German politician and European Parliament Vice-president Silvana Koch-Mehrin is alleged to have used plagiarisms in at least a quarter of her doctoral thesis.
Free Democrat Koch-Mehrin took her doctorate in economic history at the University of Heidelberg 11 years ago. The Heidelberg public prosecutor's office has announced that she has no legal action to fear because prosecution of copyright infringement is limited to five years.
However, the University of Heidelberg does intend to examine the matter, and Koch-Mehrin could eventually be stripped of her doctoral title if the allegations prove justified. This was the case with the Christian Social Union's Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg a few weeks ago, and the plagiarism scandal prompted his resignation as defence minister.
Unlike zu Guttenberg, however, Koch-Mehrin has maintained a low profile on the issue.
Her party, the junior member of the ruling Christian Democrat and Christian Social-Free Democrat coalition, has experienced disastrous state parliament election results in recent months and has slumped to an all-time low in popularity. A senior politician involved in an academic scandal would hardly help this predicament.
Responding to demands by opposition Social Democrats, Koch-Mehrin referred to the outcome of the University of Heidelberg's investigations, which could still take a few weeks.
Apparently, German professors are frequently faced with academic misconduct.
The Bonn-based Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätssicherung, or IFQ (Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance), claims that around 40% of higher education lecturers have been confronted with stolen ideas, plagiarisms and other violations of academic rules lately.
There also appears to have been many cases of false authorship, with researchers claiming to be authors of studies they were not involved in. The IFQ study was conducted among more than 3,000 professors in Germany last year.
IFQ director Stefan Hornbostel believes that the huge number of doctoral titles being awarded - more than 25,000 in 2009 alone - could jeopardise academic standards. The lion's share of doctorates is done in medicine. "The title is awarded for theses in medicine that would just about pass as a term paper in other subjects," Hornbostel remarked.
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