The ‘Plagiarism Hunter’ Terrorizing the German-Speaking World

SALZBURG, Austria — They name him “the plagiarism hunter.” He calls himself “meticulous” and an “addict.”

However he’s characterised, in German-speaking international locations the place titles are essential indicators of social standing, Stefan Weber is the undisputed terror of teachers, politicians, celebrities and a panoply of different potential culprits.

Mr. Weber, an Austrian communications professor, has ended the careers of a number of individuals and made life tough for a lot of others. And what began as a pastime has now developed right into a enterprise with 5 freelance “collaborators,” as he calls them, working with him to disclose the misdoings of lazy, sloppy or downright sneaky writers.

His newest goal: Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate to interchange Angela Merkel as German chancellor in elections this month.

Mr. Weber, 51, obtained began on what would turn into his life’s work in 2005, when he himself was plagiarized by a German theologian, Joachim Fels, who defined that his failure to acknowledge Mr. Weber’s work correctly in his Ph.D. dissertation was the results of an editorial mishap. He appeared to assume that will settle the matter, however he didn’t absolutely recognize whom he was coping with.

Mr. Weber’s public grievance in the end triggered a college investigation revealing that 86 p.c of the first 100 pages of Mr. Fels’s dissertation was plagiarized from Mr. Weber’s work. The fraud was coated prominently in main information media retailers; trailed by a German TV crew, Mr. Weber even door-stepped a perplexed Mr. Fels, who was in the end stripped of his Ph.D.

In the intervening years, armed solely with business software program and a near-photographic reminiscence, Mr. Weber has gone after quite a lot of outstanding figures, together with, most not too long ago, Ms. Baerbock.

Following allegations that she embellished her C.V., Mr. Weber ran her newly revealed guide, “Now: How We Renew Our Country,” by way of Turnitin and different plagiarism-detection packages. It marked not less than 12 passages as nearly an identical with different sources.

“Willful deceit,” stated Mr. Weber, who as soon as labored as a tabloid journalist and who publicized his findings in his weblog and thru quite a few interviews with main information organizations in Germany and Austria.

As the problem performed out in front-page articles, consultants cautioned in opposition to making use of requirements for Ph.D. dissertations to a brief nonfiction guide by a politician. Many noticed a concerted marketing campaign to discredit a extremely completed girl, whereas others questioned if the far proper had bankrolled Mr. Weber’s analysis. (He says it didn’t.)

Still, the episode strengthened a way of Ms. Baerbock as “dubious and sloppy,” Mr. Weber says. The variety of passages in the guide discovered to be cribbed from blogs, information columns, books and the Greens’ election program has since grown to greater than 100. She led the polls in the spring and her assist has since dropped to lower than 20 p.c, although the plagiarism scandal will not be the solely issue.

Mr. Weber has discovered — and publicized — plagiarism in the writing of many outstanding figures, together with Ms. Baerbock, middle, and Christine Aschbacher, the Austrian labor minister.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Critics describe him as a persnickety crusader who takes pleasure in character assassination. Even his supporters acknowledge that his drive to carry writers, teachers and others to the highest requirements may be vexing.

“He always wants to be the best, and he also demands that of others,” says Peter A. Bruck, a former professor at the University of Salzburg who was an instructional mentor to Mr. Weber.

Invariably, those that fall wanting his expectations will hear about it. When he found that his youngsters’s after-school middle had plagiarized its “pedagogical concept,” he promptly chastised college officers.

“I know when I’m annoying people with my meticulousness,” Mr. Weber stated over lunch at an Italian restaurant close to his workplace in a scruffy industrial district on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. When he’s not fasting to stave off the diabetes his physician predicted a decade in the past, he sometimes enjoys pizza alla diavola, although on this event he settled right down to a pasta dish whereas explaining the enterprise facet of issues.

That consists of investigating teachers’ publications, court docket consultants’ opinions and books, for which he payments as a lot as $400 an hour. But the bulk of his shoppers sometimes fall into two classes: Men looking for to discredit their ex-wives amid or after a divorce (however by no means vice versa) and folks making an attempt to undermine their neighbors’ credibility in nasty disputes over property traces.

