As if their countries' ledger books weren't distressing enough, over the past year European leaders have been caused no small amount of stress by the contents of their old college papers. As psychologist Dan Ariely notes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, politicians tend, as a whole, to be considered dishonest, well out of proportion to the amount they actually lie. The latest string of plagiarism scandals striking politicians around the world is unlikely to improve that image.
In June, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta became the latest prominent European politician caught up in a plagiarism scandal when the science journal Nature accused him of copying more than half of his 2003 Ph.D. thesis on the origins of the International Criminal Court from books by other Romanian law scholars without any attribution.
Nature had also taken aim at Romania's newly appointed education minister just a few weeks earlier, accusing him of extensive plagiarism in at least eight of his papers on computer science, but going after the prime minister raised the stakes somewhat, particularly after a national academic panel confirmed the allegation. The plagiarism charge has become a subplot in the country's ongoing constitutional crisis, with Ponta describing it as a trumped-up charge by the country's president, whom he's currently trying to impeach, and ordering the panel to disband.
Ponta's case may be the most dramatic plagiarism scandal to hit a political leader in the last few years, but it's not an isolated incident. Iran's science and transportation ministers were both caught plagiarizing in 2009. Thailand's innovation chief and the Indian government's chief science advisor have also been exposed.
But Europe, in particular, seems to have gone on something of a plagiarism-busting frenzy in recent months. The first victim of the current wave of academic-dishonesty policing was German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was stripped of his doctorate in early 2011 after the University of Bayreuth confirmed news reports that he had copied substantial portions of his thesis. Guttenberg, who was once voted Germany's most popular politician and frequently mentioned as a possible future chancellor, claimed that he had copied the text inadvertently -- he was already a legislator at the time he received his degree -- but the damage was done. The media had already dubbed the onetime golden boy "zu Googleberg," and he submitted his resignation to Chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2011.
The next to fall was another German, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, who stepped down as a vice president of the European Parliament and parliamentary chairwoman of the German Free Democratic Party in May 2011 when an investigative website raised doubts about the sourcing of her 2001 thesis on the history of currency unions. Koch-Mehrin didn't comment on the allegations but said she would step aside to "make it easier for my party to make a fresh start with a new leadership team."
On April 2 of this year, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt resigned several days after being stripped of his Ph.D. by Budapest's Semmelweis University. Schmitt, a former Olympic fencer, had written a paper on the history of the Olympic Games that contained dozens of pages of text, tables, and charts that were identical to the work of previous authors, though he continues to deny cheating.
Plagiarism allegations aren't necessarily a political death sentence. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently named the popular and controversial nationalist historian Vladimir Medinsky as his minister of culture. Even the normally reliably pro-Kremlin newswire RIA Novosti reported at the time that Medinsky had been accused of "massive plagiarism" in his dissertation thesis on foreigners' accounts of Russia from the 15th to the 17th centuries.