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Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen

Olaf Kosinsky/wikimedia commons

German defense minister accused of plagiarism

BERLIN—A cabinet member often tagged as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir apparent is the latest politician to be tripped up by the country’s plagiarism sleuths. On Saturday, the website VroniPlag Wiki, a loose coalition of volunteers who scour dissertations for plagiarized passages and incorrect citations, published an analysis of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen’s 1990 dissertation on the diagnosis of infections in pregnant women. The group found plagiarized passages on 27 of the dissertation’s 62 pages. It claims that on three pages, between 50% and 75% of the text is plagiarized text and on five pages, more than 75% of the text is plagiarized.

"I can reject the accusation of plagiarism," von der Leyen told the German press. "It is not new that activists on the internet attempt to spread doubts about the dissertations of politicians."

Two of Merkel’s previous cabinet members have resigned in the face of plagiarism scandals: Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepped down as defense minister in 2011 and Annette Schavan resigned as minister of education and research in 2013. Von der Leyen, who practiced several years as a gynecologist before she entered politics, said that she heard in August that VroniPlag was investigating her dissertation. She said she immediately asked the Hannover Medical School, which awarded her medical degree, to examine the publication. The university confirmed in a statement today that it had begun an inquiry in August in response to a request from von der Leyen. It said that based on the initial findings of an ombudsman, it has begun a formal inquiry by the school’s commission for good scientific practice.

VroniPlag started as a website that mainly investigated politicians’ dissertations. The focus more recently has been on academics, says member Gerhard Dannemann, a professor of law and politics at the Centre for British Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Medical dissertations are frequent targets: 85 of the 151 cases posted to the site are from medicine. Medical schools have a reputation for having somewhat lax dissertation standards, but Dannemann says that should not be a mitigating factor in von der Leyen’s case. “Medicine is a science. The rules are still the same.”

Dannemann says that an analysis of cases published on VroniPlag shows that universities react more quickly to those involving politicians—and are more likely to revoke a degree—than in cases involving academics. Since 2011, at least a dozen German politicians have had their degrees reviewed, and often revoked, following plagiarism accusations. Schavan fought for months against the University of Düsseldorf’s decision to revoke her Ph.D., but eventually gave up. 

Updated, 9/30/2015, 5:13 p.m.: The article has been updated to include von der Leyen's remarks to the German press.