Stefanie Stegemannboehl

In 1997 the German scientific community was stirred by strong suspicions that 47 papers by two high-flying cancer researchers, Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, included fabricated data.1 So far, misconduct in science had been considered a sign of decadence of the New World. But all of a sudden, the topic aroused the interest of prestigious German research organisations as well as of journalists, deans, rectors, presidents, and even public prosecutors. Several local commissions and a joint commission investigated the case. Marion Brach confessed to journalists that a mix of sex, violence, and intrigue - which according to her statement must have been typical for the relationship between Herrmann and herself - was the cause of what had happened. She lost her job in L├╝beck. Herrmann was suspended from his job in Ulm and then quitted it, before any further disciplinary actions were taken.

History Misconduct

The Herrmann and Brach scandal - sometimes called the "fall of German science"1 - certainly marks a turning point in the history of misconduct in Germany. "Gem├╝tlichkeit" in German research suddenly became a thing of the past, but, the history of misconduct in science in Germany actually starts in the 1920s in Berlin, if not much earlier, in the 19th century.

In the second half of the 19th century, the German Zoologist Ernst Haeckel published his notorious graph showing embryos of different vertebrate animals that - at a certain stage of their development - look alike, but the graph turned out to be manipulated. It did not show different embryos but only one embryo, shaped by Haeckel from case to case according to his needs.1

*The following account reflects the author's personal view.

More than 40 years later, Albert Einstein is supposed to have manipulated research data by not disclosing relevant experimental data that did not harmonise with his theory. Later on, the undisclosed data turned out to be the relevant ones.

The next documented case of fabrication and falsification of data is that of the Berlin physicist Ernst Rupp, who published spectacular experiments in the 1920s and 1930s on the interference of electron beams -experiments that were, without exception, fictitious.2,3

In the 1930s, the Berlin biologist Franz Moewus manipulated data in his doctoral thesis about seaweed. Later on, as a professor in Heidelberg, he investigated the genes of a special sea plant and presented to the scientific community spectacular results that were forged. His fraudulent behaviour was detected in the 1950s in Australia, where he went after the war.

Hasko Paradies had earned international recognition for his publication on the crystallisation of transfer RNA, and had been appointed to the chair of plant physiology and cell biology at the Free University of Berlin in 1974. In 1982, it became known that his publications were based on falsified data. The university set up a committee of enquiry. In 1983, Paradies reached an agreement with his employer that he would himself ask to be dismissed from permanent civil servant status, whereupon the university undertook not to investigate the case further.2'3

Another case, which caused a great international stir, was that of the British biochemist Robert Gullis, who, in 1974 and 1975, as research fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried near Munich, fabricated research results on neurotransmitters. His group published several articles based on the fictitious results.4

From the 1980s a couple of "nameless" cases and rumours have been reported, such as the case of a doctoral student in Braunschweig who invented data that he needed for his dissertation in chemistry and doctored his lab book. The doctoral degree was taken away when the manipulations were detected.

The "Lohmann" case dates back to 1993. The Giessen biophysicist Lohmann had been accused of having published results on skin cancer research that his colleagues thought did not stand up to closer scientific scrutiny. A co-worker complained about discrepancies between the measuring results obtained at the institute and those published by Lohmann. Unfortunately, Lohmann had lost his primary data. An ad hoc committee set up by Giessen university investigated the case and obliged Lohmann to publish errata and to stop using specific data henceforth. Lohmann sued the university, and the administrative court as well as the appellate court, and the Federal Administrative Court held that the suit was founded, though for different reasons. Whereas the lower courts ruled that university committees are generally not allowed to apply sanctions to scientists, the Federal Administrative Court ruled that this is possible as a matter of principle; in this specific case, however, the committee had exceeded its limits. The final revision by the Federal Constitutional Court of 8 August 2000, did not change the ruling of the Federal Administrative Court.5-9

Another spectacular case even had political implications: in November 1993, much too high air-benzol values were found in southern Germany. To counter this, officials planned a couple of traffic restrictions, but in February 1995 the data were found to have been falsified. The person who had guided the benzol study is supposed to have increased the test results by 30% in order to place the results of his dissertation in a better light.10 In 1994, a working group of the chemical department at the University of Bonn claimed to have discovered that certain chemical reactions can be controlled by magnetic fields. The results were published in a professional journal and met with a favourable response within the scientific community. Suspicion arose, though, that Guido Zadel, a doctoral student might have forged them. He is under suspicion of having added the desired reaction products to the original solution, deceiving in this way also his coworkers who were to examine his results. The student was fired. His head-of-the-lab dissociated himself from the results in a letter to the journal. Bonn University decided to take the doctoral degree away from the student, who had been honoured for his work. Since 1997, the case has been pending at the administrative court of Cologne.11


Plagiarism in science is not unknown in Germany either. As early as 1957, disciplinary proceedings were instituted against a professor who had included work written by a staff member in his own publications without informing the staff member or giving him authorship. The proceedings were eventually suspended because the professor was found by the court only to have been negligent.12

A court ruling in 1961 was based on a case in which an educationalist, in a book on national socialist education, had plagiarised the explanations on the educational theory of Ernst Kriek published 16 years earlier by a scholar in the same discipline.13

In the 1970s, a doctoral student of biology took her supervisor to court because he had disseminated the results of her - as yet unpublished -dissertation in a scientific treatise.14

Another example of plagiarism in science led to a court ruling in 1980.15 The state examination thesis of a biology student had been chosen for publication in a scientific series because of its outstanding quality. A dispute ensued because a staff member of the chief editor intended to add a few scientific evaluations and, for this reason, wished to be named as coauthor. The examination candidate did not approve of his request and demanded his work back, upon which the staff member of the editor published a paper which - with the exception of some additional evaluations - was almost identical in content and structural organisation, if not in the wording, to the examination candidate's thesis. No reference whatever was made to the student, who sued the editor's staff member for infringement of copyright. The suit was dismissed in the last instance by the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof).

In 1981, a historian was also refused copyright protection. He had gone to court because his work on border conflicts - supposed to have taken place according to the national socialists at the German Polish border immediately before the outbreak of World War II - had been included in a book without acknowledgement of source, almost literally and mutatis mutandis.16 The plagiarist was none other than a public prosecutor, who was at the time involved in his official capacity in one of the incidents reviewed and was permitted by the historian to draw on the unpublished manuscripts for his investigations.

In 1993, the rector of Essen University, Horst Gentsch, had to resign, because parts of his inaugural speech were copied (without reference) from another person's essay, which had appeared two years earlier.

In 1986, a professor of mathematics had his teaching licence taken away for deceit after it had become known that his thesis was almost identical to a monograph originally published in Russian but meanwhile, unfortunately, translated into English. The professor sued against the revocation of his licence to teach, but was unsuccessful in two instances.17'18

The "Stroker" case,19-21 which attracted attention in the press, had a different outcome.The Cologne professor of philosophy, Elisabeth Stroker, was accused by her colleague, Marion Soreth, of copying from other works in her doctoral thesis. Bonn University - where Stroker had obtained her doctorate - decided not to take away the doctoral degree. The argument was that, at the time Stroker did her doctorate, it was general practice to provide fewer references than today, in particular when reporting other authors' views. A complete list of references at the end of the dissertation -as was included also in Stroker's thesis - was therefore sufficient.

Finally, a couple of incidents of misuse of the peer-review system have also become known - or rather, half-known - in Germany.1 Much public interest was aroused by the confession of Marion Brach, that Herrmann and herself had misused their position as peers by advising the rejection of a grant application (submitted in English), and then submitting more or less the same application (translated into German) as their own shortly afterwards to the same funding agency.

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