Austria Labor Minister Christine Aschbacher has resigned amidst a plagiarism scandal that accuses her of plagiarizing two separate theses that she submitted as part of her academic career.
According to allegations first levied by blogger Stefan Weber, Aschbacher has committed plagiarism and academic fraud in two theses.
The first, a 2006 master’s thesis that was submitted to the University of Applied Sciences in Wiener Neustadt. At the time, she was graduated from the school with high marks.
The second is from May 2020 as she sought her doctorate from the Technical University of Bratislava in Slovakia. According to Weber, that thesis includes a variety of “gobbledygook, nonsense and plagiarism” with over 20% of the paper coming from other sources that are not cited.
Aschbacher, for her part, has denied the allegations. However, she says she made the choice to resign due to hostility and insults being directed at her and her family. According to her, the decision was made to “protect my family”. A successor is expected to be named today.
However, as important as the story is for Austria, it’s just another piece in a much larger plagiarism puzzle that has impacted politicians across many different countries in Europe.
To understand why, we must dig a bit deeper into the modern history of political plagiarism in Europe.
A Familiar Tale Made New Again
If this story sounds vaguely familiar it’s because it is. Europe, Russia and other countries in that region have had multiple issues with politicians plagiarizing theses and dissertations on their way to get degrees.
For example, in 2012, several Romanian ministers were forced to resign after allegations of academic plagiarism surfaced. The allegations also reached the country’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, who managed to hold on to his job until he was forced to resign in 2015 for unrelated reasons.
Also in 2015 Germany faced a plagiarism crisis of its own after several of their ministers were forced to step down amid plagiarism scandals. This scandal, compared to Romania, was much slower to unfold but resulted in several high-level resignations.
Then, in 2018, Spain was hit by its plagiarism scandal as King Juan Carlos University (URJC) became the focus of investigations for academic fraud. Many of the nation’s leaders had earned degrees there and, as the scandal unfolded, one minister resigned, another was investigated for suspected academic dishonesty and the Prime Minister faced backlash for his own work.
This issue of political plagiarism is such a hot topic in Russia that, late last year, researchers in Germany published a paper comparing known Russian plagiarist mayors vs. those that had no history of detected plagiarism. They found that the plagiarists performed worse in their duties and that their cities performed worse than their counterparts.
When put in this context, Aschbacher is just the latest in a very long line of European politicians to face repercussions over academic plagiarism. However, there is one key difference: The timing.
A Modern Example of a Classic Problem
What makes Aschbacher’s story unique is not that she is a high-ranking politician forced to resign over plagiarism allegations, but that her degrees were recent.
In most of the cases cited above, the plagiarized academic material was from the 1990s or earlier. Simply put, it was much easier to get away with plagiarism before the rise of plagiarism detection systems in the early 2000s.
This was made worst by political instability in the region during many of those decades. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many countries in the region faced a period of political instability, including Romania, that helped open the doors for both unscrupulous colleges and politicians alike.
However, both of Aschbacher’s theses were from post-2005. Her first, in 2006, might be explained by the slow proliferation of such tools, especially in non-English speaking countries. However, her second was just 8 months ago.
Much of the allegation centers around a translated Forbes article and translated plagiarism still a serious challenge for plagiarism detection, However, if the work is as Weber describes, there are many other warning signs that should have tipped off a reviewer.
There’s simply no reason that Aschbacher’s work should have been accepted. This isn’t a decades-old essay that we discover as plagiarized with modern tools. It is modern work presented to a modern school.
That, in turn, is what makes Aschbacher’s so worrying. Though it’s easy to think of plagiarism detection as a solved problem, it clearly isn’t. Whether it’s a flaw in the system, the school or the reviewers remains to be seen, but it’s clear that even modern politicians can benefit from a plagiarized thesis.
To be clear, all this hinges upon Weber’s work being accurate and fair. However, Weber is a specialist at detecting such plagiarism and has a good track record that goes all the way back to 2005.
Assuming Weber’s findings are accurate, this is a worrying story that makes it clear the issue of politicians plagiarizing to get ahead in academia is not a past issue.
Plagiarism is a misdeed done by those that put outcomes ahead of processes. A politician wants a degree to further their political career, not necessarily because they value the research and learning that should go into getting such a degree.
That problem isn’t going away any time soon and it’s important for schools and the public at large to remain very vigilant in spotting and taking action against plagiarism.