Last week, Hungary’s President Pál Schmitt was forced to resign because of plagiarism detected in his 1992 PhD thesis on physical education. Tivadar Tulassay, rector of Budapest’s prestigious Semmelweis University, showed admirable courage by standing up to the Hungarian establishment to revoke the thesis a few days earlier, after experts appointed by the university declared that Schmitt’s thesis “failed to meet scientific and ethical standards”. Tulassay, a cardiovascular researcher, has since assumed personal responsibility for his university’s decision to revoke Schmitt’s title.
The affair has remarkable parallels with that of Germany’s former defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned in March last year after his own PhD thesis, in law, had been revoked by the University of Bayreuth.
Like Schmitt, zu Guttenberg tried at first to deny plagiarism charges, then to underplay them, and he enjoyed powerful political support — until protests by a movement of honest PhD holders made his situation untenable. Plagiarism hunters have other prominent personalities in their sights, and are not necessarily going to be stopped just because a thesis is not in electronic form — if suspicion is high, they will digitize it themselves.
In many central European countries, an academic title is a decided advantage for a political career; clearly, some ambitious politicians think nothing of obtaining such a title by cheating. We can thank the plagiarism hunters — whatever their individual motives — for exposing dishonesty among those who govern us, and for defending the honour of a PhD. The only safe doctorate these days is an honestly acquired one.