Citizens’ Councils for Promoting the Global Common Good

By Okka Lou Mathis

Prioritise climate protection, promote sustainable food production, increase funds for development cooperation, and create a sustainability ministry: These are just four of the 32 proposals from the citizens’ council on “Germany’s Role in the World”, consisting of 154 randomly selected citizens. The Bundestag will receive the final report on 19 March. The citizens’ council is an instrument of innovative citizen participation that has been used in many countries and at various political levels.

Citizens’ councils promise to reduce disenchantment with politics and to promote courageous solutions to socially controversial issues. The trick is that certain people come together by lot, ideally representing the socio-economic composition of society, in a so-called “mini-public”. The council is therefore much more inclusive and diverse than, for example, the Bundestag. Moreover, the councillors have neither voters, nor a party line, or lobby interests breathing down their necks. The idea is that this allows them to discuss political issues more impartially and at eye level. In addition to learning together, an appreciative, personal and yet fact-oriented exchange of experiences and views can take place according to the principle of “deliberation”: In the end, the best argument for the common good should actually be convincing, not just the loudest voice or the best-organised interest. For this reason alone, citizens’ councils are a useful addition to our democracy. In concrete terms, citizens’ councils can provide valuable impulses in terms of content, as the political recommendations on sustainability from the citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” show.

The citizens examined this broad topic from five perspectives in working groups: sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and the rule of law, economy and trade, and the EU. The topics were selected in advance through a participatory process, and it is gratifying that sustainable development was considered very important. A small drop of bitterness, however, is that sustainable development was not, by its very nature, considered as a cross-cutting basic principle everywhere. Be that as it may, both the agreed guidelines and the concrete recommendations of the sustainable development group showed that the randomly chosen citizens were serious about wanting to anchor sustainability as an overarching guiding principle in German politics. For example, at their final meeting on 20 February, they agreed that Germany should “promote sustainability, climate protection, the right to clean water and the fight against world hunger as a global cross-sectional task (…) and place them at the centre of its political action so that future generations can also live well”. They proposed “enshrining sustainability in the Basic Law” and the “establishment of a sustainability ministry that coordinates, controls and monitors other ministries and ensures transparency”. They also found clear words for prioritising climate protection and for Germany to show “courage to embrace a reorientation towards the common good and end the continuous growth paradigm”. In addition, funds for “development aid” should be increased to 2% of gross national income (currently the rate is 0.6%). In addition, food production should become sustainable worldwide – “even if food prices in Germany rise as a result.”

If we think of the international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sustainability and the reduction of greenhouse gases are central and overarching political goals, and are not exactly new. What is new and encouraging, however, is that the international community’s existing goals, and their consequences for us in Germany seem to enjoy support among the general population, at least when citizens are given the opportunity to discuss them in an informed way. This could increase both the pressure on politicians for the ambitious implementation of these goals and the social legitimacy of sustainability measures in Germany. Despite all the euphoria, however, questions remain about the citizens’ council as an instrument, for example how to strengthen its political weight and how to attract broader public attention to the discussions and conclusions.

The citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” shows the instrument’s potential for searching for solutions oriented towards the common good – both at national and global level. This makes the format directly relevant for international (development) cooperation, because the global common good is the very rationale behind the climate and sustainability agendas. The institutionalisation of citizens’ councils in Germany, especially on sustainability issues, would therefore be a promising way of exerting pressure for the implementation of these international targets. Incidentally, this is also a recommendation of the panel itself: “Germany should (…) use and account for citizen-based, political forums (e.g., citizens’ assemblies) on a permanent basis”. The next citizens’ council that could work for the global common good is already in the starting blocks – the topic: climate.

This post first appeared as The Current Column (2021), Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) on 18 March 2021.

An Odyssey of publishing from a PhD thesis: A Catch-22 of self-plagiarism, or just irresponsible journal editorship?

By Sarah Velten

This is a story about a publication process that went very wrong but eventually came to a happy end – but only after a considerable amount of time and loss of hair out of despair. I tell this story so that other authors who may find themselves in a similar situation can draw on the experiences my co-authors and I have had here, and hopefully also get their paper published against all odds. This account could be particularly interesting for PhD students because this story is about one of my PhD papers. And that was also part of the problem. What is more, there is also a fun element to this story – as one of the co-authors of this paper frequently stated, this whole process would have been quite a slapstick comedy if it had not been so serious.

It all started with the submission of the last paper of my cumulative dissertation. Until then, I had been quite lucky with the publication of all the other papers in my dissertation. Publication had been very swift with reasonable review times and limited requests for changes. Thus, I also had high hopes for this paper when I submitted it to a journal shortly before handing in my complete dissertation. While waiting for the reviewers’ response, I defended my dissertation and was now eager to publish it.

