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Notes on a scandal


Events this month have shown that government stances on academic misbehaviour differ wildly.

How an organism is affected by a particular gene mutation, as every geneticist knows, depends on that organism's genetic background. Although an obesity mutation introduced into one strain of mouse might produce a fat animal with diabetes, the same mutation in a mouse strain of slightly different genetic background could create a fat but otherwise healthy animal.

Similarly, the effects of a cry of academic distress seem to depend on a community's societal background. How else to explain the contrasting results of two academic revelations: the plagiarism affair that consumed Germany for two weeks until academic disapproval forced the resignation of the defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, on 1 March — and an exposé of comparable wrongdoing by the Italian minister of education, Mariastella Gelmini, in 2008, which had zero impact.

It is surprising and gratifying to find that rage against an academic cheat can provoke serious consequences.

The German scandal broke on 16 February, when the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that the hugely popular Guttenberg had apparently taken a short cut to his doctorate in law by copying other published works without attribution in his thesis. The report sparked an intense reaction hard to imagine in countries such as the United States and Britain, where the academic achievements (if any) or failures of politicians are not considered serious issues.

German citizens looked to the Internet to discover the extent of Guttenberg's plagiarism, which turned out to be quite shameless. The University of Bayreuth withdrew his PhD and is now investigating whether he had just been careless or had intended to deceive. At first, Guttenberg attempted to underplay the importance of “inadequate footnotes” in a thesis; the issue faded to insignificance, he implied, next to his momentous political mission of reorganizing the German armed forces and controlling their presence in Afghanistan. His popularity among the general public remained undiminished, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a PhD physicist, tried to limit damage to her government by saying that she had “hired a politician, not a scientific assistant”. That was a fatal mistake. Within days, tens of thousands of PhD holders had signed a letter deploring her “mockery” of an academic system that represented decency, honour and responsibility — attributes that they insisted should be reflected in a democratic government. Crushed by this attack of righteousness, Guttenberg finally resigned.

Like Guttenberg, Gelmini was a graduate in law. And like him, she felt that her driving ambition justified taking short cuts in academic procedures to get the degree that would help her political career. In 2001 she travelled from her home town of Brescia in the north of Italy to Reggio Calabria, in the far south, to sit her bar exams. At the time, pass rates in the north were below 10%, compared with a rate of suspiciously more than 90% in Reggio Calabria, a city otherwise known for low academic standards. After the press revealed the Reggio Calabria bar exam to be a scam, the Italian academic community called for Gelmini's resignation — to no avail. The irony of having a minister with responsibility for universities who herself cheerfully admits to having dodged academic rules is not lost on the community.

In Germany, Italy and neighbouring countries in Europe, politicians are frequently drawn from academia. Credentials help political careers, and nearly 20% of the German parliament hold PhDs. But then, almost 9% of Italian parliamentarians are university professors, so the differing reactions to calls for resignation prompted by scholastic misdemeanours cannot be down to ignorance about how universities work. Instead, the difference seems to be based on how large a threat each government considers the weapon of moral correctness to be — and how dangerous is the academic community wielding that weapon.

Should anyone really have expected the government of Silvio Berlusconi to fear such a weapon?

It is more surprising, and gratifying, to find that in Germany, one of the world's richest and most powerful countries, rage against an academic cheat can provoke serious consequences. Not only was Guttenberg popular, but he hadn't previously made any serious political errors that would have seen charges of plagiarism considered the last straw.

Still, there may not be a lesson for many other countries here. Germany is known as the 'country of poets and philosophers' — a rare societal background, and one apparently conducive to propagation of honourable academic values. Like our more fortunate mutant mouse, all there seems plump and healthy, even as it remains unfathomably mysterious to those on the outside.

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Notes on a scandal. Nature 471, 135–136 (2011).

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