David Howarth, full professor in Political Science, European Studies  University of Luxembourg 

David Howarth, full professor in Political Science, European Studies  University of Luxembourg 

Plagiarism is not uncommon among politicians. In the last few years, a number of high ranking politicians all over Europe were stripped of their PhD titles over plagiarism accusations. 

Following the recent accusations of plagiarism against prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP), Delano spoke to David Howarth, professor in political science at the University of Luxembourg.

From speeches to college papers, to dissertations or doctoral thesis, many politicians are sooner or later caught. Howarth recalled a number of similar cases of plagiarism in student essays and dissertations, where both the “introduction and conclusion were badly written and far too short and everything in between was perfectly written but betrayed large gaps in logical flow. When that happens, one doesn't need software to detect possible plagiarism.”

Howarth argued that plagiarising a master's dissertation is unforgivable, as this work is meant to be an indication that a student is able to conduct sustained research on a topic, find relevant sources, and produce a coherent argument. He noted that it tended to be weaker students with poorer language skills--those that did not master the language of the degree programme--that would be most likely to plagiarise. 

“We can tell very easily at the University of Luxembourg when students plagiarise because we can see the shift in the quality of the language of the written work. Only a very small minority of our students master written English and many of the non-francophone students struggle with their written French.”

Howarth noted that Bettel copy-pasted material from a number of sources which demonstrated very deliberate plagiarism. The PM had previously studied law in French. However, producing a lengthier piece of academic work in this language might well have been an excessive challenge for him. The multilingualism of the Luxembourgish education system can also create a handicap for many local students when they go to university in other countries. However, while Howarth admits that writing in a language that is not your own has its challenges, this in no way excuses plagiarism.

Personally, I would recommend that he resigns as PM. He wanted the academic credibility … yet he was not willing to undertake the necessary work to merit that credibility. 
 David Howarth

 David HowarthProfessor in Political Science, European StudiesUniversity of Luxembourg 

On the declarations of Etienne Criqui,Bettel's former thesis supervisor, Howarth noted that clear rules on plagiarism have long existed--even prior to the use of software--to detect wrongdoing and official forms to be signed by students to confirm that they have not conducted plagiarism.

Plagiarism has always been considered a heinous academic crime in all credible universities throughout the world. In Howarth's experience, many universities have in fact over time relaxed penalties for plagiarism: “A lot of universities are becoming too forgiving on plagiarism, and it becomes very dangerous, because it undermines the credibility of academic standards. It also undermines de facto the efforts of the vast majority of students who would never cheat in this way.”

Many plagiarists who are not caught in the act are repeat offenders, he argues: “If you get away with it once, you think you can get away with it twice and so on.” As to the various statements on what Bettel should do in the aftermath of this scandal, Howarth was clear: “Personally, I would recommend that he resigns as PM. He could have opted not to complete his graduate degree at the University of Nancy and, rather, focus on his budding political career in Luxembourg. However, he wanted to do both. That was an unwise decision. He wanted the academic credibility that the completion of his graduate degree bestowed yet he was not willing to undertake the necessary work to merit that credibility. Ultimately, though, Mr Bettel's fate will depend upon his own assessment, that of his party and of the political class in this country. Clearly, many of these people do not share my views as to the gravity of his misdemeanour."

This second incident within the DP (Monica Semedo was suspended from the European Parliament, while the DP delayed its decision on her party membership and she ultimately left the party) goes to show that there are deeper issues within the party when it comes to taking action and letting actions speak for themselves.