He is now known as “the plagiarism hunter,” per his colleagues. He characterises himself as “meticulous” and a “addict.”
However he is portrayed, in German-speaking countries where titles are important signs of social status, Stefan Weber is the uncontested horror of professors, politicians, celebrities, and a whole host of other possible targets.
Weber, an Austrian professor of communications, is responsible for the demise of several professions and the hardships experienced by many. And what began as a hobby has now become a business, with five freelance “collaborators,” as he calls them, working with him to expose the faults of careless, lazy, or dishonest authors.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor in elections this month, is his latest mark.
Weber, now 51 years old, got the ball rolling on what would become his life’s work in 2005, when a German theologian named Joachim Fels copied him. Fels claimed that his inability to properly credit Weber’s work in his PhD dissertation was the result of an editorial error. He seemed to think that would put an end to things, but he wasn’t sure who he was dealing with.
An examination conducted by the university after Weber’s public complaint revealed that Fels had copied Weber’s work for 86 percent of the first 100 pages of his dissertation. Weber even went as far as to follow a German television crew as they followed a bewildered Fels to his door, at which point Fels was eventually stripped of his degree.
Weber has gone after numerous notable persons over the years, most recently Baerbock, using nothing but commercial software and a near photographic memory.
As a result of the controversy surrounding claims that she fabricated her academic background, Weber submitted her recently published book, “Now: How We Renew Our Country,” to Turnitin and other similar services to check for instances of plagiarism. As many as 12 paragraphs were flagged as being essentially identical across many sources.
Weber, a former tabloid journalist who shared his findings on his blog and in several interviews with major German and Austrian news organisations, called it “willful dishonesty.”
Consultants, while the situation was being reported in the headlines, warned against applying standards for PhD dissertations to a short nonfiction book written by a politician. To some, it appeared as though there was an organised effort to denigrate a highly accomplished woman, while to others it was unclear whether or not the far right had funded Weber’s research. (He specifically stated it didn’t.)
The incident did, however, contribute to a view of Baerbock as “dubious and untidy,” as Weber pointed out. Since then, over a hundred paragraphs have been found to be plagiarised from blogs, news columns, books, and even the Greens’ electoral programme. In the spring, she was ahead in the polls, but now the plagiarism problem isn’t the only thing holding back her support, which is down to below 20%.
His detractors paint him as a petty crusader who enjoys smearing people’s reputations. His zeal to hold writers, educators, and everyone else to the highest standards is going to be frustrating, even for his followers.
Peter A. Bruck, a retired professor from the University of Salzburg and Weber’s academic advisor, said, “He constantly wants to be the best, and he also demands that of others.”
Those who don’t measure up to his standards will eventually find out. As soon as he discovered that his children’s after-school centre had stolen its “pedagogical concept,” he publicly reprimanded the school’s administration.
Weber, who works in a rundown industrial area on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria, admitted over lunch at an Italian restaurant that he is aware of the times when his meticulousness is bothering others. Pizza alla diavola is one of his favourite foods when he isn’t fasting to prevent the diabetes his doctor anticipated a decade ago, but on this occasion, he settled down to a pasta dish while explaining the business side of things.
He pays as much as $400 an hour to have people research his case, including teachers, court experts, and their books and articles. Most of his clients, however, tend to fall into one of two categories: either men wanting to discredit their wives during or after a divorce (but never vice versa) or people trying to disparage their neighbours during ugly fights over property lines.
He claims he now receives around fifty enquiries per month and that people are sending him recommendations on major cases like the one he waged against Austrian labour minister Christine Aschbacher, who resigned in January following a plagiarism controversy.
He said that the schadenfreude of the Austrians is “a gold mine.”
Weber took an unconventional life path to his present level. Born in Salzburg to a severe and controlling workplace clerk father who scrutinised his faculty bag every night and a mom who employed as a homemaker, younger Stefan Weber confirmed early symptoms of being an arithmetic prodigy.
A coach wished that 11-year-old Weber would “stay modest in triumph,” advising him to do so. While he did well in many classes, physical education was not one of them. Whenever Weber’s current girlfriend, Birgit Kolb, and he go mountaineering in the Alps, they take the cable car instead of slogging up the mountain.
Weber, a student at the University of Salzburg, eventually came to terms with the fact that the mathematical success his mentor had predicted years before was not going to materialise. Despite his extraordinary memory, he struggled to keep up with his college math instructors and eventually switched to “the idiot degree everyone studies: communications.”
Weber had no trouble communicating with or gaining tenure at any of the eight universities of applied sciences he visited throughout Austria and Germany. He never did manage to get there.
At the age of 37, Weber followed his then-girlfriend to Dresden, Germany, where she was employed as a government worker. Together, he and his wife Anna took care of their two children, Maximilian, and Anna, while he taught at colleges and worked as a communications consultant.
He also continued to work with Bruck, who still admires Weber’s intellect and ambition but has little patience for his new vocation, publishing works that criticised modern media. In a 2007 op-ed, he criticised Weber for accusing Johannes Hahn, then Austria’s minister of science, of plagiarism. “From a useful tracker, he changed into an illegitimate detractor,” he wrote. (Hahn was ultimately vindicated of the accusation.)
Weber moved back to Salzburg in 2014, and he and his then-girlfriend separated the following year.
Most of these he has named and shamed have neither misplaced their titles nor employment, Weber remarked, pointing to Hahn, who went on to turn into a European Union commissioner. This year, however, she resigned within two days after he discovered “plagiarism, erroneous citations, and insufficient grasp of German” in Aschbacher’s academic work.
For nearly a decade, Weber advocated for plagiarism to be recognised as a field deserving of publicly sponsored research, but it wasn’t until the Aschbacher case that the government took notice. He said something to the effect of, “Only after politics has been hit has politics become interested.”
Now, with government support, he is assessing the use of plagiarism-detection tools at institutions in Austria and creating a Wiki that will serve as the definitive guide to proper citation. He speculated that one day he would have to set the bar so high that he would effectively put himself out of business.
But for now, he must scan and digitise the dissertations of two high-ranking civil workers. Weber retrieved the books from the floor of his navy Volkswagen and noted that they were written in the aughts, a period in which plagiarism was rampant.
That alone makes me suspicious,” he said with a sly grin.