happen also seem to have gotten off pretty easy so far, like the London School of Economics, which appears to have gone out of its way to be accommodating to former Libyan heir apparent — and major donor — Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, despite the fact that a large portion so his thesis appears to have been written by an outside consulting company.)

In the case of Europe’s rash of cut-and-paste exposés, there’s clearly something of a pile-on effect at work. After the Guttenberg scandal, the media and opposition parties realized that academic work could be used to bring down powerful public figures. And as a number of wunderkind journalists have learned lately, plagiarism is a lot easier to detect in the Google era.

It’s seems pretty unlikely that the leaders who have been exposed so far are the only ones who took a few shortcuts on their path to becoming scholar-politicians, and it’s a pretty fair bet that these won’t be the last scandals now that this fertile hunting ground for dirt has been discovered. The exposés raise the question of whether politicians are more likely than other people to cheat or whether cheating is more common than we realize and politicians are just more likely to get caught. Either way, it won’t be surprising if some dusty old theses start disappearing from university libraries across the continent.

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