German defense minister’s plagiarized PhD dissertation visualized

Posted to Visualization  |  Tags: ,  |  Nathan Yau

As some of you might know, Germany’s defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned yesterday after admitting that he plagiarized his PhD dissertation. Pitiful, I know.

Gregor Aisch visualized Guttenberg’s dissertation, highlighting the plagiarized portions.

The dark red represents complete or masked plagiarism, while the lighter red represents different categories of plagiarism. Longer bars are for normal text, and small bars represent footnote lines. Not sure why there seems to be as much footnote as there is normal text.

In any case, at least Guttenberg wrote some of it. But still sad.



  • Thank you for sharing this, Nathan!

    In Germany papers such as term papers and thesis papers are usually spiced with footnotes (my masters thesis had around 500) because we tend to put the references, explanations and other information there. It is not the same across all the disciplines, but the more text-oriented subjects in particular do not use e.g. the Harvard method of citation in the main text. Our sentences can get very long. In addition, some academics tend to write very convoluted (or at least not very reader-friendly). Thus, adding references etc. to the main text would make the paper even less readable. Hope this clarifies the ratio of main text : footnotes.

    As for the event itself: It is an utter disgrace and I am glad that academics and the German public did not succumb to the downplay of the issue. Major political figures tried to trivialize the matter. More information about this can be found on the page of a group raising awareness for the topic (

    • Thanks for the context, Amy. It makes much more sense now.

    • Sebastian March 2, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Amy – I don’t think that’s quite right. Extensive footnotes are just as common in the US, depending on the discipline. Footnoted citations are very common in much of the humanities (referred to as Chicago Manual of Style) and US legal writing is notorious for its footnotes.
      If you look at any given law review article in the US, you’ll see many pages which are half-text half-footnote. This is, e.g. the first Harvard Law Review article that I grabbed:
      more than 360 FNs on a little more than 60 pages of actual article.

      • I see. I’m used to seeing (and writing my own) technically-oriented dissertation, so I haven’t come across any that are so heavy on footnotes.

      • Thank you for the clarification, Sebastian!

        I know that legal disciplines & institutions around the globe are very fond of footnotes. I just wanted to point out that in Germany specifically, it is much more common in all kinds of academic writing – from the tiny first year term paper up to your PhD thesis, text books etc.

        My thesis (it happens to be a international criminal law topic) was only an example, I could have referred to a thesis in another field. I did not know that the humanities (besides legal studies and in journals) in the US are using footnotes to quite that extent! My only (unstated) point of reference was the UK and the experience of friends who studied in the US. (I wrongly assumed from my limited sample that footnotes in term papers etc. are not as common. Whenever I saw them in use, there seemed to be a limited amount of endnotes. Good to know that!)

  • Actually he did not admit plagiarization. He just admitted that his thesis did not stand up to the scientific standards of his title. Wether it was a conscious and mailcious wrong doing is still under examination by the University of Bayreuth. (Imho it most probably was when you look at the stats above).

  • A more condensed form can be found here:

    This is an impressive example of the power of crowdsourcing: within 2 weeks after the first public attacks in the print press and on the Internet, the opening of a GoogleDocs document and a later a wikia website the shooting star on the German political scene and German defense minister had to leave office and lost his seat in the German parliament.

    • I agree! It would be great crowd-sourcing project to look at academic works of other politicians. I am pretty sure he is not the only one who fashioned his thesis like that…

      • It has already started in Germany, but I didn’t find the url.

      • As Frank said, such a project is being started. Here’s the link (German language only ):

      • Ghostwriting academic theses is an – illegal – business, at least in Germany, and the number of theses of politicians that get attacked for plagiarism today is maybe just the result of their wide use. Before no one spoke about it but I guess a certain number of people did.

        In management, too, a theses can help your career when you arrive at the level of the top brass. But illegal ghostwriting by industry bosses is just not in the political lime light now.

  • Thanks @ Frank & Dagonet for the information.

    @ Nathan: It always amazes me how the research cultures differ when it comes to the manifestations of education system and academic culture. Thanks for keeping this blog!

  • it’s a wiki PhD, he should not resign! Every work should be done better by many people instead of one, what’s the problem? :)

  • I’d like to see this done with Martin Luther King’s dissertation…,_Jr._authorship_issues


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