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Why U.S. and German Plagiarism Scandals Have Unfolded So Differently

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Nov 13, 2013 11:03:00 AM

Earlier this year, we discussed the recent plagiarism scandals in Germany and analyzed why it is significant when a political figure is found to have plagiarized a dissertation or a work from their pre-political career.

appl-orange-comparisonThe country has certainly seen its share of those scandals, which have led to the resignation of an Education Minister, a Defense Minister and a slew of other politicians.

However, today it is a U.S. politician in the plagiarism spotlight, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and the allegations are very different. Rather than standing accused of plagiarizing his dissertation, Paul is accused of plagiarizing in speeches, op-eds and even a book he wrote.

However, most seem to agree that the scandal, even with his fumbled handling of it, won’t hurt any Presidential aspirations he may or may not have. By 2016, the matter will likely be all-but-forgotten, a three-year-old controversy only raised by detractors and opponents.

Between Paul and the previous scandals involving now-President Barack Obama, now-Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain, it can feel as if, in the U.S. at least, plagiarism scandals have almost no effect on the careers of politicians, other than Biden dropping out of a Presidential race in which he was already well behind.

But the scandals in the U.S. have been very different than those in Germany. Most of the German scandals have centered around politicians accused of cheating on their dissertations, most had their degrees revoked as a result. The U.S. scandals listed above all deal with speeches and other pieces created during the politician’s political career (save Biden, who had known previously-known plagiarism from law school come back to light).

When it comes to speeches and even pieces written by the candidate, there’s a general understanding that the candidate does not write all of his or her own work and has a team of ghostwriters that do much of the work for him. Likewise, as Rand Paul himself initially pointed out, there’s an understanding that speeches. op-eds and even books have different standards of attribution than do works of academic research.

While none of that excuses the lack of attribution nor changes the fact a candidate has to take ownership of everything said or published in his or her name, it seems to blunt the damage from the scandal and make it something that a politician must deal with, but can still walk away from and move on from if they handle it well.

This compares less favorably to the German scandals, where politicians have had to wrangle with not just the allegations of plagiarism in a work that was supposed to be totally and wholly theirs, but also the loss of academic credentials that were likely a cornerstone to them getting the position.

So while there are clearly cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany, it’s difficult to say what roles those differences play. As of yet, it’s been tough to find two scandals that are comparable enough to draw strong conclusions.

However, given the rate with which both U.S. and German politicians are facing these allegations, it’s likely only a matter of time before plagiarism watchers get just such a case study.



Another Month, Another German Plagiarism Scandal

German Education Minister Resignation: Plagiarism or Politics?