Federal minister resigns following PhD plagiarism finding

Another German politician has stumbled over a plagiarism affair. Franziska Giffey has stepped down as minister for family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth, just months ahead of the federal elections.

Giffey, a Social Democrat, stepped down following lifting allegations concerning her doctoral thesis in political science. In 2019, she had been reprimanded by the Free University of Berlin, which did not, however, strip her of her title and was criticised for not taking further action.

This prompted the university to resume procedures in November 2020, although Giffey said she would refrain from carrying her doctoral title at this stage regardless of their outcome. She also stated that she would resign as minister should her title be formally withdrawn.

Now the Free University of Berlin has completed its assessment, its outcome being that Giffey will lose her PhD, although she still has the opportunity to formally comment on the findings. “I remain adamant that I wrote my thesis to the best of my belief,” Giffey states, adding that she regrets any mistakes that she might have made.

According to Gerhard Dannemann, a professor of law at Humboldt University of Berlin, Giffey’s thesis should not have been accepted in the form in which it had been written.

Dannemann says that incorrect handling of sources in a politician’s dissertation is deplorable but maintains that plagiarising scientists and scholars are far more dangerous than plagiarising politicians.

“I believe that the real deficits are that relatively many people can have a successful career as academics who acquired their academic degree through malpractice,” he says.

Only a few years ago, Germany experienced a spate of politicians resigning over plagiarism allegations brought up above all by hypertext publications such as VroniPlag. The most prominent cases were those of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Christian Social Union minister of defence, and Annette Schavan, Christian Democrat education minister.

Giffey wants to stay in politics and will run as candidate for the post of governing mayor of Berlin. Her stepping down as federal minister comes at an unfortunate time for the Social Democrats, with her party flagging in the polls ahead of the federal elections. Minister of Justice and fellow Social Democrat Christine Lambrecht is to take over her office for the rest of the government term.

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