Scientific misconduct rarely reaches the political arena. Scientists found guilty of plagiarism, data manipulation or deliberate misinterpretation will quickly find themselves expelled or ignored from the scientific community. But usually the wider public won't take too much notice of such cases. Is this the reason why or is this because science journalists rarely dig deeper, rarely write about and explain the financial and scientific harm caused by fraud in research to a public, where most do not know much about the work of scientists or their code of conduct?
The story of Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, a nobleman and (now former) Minister of Defense, reveals just such lack of knowledge about or interest in how scienceworks. Guttenberg, a young politician from the Bavarian party CSU (Christian Social Union), made a very quick career rise. – with much help from the daily Bild and other boulevard media (summarized brilliantly here at the Frankfurter Allgemeine). His popularity reached heights rarely seen in Germany. This helped him survive a couple of severe crises during his tenure with the ministry of defense.
But then a law professor (featured at the Süddeutsche Zeitung) actually read his doctoral thesis at the Law School of the University of Bayreuth. And found several copy-pasted paragraphs. With the help of the web community (a wiki called guttenplag), Guttenberg was found to have lifted about 70 percent of his thesis without crediting the original authors.
Surprisingly, the broad public in Germany didn't get the point, didn't see why such behavior might disqualify Guttenberg from continuing as Federal Minister of Defense in the cabinet of chancellor Angela Merkel. Dozens of polls showed that sympathy for Guttenberg was still higher than for most other politicians. And Dr. Angela Merkel, herself a physicist, declined to fire Guttenberg, claiming, that she distinguishes his work as a politician from his former scientific work.
Is this public reaction, to judge scientific plagiarism as a trivial offense, caused by a common lack of understanding how science works, how scientists try to establish high quality, how they handle and value intellectual property? Finally, the sympathy that polls revealed in the public crumbled a bit after scientists and universities started to protest and to explain how important proper citations are in science. And finally, after politicians from his own party criticized him, Guttenberg stepped down. But he still claims, that he copy-pasted "unintentionally" (though, a Bavarian public prosecutor opened a fraud case against Guttenberg, today).
I once heard a speech from the head of a newspaper's science section say that the public has no interest in researcher's internal quarreling. So, he won't report about it at length. Well enough, but people who never saw a book won't develop interest in a book, right? People will continue to be ignorant about science if no one explains how scientists actually work and how scientific misconduct influences the broader society (wasted money, bad science, bad irrational political decisions, etc.,etc.). Science journalism is not only about the nice impressive blooms of research but also about the fights for funding, the flaws of the review system, the systemic and financial circumstances of innovation transfer to the market - in short, the societal side of science.
Here are a few links, how the German science sections dealt with the "Guttenplag"-topic.
Klaus Taschwer (Austrian Standard) summarized cases and causes of fraud and plagiarism in science, internationally as well as in Austria.
Stern.de explained, how one can loose a doctor title. And Frank Ochmann comments in his column "Kopfwelten", why so many Germans still stick to Guttenberg and trivialize his fraud.... and much much more ink.
- Sascha Karberg
PS: The name Guttenberg is not a misspelling, but is simply different from that of the famous inventor of printing press Gutenberg...