It was two weeks ago that I wrote, in connection with Géza Jeszenszky’s controversial textbook:
I am constantly amazed that quite a few Hungarians have several degrees in entirely different fields. An M.A. in history, another in sociology, and a third in psychology. Sometimes they seem to be studying these subjects simultaneously in different cities, which I find especially intriguing. Then there are all those members of parliament who are concurrently studying full time, usually law.
With growing apprehension I kept asking myself how this is possible. Are Hungarians so much smarter than American undergraduates and graduate students? I doubted it. But perhaps the story of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s degrees in theology and sociology might shed some light on this double and triple degree phenomenon so prevalent in Hungary.
On Sunday HVG came out with a bombshell: the reporters of the publication discovered that Zsolt Semjén’s doctoral dissertation in theology (1991) at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University and his senior paper (szakdolgozat) in sociology at Eötvös Loránd University or ELTE (1992) are not only on the same topic; the latter is merely an abbreviated version of the former with the exception of a handful of pages. But that is not the only problem. A careful study of the original doctoral dissertation disclosed that about 40% of the text is only a slight reworking of other, mostly popular works on Semjén’s chosen topic.
Semjén wrote about the New Age movement that came into being in the second half of the twentieth century. The movement is described as “drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics.” Semjén’s aim was to find Catholic answers to the challenges of this movement.
Although the dissertation, unlike Pál Schmitt’s thesis, does have some footnotes, about 40% of the text is either a verbatim copy or a slightly rewritten version of earlier published texts. Moreover, the books he used are not serious scientific treatises but books written for the general public. And there is another problem. Semjén uses several German-language sources when he purports to know only English. And his English cannot be that great either since he translated “Lying Spirits” as “prostrate spirits / fekvő lelkek” instead of “hazug lelkek.” (You see, Viktor, English is a difficult language.) Occasionally Semjén can’t even copy properly, or perhaps he has problems understanding some of the concepts he is dealing with. For example, he mixed up “panentheism” and “pantheism.” Panentheism is a belief system which posits that the divine interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it while pantheism holds that the divine is synonymous with the universe.
According to HVG, Semjén’s main source was Helmuth von Glasenapp’s book on the five world religions, which was translated into Hungarian in 1975. Another work he relied on was one of Stefan Üblacknemek’s articles, “Der Traum vom ‘New Age’,” that appeared in a German Catholic magazine entitled Stadt Gottes published by a Roman Catholic religious congregation, the Divine Word Missionaries. Anyone who would like to compare the original texts with Semjén’s version can look at a very thorough article dealing with the case. Semjén’s plagiarism is certainly more sophisticated than Pál Schmitt’s was at the College of Physical Education. Semjén occasionally changes the word order or tries to find synonyms.
Another source was an English-language work that appeared in 1988: The Encyclopedia of the Occult–A Compendium of Information on the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Spiritism and Mysticism by Lewis Spence. The definitions that Semjén borrowed from the encyclopedia are direct translations of the original English text.
Zsolt Semjén passed his doctoral defense summa cum laude although since then it came to light that his adviser and reader were not really satisfied with his performance.
The afterlife of this modest doctoral dissertation is also interesting. Since the introduction of the bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. degrees, this particular degree is no longer being granted in Hungary. However, a degree holder could ask the university that granted the doctoral degree to take a second look at his dissertation; if the readers found it worthy, the degree could be converted into a real Ph.D. Semjén’s dissertation was deemed of such high quality that Semjén today is the proud holder of the highest academic honor. He is a doctor of philosophy.
But this is not the end of the story. While Semjén was studying theology at the Catholic University he was also enrolled as a student of sociology at ELTE. His senior paper (szakdolgozat) not surprisingly was also about the New Age movement. It is 51 pages long, and 32-33 pages were copied straight out of the doctoral dissertation written for another university. The title of this essay was “An attempt at a definition of New Age.” There are about eight pages that are new in this sociological study. They came from Lothar Gassmann who is described as an evangelist who wrote 70 some books, all in German. The book Semjén used was translated into Hungarian (New Age: Jön az egységes világvallás / New Age: Coming of the new universal world religion).
The Prime Minister’s Office immediately released a statement pointing out that “the works used had been cited” in the bibliography. I guess the head of the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office has to say something, but plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,”or “purloining and publication of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expression,” and representing them as one’s own original work.
Different academic institutions define the concept of plagiarism in different ways. Stanford, for example, see plagiarism as “the use, without giving reasonable and appropriate credit to or acknowledging the author or source, of another person’s original work, whether such work is made up of code, formulas, ideas, language, research, strategies, writing or other form.” Yale views plagiarism as “the use of another’s work, words, or ideas without attribution” which includes “using a source’s language without quoting, using information from a source without attribution, and paraphrasing a source in a form that stays too close to the original.” By any of these definitions a large portion of Semjén’s dissertation can be considered to be plagiarized.
Semjén’s Christian Democratic friends in parliament today naturally attacked HVG, describing it as a successor to Nero and Diocletian. István Pálffy (KDNP) claimed that while these two bloodthirsty emperors used lions to kill Christians, HVG is is using the pen to target the new Saint Sebastian, Zsolt Semjén. Undersecretary Bence Rétvári, also member of KDNP, agreed. The persecution of Christians is taking place all over in Europe. Airlines don’t allow their employees to wear crosses on chains around their necks and crosses are removed from schools. The attack on Zsolt Semjén is a kind of persecution of Christians.
The poor persecuted Zsolt Semjén did very well “academically” since his graduation from Pázmány and ELTE. Since 1996 he has been teaching as an “honorary” associate professor at Péter Pázmány Catholic University. This honorary professorship was a new concept for me, but I came to the conclusion that an “honorary” professor is someone who is not really qualified as a full-fledged academic, perhaps along the lines of an adjunct professor. He also became an “honorary” full professor at University of Óbuda. He became a member of the Department of Philosophy and History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His research fields include the relationship between church and state, the social teachings of the Catholic Church, and New Age religions. He is a member of the Hungarian Sociological Association, an honorary member of the St. Stephen Academy, and a full member of the Pontificia Accademia Tiberina. Not bad. We will see what happens now. As we know, HVG is persistent. It took months but Pál Schmitt had to go.