Dr .de  22.5.11

In Germany, there appears to be a hidden, implicit, rarely outspoken two-track system:

  1. the show-off doctorate with little scientific value and
  2. the real scientific doctorate based on dissertations that actually contribute to scientific knowledge.

The show-off doctorate is the product of the high social value of a doctorate in Germany, incompetence, co-optation or naiveté (in dubio pro latter) of supervisors and university bodies conferring doctorates, combined with some trickery of eager climbers. Resigned Defence Minister Guttenberg’s thesis figures as the poster boy’s example of such an doctorate:

GuttenPlag: Fragments of plagiarims in Gutenberg's dissertation

Instances of plagiarism by page in Guttenberg’s dissertation (white: none; black: instances found; black: instances from several source found; blue: ToC, bibliography, etc.)

These two types of doctorates are at times hard to distinguish for an outsider, cannot be easily told apart, and you can’t easily judge whether its holder had opted for track a or track b unless you’ve dived a bit into his/her writing. A glance into his/her CV might give further clues: a high profile career while pursuing the scientific project is somewhat indicative of track unless the holder is amongst the few blessed with an über-IQ or steely determination and iron discipline.

The scientific doctorate is a prerequisite for the scientific path. It usually requires the usual set of articles, presence at conferences, a decent dissertation (occasionally a set of articles in respected journals). If you want to apply for an academic position in the future, these deliverables usually are sine-qua-nons. Yet, there is obviously a no-idea-how-tiny number of holders and aspirants of a doctoral degree who are not driven by intellectual curiosity, the joy of playing with thoughts and ideas, the challenge of hiking your personal scientific Himalayas.

A doctorate, either show-off style or based on a scientifically valuable dissertation, appears to significantly ease your rise through corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies and are almost as much a prerequisit

Some disciplines have acquired doctoral standards which are amazingly ridiculous regarding their requirements compared to most disciplines. Most prominent examples among these are the medical studies. The current German Minister of Economic Affairs and Technology, Vice Chancellor and head of the pro-business/small-state party FDP, Philipp Rösler, was awarded with a doctorate in medical studies (Dr. med.) for his dissertation on cardiac fibrillation. It’s a brief paper with just 40 pages of self-produced text – common procedure in medical science. Friends of mine had written the dissertations for their medical doctorate even before they graduated, just like Rösler.

Next to some serious doctoral research, economics and judicial sciences have a reputation for accepting rather “practice-oriented” theses for awarding doctorates. Larger consultancies and law firms offer special career tracks, allowing their employees to reduce their workload for a couple of years or take a year or so off if they agree to stay with the consultancy for a couple of years after that. Whether these students are beneficial for Universities’ external funding is beyond my knowledge, but one wouldn’t be surprised. It’s not that these works are necessarily bad readings, they are just pretty similar to what you can expect in good master theses. But

The fallen star of German politics, former Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, might have been supported not only by social networks during his PhD project. The faculty of the University of Bayreuth (right, that’s the Frankonian Wagner town), which was to later award him with a summa cum laude doctorate, was donated roughly $1m by that very hospital holding in which his family back then held a share of a few hundreds of million Euros.

Academic-based social prestige in the US is a function of the position of your university in national rankings. With the rather flat status-hierarchies between universities in Germany, additional cake-icing social prestige comes with a doctorate.

prof dr dr mercedes benz.pngEver dared to register with the German website of Mercedes-Benz? I have yet to see anything more hilarious and telling about the non-monetary dimension of social prestige. Many positions in businesses informally require a PhD. The percentage of PhD holders in higher positions in politics and corporate boards are substantial. Hence, there has been a strong incentive to pursue a PhD project if you are heading for upper, let alone top positions in politics, business or justice. At the same time and unless you’re not lacking intrinsic interest in the topic you are covering, the incentive is to save as much work as possible to get the thing done.

The strategy of the current German Minister for Family Affairs, Seniors, Woman and Youth, Kristina Schröder, – as a PhD student she was MoP in the Bundestag and member of the Hessian state board of her conservative CDU party – , was to use the support of the staff of her doctoral father, a prominent TV talking head. As far as we know, her professor’s staff conducted much of the empirical research which consisted of sending out interview forms to her conservative MoP colleagues, entering data into SPSS and presumably conducting some statistical analysis. Outtasking these activities was, according to the President of the University Mainz, in compliance with the University’s doctorate regulations.

So, it has always been pretty easy to earn a easy doctorate in Germany. There three recommendable ways:

  1. You go for medical science.
  2. You enjoy the dedicated support by a professor and his staff (which probably requires special emotional, monetary, career or network value of the PhD student for the professor).
  3. You make use of the fact that de-facto only your two supervisors decide about whether your dissertation is accepted or not, e.g. by choosing an internet-averse professor with little knowledge about current plagiarism techniques.

