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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In Germany, more than half a dozen high-ranking politicians are caught up in an embarrassing plagiarism scandal. It's already cost the German defense minister his job. And now none other than the country's education minister has also been implicated. The accusers are private citizens who coordinate their hunt for plagiarism online. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: One of Germany's more famous cyber sleuths is an American professor named Debora Weber-Wulff. The Pennsylvania native says she began hunting for plagiarists nearly a decade ago, after an incident at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences. Weber-Wulff says she had asked her students there to write a report in English. The papers she got back were terrific, she adds - too terrific, as it turns out. Her suspicions peaked when she read one report that used the word inculcate.

DEBORA WEBER-WULFF: Now, I have a pretty good vocabulary in English and I thought that's kind of strange that a German kid would know words that I wouldn't know.

NELSON: By plugging parts of the report into Google, she quickly discovered the student had lifted passages from another paper. As it turns out, so did 11 other students in her class of 32.

WEBER-WULFF: I was so irritated because I had studied in the States at UCSD and we had a very strict policy on plagiarism that was made as clear to us in the '70s. You know, this is nothing new.

NELSON: Weber-Wulff adds there weren't such strict policies in Germany. Nor were there any serious government or academic efforts to prevent or ferret out plagiarism. On the contrary, individuals here under pressure to get a doctorate degree, which earns the bearer respect and is important to anyone who wants to achieve high-ranking political office. Weber-Wulff says she decided to explore German plagiarism, giving lectures and developing coursework. German public interest in the subject began to grow. Activists talked to each other via the Internet as they scrutinized academic work. Some Germans created collaborative websites called wikis, where they posted plagiarized passages they uncovered. One such wiki posted a bombshell in February 2011, accusing then Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg of lifting most of his doctoral dissertation from other works. The German aristocrat and rising political star was stripped of his doctorate and resigned his Cabinet post the following month. Ulrich Schulte is the Parliament bureau chief for Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning daily newspaper.

ULRICH SCHULTE: (German spoken)

NELSON: He says the incident shook his countrymen's faith in their leaders. It also prompted reviews of other politicians' academic work. New wikis began popping up, including one called Vroniplag that was named for a politician's daughter accused of plagiarism. The wiki's members last December began investigating claims that Education Minister Annette Schavan had plagiarized part of her doctoral dissertation. Professor Weber-Wulff, who contributes to Vroniplag, says the fraud the education minister is accused of wasn't as clear-cut as that perpetrated by former Defense Minister Guttenberg. Much of it had to do with Schavan not making the many citations she used clear enough.

WEBER-WULFF: I myself had doubts had that time because there were so many small bits that I didn't feel we were able to do justice to it.

NELSON: Instead, another member took the allegations and posted them on a separate blog last May using a pseudonym of Robert Schmidt. Schavan has since denied the claims, including in this October clip from the German ZDF television network.

ANNETTE SCHAVAN: (Through Translator) At no point did I attempt to deceive anyone with regards to my dissertation work. I refute these claims that I plagiarized and I will fight. I owe myself and academia that much.

NELSON: She also lashed out at her accuser for being anonymous, and tried but failed to silence public discourse about her case. One of her staunchest supporters is Humboldt University Professor Emeritus Dietrich Benner. Reached by phone, he claims Schavan is being crucified over a technicality.

DIETRICH BENNER: (German spoken)

NELSON: He argues people without position and little money are using such claims of plagiarism to become famous. So far, no action has been taken against the education minister. Her dissertation is being reviewed by academics at the University of Dusseldorf, which issued her the doctorate. Professor Weber-Wulff says she agrees that it's up to the university to make the final decision. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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