Opposition politician faces ‘lifting’ allegations

A leading German opposition politician has been accused of ‘lifting’ in his doctoral thesis. Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who ran for federal chancellor in 2009, denies the allegations.

Steinmeier, chief whip of the Social Democrats, was foreign secretary in the Grand Coalition led by Christian Democrat Angela Merkel from 2005 to 2009.

He was defeated as federal chancellor candidate by Merkel in the 2009 elections, while her subsequent Christian and Free Democrat coalition was voted out when Germany went to the polls in September. As yet, it is uncertain whether Germany will be ruled by a new iteration of the Grand Coalition.

Several members of the parties forming the 2009-13 administration have been involved in plagiarism scandals, and two ministers were forced to resign.

The wave of 'lifting' allegations brought about by internet activists culminated in the downfall of Christian Democrat Annette Schavan, the former minister of education and research.

Steinmeier, who received his doctorate at the University of Gießen in 1991, is the first leading Social Democrat to have been caught up in a plagiarism affair.

The anti-plagiarism movement

The allegations have been made by Uwe Kamenz, a professor of business management at the University of Dortmund. Kamenz, a marketing specialist, also runs the ProfNet Institut für Internet Marketing.

In 2011, Kamenz launched the Plagiatfreies Deutschland – Germany free of plagiarism – project, in which he intended to review 200,000 doctoral theses. A further project, PolDis, was to focus on 1,000 politicians, among them Steinmeier.

At the time, Kamenz called on Schavan to have the theses of all federal politicians checked, offering a review process based on his own software, for which he would charge €50,000 (US$68,000). But Schavan turned this offer down.

However, Kamenz claims that Germany’s news magazine Focus has been supporting him in reviewing the theses of 20 members of the federal parliament.

His software system works like a set of traffic lights, with green showing that indications of plagiarisms are insignificant, yellow that they are substantial, and red that they amount to deceit with intent, as allegedly in Steinmeier’s case.

Gerhard Dannemann, a professor of law at Berlin’s Humboldt University, maintains that much of what Kamenz refers to regarding Steinmeier is unproblematic.

However, he regards three passages as critical and claims that “should the examination report correctly present the sources here, these would be violations of the citation rules that would clearly go beyond what is tolerable”.

Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor of media and computing at HTW Berlin – University of Applied Sciences, agrees that “there are critical passages”.

However, Weber-Wulff, who is herself involved in detecting plagiarisms in the VroniPlug Wiki group, which was instrumental in disclosing previous major cases of 'lifting' among politicians, claims that ProfNet is “rather underwhelming”, and more generally, she states that “software cannot be used to back allegations of plagiarisms”.

Weber-Wulff maintains that much of what Kamenz’ report refers to as indications of 'lifting' is not comprehensible to her and is partly inaccurate. Going public with severe accusations, she stresses, has to be based on meticulous examination.

Thesis to be reviewed

Steinmeier himself has called on the University of Gießen to initiate a review of his thesis. Gießen’s President Professor Joybrato Mukherjee says that the allegations will be examined in a formal procedure and that the university’s PhD commission will be consulted should the need arise.

Kamenz’ report contains at least one very obvious mistake. While it refers to Steinmeier’s thesis consisting of 452 pages, the German National Library in fact states 444 pages. But despite his examination’s flaws, Kamenz insists that “there is enough circumstantial evidence for the university to strip Steinmeier of his title”.

Mukherjee, however, speaks of a “so-called examination report”, comprising numbers, percentages and passages. “A machine may be able to compute, but only a human being can make an assessment,” he says.

According to Mukherjee, proceedings at the University of Gießen will be carried out swiftly.