Despite these facts allowing an aspirant to go after a cheapish PhD dissertations and much to my surprise, we are currently observing a wave of what is ironically called “dissertation domino” (cf. logo of doktorarbeitendomino.de besides). logo of doktorarbeitendomino.deSome stunning cases of plagiarism in PhD theses have emerged since February this year:

  • Defence minister Guttenberg as the most prominent and incredible case. (63.8% of all lines of his dissertation were apparently plagiarised)
  • Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Vice president of European Parliament, member of Board of pro-business FDP, has just stepped down from all her political offices but her membership with the EP. Case under investigation by her university.
  • Veronika Sass, daughter of former conservative Bavarian Prime Minister and Chancellor nominee, Edmund Stoiber (beaten by chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the latter’s famous 2002 anti-Iraq-war election campaign), was deprived of her doctorate.
  • Georgios Chatzimarkakis, Member of European Parliament, FDP. Case most likely to be investigated by his university.
  • Matthias Pröfrock, Member of Parliament of Federal State Baden-Wuerttemberg for conservative CDU party, former personal assistant to then Minister President (equivalent to Governor in the U.S.) Günther Öttinger (now European Commissioner for Energy). Case under investigation by his university.

The plagiarism in theses dissertation have not been discovered by the faculties granting the doctorate degrees or their supervisors, but by a buttom-up, self-organized internet community, using IRCs, wikis and several plagiarism detection tools to conduct and coordinate their work. Given the high profile of their inquirées, the results of the GuttenPlag and VroniPlag plagiation detection communities (named after the aforementioned minister Guttenberg and Veronika Sass) have been covered in national and international media. While most of the participants in these communities act anonymously, they have nevertheless talked about their motivations for supporting plagiarism detection communities with a number of media outlets: to deter future plagiarism and cheap-riding; counter the devaluation a PhD as a scientific degree; reestablish a system of granting doctorates solely based on meritocracy. Some aim destructing an alleged corruptive proximity between non-scientific elites in politics, business, jurisdiction on the one hand and science on the other. [1]

What’s the future for cheap-riding doctorates in Germany? As a reaction to the plagiarisms, calls for a departure from the current supervision system emerged, e.g. graduate schools like in the US, enlarged supervisory bodies like in the Netherlands, external revision of dissertations marked with *cum laude. A doctorate still serves a social prestige-enhancer and will probably continue to do so in the future, even if the doctoral domino goes on for while and bury the careers of a few more black sheep. Furthermore, a PhD way more accessible for German upper-mid-to-upper classes than for lower-to-lower-mid classes. The cheap-riding track has served those extremely well who knew how to ride the wave: functional elites in politics, business and jurisdiction. It hasn’t served well the national and international reputation of German academia, hence the harsh reaction of universities against their former PhD students (while leaving their plagiarism-ignorant supervisors untouched) and the almost unified outcry of the scientific community after Chancellor Merkel’s reasoning for not firing Guttenberg at the beginning of the emerging issue: “I didn’t hire him as a research assistant.”

The immediate effect of the ongoing uncovering of plagiarism for cheap-riding doctoral aspirants is that the ghostwriting path is closed. It might change again when a trustworthy and independent quality control segment emerges to discover potential plagiarism by your ghostwriter emerges. (Irony tags on: Players in the ghostwriting market and their customers should have a look into the sophistication of the cybercrime business.) The highly increased costs of bad ghostwriting (due to higher risk of detection by plagiarism detection communities) substantially increase the direct costs of ghostwriting. (Many assume that Guttenberg and Sass had hired Ghostwriters given their ridiculously large number of continuous, uncited quotes.) Hence, after GuttenPlag & Co., cheap-riding your dissertation will become a bit more expensive.

The least expensive cheap-track possible will most likely be the one chosen by Minister Schröder (cf. way #2 mentioned above). It is especially recommendable if you manage to develop a research framework that allows the outtasking a large chunk of your empirical research to third persons. As many will know, developing a research framework is one of the hardest part while conducting a genuine research project. Luckily, some doctoral fathers and mothers will suggest a nice research design or allow you to go trotted paths and reuse existing research frameworks, maybe in a slightly altered fashion and apply it to different empirical topics, while tedious empirical data collection and analysis is conducted by some cheap staff. So after all, it’ll be not that bad for the cheap-riders and their networking supervisors.

The existing cheap-riding tracks will not be closed entirely. It will exclude simplistic plagiarism, sure. It will probably not exclude master-thesis level doctoral dissertations that otherwise strictly adhere to scientific standards. And it will not deter networks from supporting their protégées during the latters’ scientific interlude.


[1]: “Die Wissenschaft ist unser höchstes Gut”, Deutsche Welle; Unterwegs mit einem Plagiatsjäger: Suchen, finden, stürzen, Taz; Jagd auf Plagiatoren: Die Scanner, Faz  

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