To have a PhD in Germany is still important to get into certain positions, but everyone that ones is famous has to fear that the first things that will be checked are the academic grades. Always in case that someone wants to harm someone. Allegations of plagiarism in the doctoral thesis of Germany’s Education Minister Annette Schavan and others have sparked a dispute among academics, universities and science organisations. Meanwhile, undaunted by considerable pressure from various sides, the University of Düsseldorf has initiated formal proceedings against former student Schavan. Christian Democrat Annette Schavan wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of Düsseldorf 32 years ago.  Ex-Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stripped of his doctoral title and had to step down as defence minister in 2011.

Only a few days before the university officially initiated formal proceedings against Schavan, the Allianz der Wissenschaftsorganisationen, comprising Germany’s chief higher education and research bodies, issued a joint statement amounting to a harsh criticism of the University of Düsseldorf’s action. The weighty alliance comprises the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Research Foundation, the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association, the Rectors’ Conference, the Leibniz Society, the Max Planck Society and the Science Council.

Scientific German world and its good reputation are in trouble 

It argued that withdrawing a doctoral thesis required procedural elements such as the principle of multi-assessor verification, assessors, evaluators and decision-makers acting separately, and expertise in the relevant subject.

And it demanded that “all those playing a responsible role in the proceedings should act in accordance with established standards, also in ongoing proceedings”. The University of Düsseldorf maintained that the statement was an attempt to pressurise it. The rules referred to by the alliance, it argued, do not apply to formal procedures but merely to “internal procedures not tied to a legal form that are intended to settle issues of misconduct”.

Regarding the requirement to have separate assessors, evaluators and decision-makers, the university stressed that this is not stipulated in official regulations on doctorates. Referring to the issue of multi-assessor verification, the university said decisions were taken by the 15 members of the faculty committee, and not by a single person.

Andreas Keller, head of the higher education and research board of the teachers’ and scientists’ union Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, echoed that sentiment. Keller said that if the University of Düsseldorf did not confirm the allegations of plagiarism, this would create the impression that the alliance had been putting pressure on it. He believes that in future, “as soon as decisions are made concerning the alliance, for example, issues such as university funding or money for research, the question will always arise whether this is because a helping hand was lent at the right time”.