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German Defense Minister Could be Next Politician Ousted by Plagiarist Hunters

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is the latest German politician to get called out by a crowd-sourced site dedicated to exposing plagiarized doctoral theses.
Photo by Wolfgang Kumm/EPA

Once again, it's open season on German politicians suspected of plagiarism.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's minister of defense, is in trouble. She's come into the crosshairs of VroniPlag Wiki, a crowd-sourced site dedicated to seeking out plagiarized doctoral theses in Germany. They contend that almost every other page of von der Leyen's 1990 doctoral thesis contains plagiarized passages.

The minister of defense has denied the allegation, and asked for an independent panel to review the document. Von der Leyen could be the third German cabinet member forced to resign because of plagiarism.


During the past four years, at least a dozen German politicians have been confronted with plagiarism accusations, and their degrees have been revoked in more than half of the cases. Two ministers of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government have stepped down because of plagiarism.

"It's a festive season for plagiarist hunters," VroniPlag founder Martin Heidingsfelder said recently.

In 2011, former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — called "the German Kennedy" because of his popularity and aristocratic good looks — had to resign after losing his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. A group of plagiarist hunters revealed that 94 percent of his thesis was plagiarized.

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Two years later, close Merkel confident Annette Schavan was hit with plagiarism allegations. The fact that Schavan was minister of education added a level of irony to the claim, and she finally resigned after her university withdrew her doctoral title.

"I think the flaws in the case of von der Leyen are even more severe than in the case of Schavan," Gerhard Dannemann, a Berlin-based professor of law, told VICE News. Dannemann is one of only four active members of VroniPlag Wiki who operate under their real names, and one of the few who are willing to speak to the press. The group is a coalition of volunteers that collaborate online.

"Everybody can participate, completely anonymously," Dannemann said, adding that an anonymous user started the analysis in von der Leyen's case last year.


Von der Leyen is a physician who studied at the Hannover Medical School. She wrote her 62-page dissertation in 1990 on the diagnosis of infections in pregnant women. "The documentation of von der Leyen's thesis involved a substantial amount of work. The thesis was printed and not digitized, and very few of the sources were online," Dannemann said. "Some 100 sources were looked up and compared to the thesis."

Though the plagiarist hunters are hobbyists, according to Dannemann they abide by a strict set of rules and meticulously document the process used in their work. "Our quality-control requires one person to document for each bit of text the exact wording and location of both original and source, and another person to look up again both texts and agree on each [instance of] plagiarism," he said.

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In von der Leyen's case, the group found that "five out of 62 pages contains 75 percent or more plagiarized text," Dannemann said.

Dannemann explained that before the findings of a case are made public, the VroniPlag Wiki members hold a private discussion in the administrator's chatroom. "Onlv if a case is serious enough — as a very rough indication, some 20 percent of the pages of the thesis have been documented as containing plagiarism — a decision will be taken to publish the whole documentation, including name of author and title of work," he said.


Such was the case with the thesis of von der Leyen. Last week, the community published the "barcode" that visualizes the amount of plagiarism in her thesis. "One of the team has also informed the university in question. The ball is now in their court," Dannemann said.

Von der Leyen rejected the accusations in an interview with Funke Media Group last Sunday. "It's not new that activists on the internet try to spread doubts about the dissertation of politicians," she said, noting that she has already asked an independent panel to review her dissertation. "The experts are working on that now," she added.

Dannemann denied that VroniPlag Wiki brings down politicians for ideological reasons, and says he got involved with the project because, as a teacher, he was tired of seeing his students plagiarize. "I have personally met only some eight people from the Wiki, but in the chat and over work you get to know the others, too. I think most of them strive for academic integrity as a main motive," the 56-year-old professor said. "That certainly motivates me."

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Von der Leyen has been mentioned as a possible future chancellor, and the mother of seven children has always presented herself as scrupulous, making the allegations of academic dishonesty potentially devastating to her political career.

When her case went up on VroniPlag Wiki, there was a longer-than-usual discussion in the administrator's chat room, Dannemann said. "It's a politically sensitive case. But in the end, everybody agreed that politicians should not be treated any differently from other people, and that the case should be made public."

"There is enough plagiarism in this thesis to justify revocation of the degree," he added.

Follow Andrea Maurer on Twitter: @an_maurer