He says he now receives about 50 inquiries a month, and that folks have begun sending him recommendations on large instances like the one he mounted in opposition to Christine Aschbacher, the Austrian labor minister who stepped down in January after a plagiarism scandal.

“It’s a gold mine,” he stated of Austrians’ schadenfreude.

Mr. Weber took an odd life path to his present station. Born in Salzburg to a strict and controlling office-clerk father who checked his college bag every night, and a mom who labored as a homemaker, younger Stefan confirmed early indicators of being a math prodigy.

“May you remain humble in triumph,” a instructor cautioned the 11-year-old Stefan. He excelled in most topics, with bodily training being the clear exception. Even nowadays, when his present accomplice, Birgit Kolb, hikes in the Alps, Mr. Weber opts for the cable automotive for the climb to the high.

As a scholar at the University of Salzburg, he realized that the triumph his instructor had foreseen way back was not going to be present in math. Despite his prodigious reminiscence, he was unable to comply with the college math professors and as an alternative turned to “the idiot degree everyone studies: communications.”

Communications was a breeze, and Mr. Weber went on to show at eight universities in Austria and Germany, at all times vying for tenure. He by no means attained it.

“Colleagues described him as ‘socially incompatible,’” says Thomas Bauer, a retired communications professor from the University of Vienna who supported Mr. Weber’s path to tenure. Embroiled in a dispute with a tenured professor and a college librarian, he spent his 32nd birthday penning a three-page “letter of protest” to the Austrian Society of Communication.

“I know when I’m annoying people with my meticulousness,” Mr. Weber stated, sitting in his workplace in Salzburg, Austria.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

He additionally ran afoul of his college students, who pushed again indignantly when he accused them of plagiarism of their essays. Out of frustration, he stop courses at two universities, forcing them to seek out different instructors to complete the time period.

At 37, Mr. Weber moved to Dresden, Germany, the place his accomplice at the time labored as a civil servant. While serving to to care for his or her two youngsters, Maximilian and Anna, he taught at universities and labored as a communications advisor.

He additionally revealed books critiquing new media and continued to work with Mr. Bruck, who nonetheless lauds Mr. Weber’s mind and ambition however has little endurance for his new profession. “From a useful tracker, he transformed into an illegitimate detractor,” he wrote in a 2007 op-ed rebuking Mr. Weber for accusing Johannes Hahn, then Austria’s science minister, of plagiarism. (Mr. Hahn was ultimately cleared of the accusation.)

In 2014 Mr. Weber returned to Salzburg, splitting along with his former accomplice the following 12 months.

Today, he shaves his head earlier than the youngsters, now 10 and 13 years previous, arrive for his or her summer time holidays. Responsible parenting leaves him no time to clean his hair, he says, even much less so now that he has a child woman with Ms. Kolb.

Most of these he has named and shamed have neither misplaced their titles nor jobs, Mr. Weber says, pointing to Mr. Hahn, who went on to turn into a European Union commissioner. This 12 months, nonetheless, when he uncovered “plagiarism, wrong citations and poor knowledge of German” in the tutorial work of Ms. Aschbacher, the labor minister, she stepped down inside two days.

For greater than a decade, Mr. Weber promoted plagiarism as a self-discipline worthy of publicly funded analysis, however it was solely with the Aschbacher case that the authorities started to take discover. “Only since politics has been hit,” he stated, “has politics become interested.”

Now with authorities funding, he’s evaluating how Austria’s universities deploy plagiarism-detection software program and is making a Wiki that’s to turn into the final information to correct sourcing, quoting and referencing. Eventually, he says, he desires to boost requirements so excessive that he places himself out of labor.

But for now, he must scan and digitize the dissertations of two high-ranking civil servants. Mr. Weber picks the certain volumes from the passenger-side flooring of his navy blue Volkswagen and notes that they had been written in the aughts, a time when plagiarism flourished.

“That’s already making me suspicious,” he says with a mischievous grin.