BERLIN (Reuters) - German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel as conservative leader, has denied accusations of plagiarism in the doctoral dissertation she wrote 25 years ago.
Two of Merkel's cabinet members - former defense chief Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and former education minister Annette Schavan - had to quit after their Ph.D theses were found to include passages lifted from other works without proper citation.
Plagiarism in a dissertation is especially embarrassing in Germany, where academic titles command respect and anyone with a doctorate has a legal right to be called "Doktor".
"I can reject the accusations of plagiarism," von der Leyen told several regional newspapers in an interview to be published on Monday, adding she had been aware since August that her thesis was being scrutinized on Internet platforms.
Von der Leyen said she had asked to have her dissertation checked by an independent panel of experts as soon as she heard it was being questioned. "As far as I know, the experts are working on that now," she said.
Von der Leyen is a physician trained at the Hannover Medical School and did postgraduate research work in gynecology there that earned her an academic doctorate in 1991.
The Berlin-based law professor Gerhard Dannemann, who investigated her thesis and published his findings on the internet platform Vroniplag Wiki, said several passages of her thesis were clearly from sources that were not attributed.
"In think the flaws are more severe than in the case of Mrs Schavan," Dannemann told Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in an interview to be published on Monday. "We're not talking about a borderline case here."
Schavan resigned as education minister in 2013 after being stripped of her doctorate for plagiarism, embarrassing Merkel and the conservatives in the run-up to the elections that year.
The University of Duesseldorf ruled she had "systematically and intentionally" copied parts of her thesis, and withdrew the Ph.D it had granted her more than 30 years ago.
That embarrassment came only two years after Merkel lost Guttenberg, a rising star who had to quit the defense ministry after being exposed for plagiarizing his thesis.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Tom Heneghan)