Before doing so, I informed the journal where I had submitted the paper of my intention to publish the original manuscript non-commercially as part of my dissertation. I also asked if there were any copyright issues. The first answer was that it should not be a problem to include the manuscript in my dissertation. I also pointed out that my thesis would be freely accessible online through library web catalogues. Thus, the journal stated that it would be fine to reprint the manuscript in my dissertation, but only after final acceptance of the paper. However, when I received this final statement after a few weeks, I had already submitted my dissertation. After all, the initial response from the journal was that there would not be a problem.

Not long after, the paper came back with rather favourable reviews from three reviewers. My co-authors and I revised the manuscript and sent it back … and were almost immediately told that the paper had to be rejected because of its high similarity to existing publications.

At first, we were puzzled. In searching for the cause of this problem, the journal was not very helpful, as they were reluctant to share the plagiarism check report with us. Nevertheless, we figured out that it was indeed the original manuscript in my PhD thesis that had caused the plagiarism alert. Was I stuck in a Catch-22?

Admittedly, not having waited for the journal’s final decision on the publication of the paper in my thesis was my mistake. Thus, we apologized and explained why the manuscript had already been published. The editor of the journal then informed us that they “prefer publishing original texts, which are not copy-paste products from the web. On the other hand, excerpts from reports, thesis works, etc. are acceptable provided the copy owner will not accuse the publisher for plagiarism.” He also asked us to “resubmit the version [we] would like publishing as a new manuscript”.

Relieved, we resubmitted the revised manuscript, assuming that this would be a mere technicality. But after some time, we learned that the manuscript had been sent out again for review (which, of course, we had not expected, given that it had already been reviewed and revised once before and that the reason for resubmission had nothing to do with the quality of its content). We were asked for minor revisions, revised the paper, sent it back and… were told again (!) that our paper had been rejected because of suspected plagiarism.

We explained everything to the editor of the journal again, and after some back and forth, he informed us that he „finally proposed accepting the text as it stands.” We were very happy, but after the experiences we had had up to that point, we did not truly believe what we were reading.

And rightly so: nothing happened for weeks. Upon enquiry on our part, the editor first claimed that he had understood that we wanted to revise and resubmit the manuscript (no one had ever even mentioned this). Then he claimed technical difficulties as the cause of the delay in publication and promised to look into it. Yet again, the only thing we heard back about the manuscript was extended silence.

I was beginning to despair because a meaningful conversation and conflict resolution with the editorial office seemed impossible. Thus, I tried a higher level and made a request through the publisher’s author support, which, however, could not have been less helpful: My request was redirected to the journal itself. And the journal’s response was – you guessed it – that our manuscript was rejected, without further explanation. I challenged this decision again, but I never received a reply.

By this time, about two years had passed since the manuscript was first submitted and, not for the first time, I was on the verge of giving up. In addition to the confusion and unreliability in communication with the editorial office, there were other issues. For instance, after submission the paper kept sitting on the editor’s desk for months before it was passed on to the reviewers (almost three months after the first submission, five months after the second submission). Also, both times the paper was forwarded only after additional request from our side. And often, the editor only answered requests from the co-authoring senior researcher, while requests from my side remained unanswered.

Yet, there was one last hope. Rather by chance, I had come across the publisher’s ethics reporting contact where you could raise concerns about editorial or publishing matters (and that was lucky enough, because this contact is really hard to find). So, as a last resort, I wrote up the whole story and sent it to this ethics contact, along with copies of all email correspondence, alleging unethical behaviour on the part of the journal.

On the same day (!) I was contacted by an associate publisher who promised to discuss the matter with the editor concerned. Only about ten days later, I was informed that “[t]he content of the article is good for publication and the only reason to reject the paper was the overlap with the thesis. As the thesis contains unpublished work, this should not be considered prior publication. For this reason, the rejection decision will be rescinded.” The only condition was that I would have to include the citation of my dissertation in the manuscript and I should be contacted by the journal for this.

The journal stuck to its former modus operandi and never sent me a request for this minor edit. Thus, after a few weeks of waiting, I wrote again to the associate publisher. And then, truly and finally, our paper was officially accepted for publication, with no further requirements. Now that the manuscript was no longer in the hands of the journal but in the hands of the publisher, publication of the paper was surprisingly swift.

I am very relieved now that this odyssey has come to a happy end. And at the very least, it taught me some lessons: 1) Be very careful about publishing your PhD thesis if it contains papers that have not yet been published. 2) If there are problems that cannot be solved with the editorial office of a journal, get the publisher involved – but do not use the normal author support system for that. 3) Do not give up on a publication lightly, even if it encounters problems.

By the way, the paper concerned presents a case study meta-analysis on the success of collaboratives striving for a more sustainable agriculture and you can find it here.