Luxembourg PM Admits to Dissertation Plagiarism

Last week, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, was accused of plagiarism in a thesis that he wrote for the University of Nancy.

The plagiarism was discovered by and covered by Pol Reuter (French language article). According to the report, nearly all the 1999 thesis was plagiarized save a brief introduction and a brief conclusion that appears to be original. In total, of the 56 page paper, only two were free of plagiarism.

The paper, entitled Toward a Possible Reform of Voting Systems in the European Parliament, pulled from a variety of sources including 20 pages taken from the website of the European Parliament, nine from a Greek MEP and other passages came from a textbook.

Bettel, for his part, has admitted to the plagiarism saying that “Perhaps I should have done it differently.” Her further added that he will accept whatever decision the university makes about the paper, even if it means that his degree is rescinded.

However, that is not the end of the story. Though he admits to the plagiarism, he also claims that his conscience is clear on the matter because, according to him, it was written to the standards of the time. This is a view actually shared by his former supervisor, Etienne Criqui, who claims that standards were different before the implementation of plagiarism detection software.

However, that explanation simply does not hold water. To see why, we don’t need to luck much farther than Luxembourg’s neighbor, Germany.

Party Like It’s 1999

The argument that standards were different in 1999 is undoubtedly false. While it is true that plagiarism detection software did create a revolution in this space for schools, it wasn’t because schools suddenly decided that plagiarism was wrong.

Plagiarism, especially this significant of a case, has never been acceptable in a university environment. What changed was that, in the early days of the internet, plagiarism became very easy to do but not very easy to detect. Students could easily copy and paste significant amounts of text, as Bettel apparently did, and instructors had almost no means of spotting it.

As a company, Turnitin was founded in 1998, a year before Bettel’s thesis, and launched its product in 2000, a year after. Turnitin didn’t spring forth because schools suddenly decided plagiarism was wrong, but because schools had trouble detecting the plagiarism that was taking place.

However, the argument falls even more flat when you look at Germany. That country has been beset by a lengthy series of plagiarism scandals involving high-raking government officials. Two of those scandals involve papers that were submitted before 1999.

Those included German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who only narrowly held on to her degree after plagiarism was discovered in her 1990 dissertation, and German Education Minister Annette Scahvan, who had her doctorate revoked after plagiarism was discovered in her 1980 thesis.

It’s pretty clear that plagiarism was not acceptable in the 80s and 90s, just as much as it is today. This is true even when you look through the prism of European universities. Yes, improving technology did change things, but it improved detection and awareness, not cause plagiarism to magically become unacceptable in the early 2000s.

The University of Lorraine (as it is named today) needs to make that clear. While it may be the case that Bettel simply got bad advice from his supervisor, the truth is that plagiarism was not acceptable 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. It has always been one of the cardinal sins of academia and the term has a legacy that goes all the way back to 40 AD.

Bottom Line

One of the reasons that Bettel’s argument stings me personally is that, in 1999, I was a college student. I recall very well getting warnings about plagiarism and how one student in one of my classes, was suspended and given a failing grade for plagiarizing an assignment.

In 1999 it seems very unlikely that a college sophomore would be suspended for plagiarism and a politician seeking an advanced degree would be told that rampant plagiarism is just par for the course.

Bettel knew that paper was plagiarized, and he knew it wasn’t written to the code of ethics for academic work. His excuse is simply a way to admit to the obvious plagiarism without taking ethical responsibility for it.

Here’s hoping that his alma mater makes the right decision and both retract his paper and take a clear stand on plagiarism broadly. Whether that involves rescinding his degree is up to the school, but without taking some form of strong action, it risks being known as the school that tolerates plagiarism.

To see how that can impact a school, look no farther than the ongoing story at West Liberty University.

Header Image: ITU Pictures from Geneva, Switzerland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons