The “plagiarism hunter” is terrorizing the German-speaking area



However he is characterized, Stefan Weber is in German-speaking countries, where titles are important signals of social status, the undisputed terror of academics, politicians, celebrities and a whole range of other potential perpetrators.

Weber, an Austrian communication professor, ended the careers of many and made life difficult for many others. And what began as a hobby has now grown into a business with five freelance “collaborators,” as he calls them, who work with him to expose the misdeeds of lazy, sloppy, or downright devious writers.

His latest goal: Annalena Baerbock, the candidate of the Greens, to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor in this month’s elections.

Weber, 51, began his life’s work in 2005 when he was plagiarized by a German theologian, Joachim Fels. He seemed to think that was the end of the matter, but he wasn’t entirely sure who he was dealing with.

Weber’s public complaint eventually sparked a university investigation which found that 86 percent of the first 100 pages of Fels’ dissertation had been copied from Weber’s work. The fraud was featured prominently in the major news media; Followed by a German television team, Weber even stepped outside the door of a perplexed rock, whose doctorate was ultimately revoked.

In the meantime, Weber, armed only with commercial software and an almost photographic memory, has followed a large number of prominent personalities, including most recently Baerbock.

After allegations that she beautified her résumé, Weber brought her newly published book “Now: How We Renew Our Land” about Turnitin and other plagiarism detection programs. It marked at least 12 passages as almost identical to other sources.

“Deliberate deception,” said Weber, who once worked as a tabloid journalist and published his findings on his blog and through numerous interviews with major news agencies in Germany and Austria.

In front pages, experts warned against applying standards for dissertations to a short non-fiction book by a politician. Many saw a concerted campaign to discredit a highly skilled woman, while others wondered if the far right had funded Weber’s research. (He said it wasn’t.)

Still, the episode strengthened the feeling that Baerbock was “dubious and sloppy,” Weber said. The number of passages found from blogs, news columns, books and the election manifesto of the Greens has now grown to over 100. She led the polls in the spring, her support has since fallen to less than 20 percent, with the plagiarism scandal not being the only factor.

Critics describe him as a tricky crusader who enjoys character assassination. Even his supporters acknowledge that his urge to keep writers, academics, and others at the highest level can be annoying.

“He always wants to be the best and he also demands that of others,” says Peter A. Bruck, former professor at the University of Salzburg and Weber’s academic mentor.

Inevitably, those who fail to meet his expectations will find out about it. When he discovered that his children’s daycare center had plagiarized the “educational concept”, he promptly scolded the school management.

“I know when I annoy people with my meticulousness,” Weber said over lunch in an Italian restaurant near his office in a shabby industrial district on the outskirts of Salzburg. When he’s not fasting to ward off the diabetes his doctor predicted a decade ago, he usually enjoys pizza alla diavola, although on that occasion he sat down to a pasta dish while explaining the business side of things.

That consists of researching scientific publications, court reports, and books for which he bills up to $ 400 an hour. But the bulk of his clients usually fall into two categories: men who want to discredit their ex-wives during or after a divorce (but never the other way around) and people who try to undermine the credibility of their neighbors in nasty disputes over property lines.

He said he now receives around 50 inquiries a month and that he is being sent leads on large cases like the one against Austrian Labor Minister Christine Aschbacher, who resigned in January following a plagiarism scandal.

“It’s a gold mine,” he said of the Austrians’ glee.

Weber took a strange path through life to his current station. Born in Salzburg as the son of a strict and controlling office clerk father who checked his school bag every evening, and a mother who worked as a housewife, the young Stefan Weber showed early signs of a math prodigy.

“May you remain humble in triumph,” a teacher warned eleven-year-old Weber. He was excellent in most subjects, with physical education being the clear exception. Even today, when his current partner Birgit Kolb hikes in the Alps, Weber decides to take the cable car up to the top.

As a student at the University of Salzburg, Weber realized that the triumph his teacher had long foreseen could not be found in mathematics. Despite his amazing memory, he couldn’t follow the university’s math professors and instead turned to “the idiotic degree everyone goes to college: communication.”

Communication was child’s play, and Weber taught at eight universities of applied sciences in Austria and Germany, always competing for employment. He never got there.

“Colleagues described him as ‘socially incompatible,'” said Thomas Bauer, retired communications professor at the University of Vienna, who supported Weber’s path into office. In a dispute with a full professor and the university librarian, he spent his 32nd birthday writing a three-page “protest letter” to the Austrian Society for Journalism.

He also came into conflict with his students, who indignantly pushed back when he accused them of plagiarism in their essays. Out of frustration, he broke off two courses and forced the university to find another lecturer to end the semester.

At 37, Weber moved to Dresden, where his partner at the time worked as a civil servant. In addition to looking after the two children Maximilian and Anna, he taught at universities and worked as a communications consultant.

He also published books on new media and continued to work with Bruck, who still praises Weber’s intellect and ambition but has little patience for his new career. “From a useful tracker he has turned into an illegitimate critic,” he wrote in a 2007 comment in which Weber was reprimanded for accusing the then Austrian Science Minister Johannes Hahn of plagiarism. (Hahn was eventually acquitted of the charge.)

Weber returned to Salzburg in 2014 and separated from his former partner the following year.

Today he shaves his head before the children, now 10 and 13 years old, go on summer vacation. Responsible upbringing doesn’t give him time to wash his hair, even less since he has a little girl with Kolb.

Most of those whom he named and shamed have lost neither titles nor jobs, Weber said, pointing to Hahn, who later became EU Commissioner. However, when he discovered “plagiarism, false quotations and poor knowledge of German” in Aschbacher’s academic work that year, she resigned within two days.

Weber promoted plagiarism as a research-worthy discipline for more than a decade, but it was only with the Aschbacher case that the government became aware of itself. “It was only since politics was hit,” he said, “that politics became interested.”

Now, with government funding, he is evaluating how Austrian universities use plagiarism detection software and is creating a wiki that will become the ultimate guide for correct procurement, citation and referencing. After all, he said, he wants to raise the standards so high that he will make himself unemployed.

But first he has to scan and digitize the dissertations of two high-ranking officials. Weber took the hardcover volumes from the passenger floor of his navy blue Volkswagen and found that they were written in the 1980s, a time when plagiarism flourished.

“That makes me suspicious,” he said with a sly grin.

© The New York Times Company


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