Thursday, May 16, 2013

Plagiarism in Romanian academia

The summer of 2012 was a  very hot one in Romania, and I am not talking    only about  temperatures  frequently  passing 40 degrees Celsius (triple digits Fahrenheit). There was a change precipitous of government, the local election were overwhelmingly won   by the new  political coalition,  and  one could hear  louder and persistent  calls  to impeach Traian Basescu,  the President.

The population was (and is) fed-up with the  economic hardship   made  substantially worse by  the egregious  mismanagement and  rampant  corruption of the previous governance. Traian Basescu was and is regarded as embodying  that corruption.


Outside Romania, very high officials in Hungary and Germany were accused of plagiarism and  had to resign.   On May 15, 2012, Ioan Mangu, the Romanian Minister of Education   had to resign due to accusations of plagiarism. He  was replaced by Liviu Pop as temporary Minister of Education.   Remember his name because this character  will appear again in our story.

In the spring and summer of 2012  Victor Ponta represented  the country's hope for better days.  Born in 1972, he is the first  Romanian leader   without   an institutional memory of Communism.  The only  passing shadow on the overwhelming  popularity Ponta was enjoying in June of 2012  was Adrian Nastase's   attempted suicide  a few hours before he was to start his jail sentence.  Mr. Nastase is a former Prime Minister,  fading eminence grise of the Romania's left,  Ponta's political  mentor and doctoral adviser.

This is when the allegations  of  Ponta's plagiarism  exploded on the scene. The immediate reactions were predictable and ran the whole gamut: this is a political witch hunt, he should resign,   we have more pressing   issues to worry about. None of these points of view can be easily dismissed because they reflect undeniable  experiences.

 I will  try to stay away as much as possible from the political  ramifications of this accusation of plagiarism and  discuss the  academic aspects of it.

The plagiarism is the ultimate sin in Academia, and has to be dealt with promptly and  seriously. This is what  CNATDCU  believed  and decided to act. (The CNATDCU  acronym refers  to a governmental council  charged with the accreditation of academic  degrees and diplomas of all kinds.)  This is when all hell broke loose.

 On  June 29 2012  CNATDCU  issued  an official   statement confirming the copy-paste nature of Mr. Ponta's dissertation.  Well, it's not that simple.  A day before, on June 28,   Minister  Liviu Pop  issued  an order disbanding this Council and changing its attributions. The  order  was officially published two hours after the Council made its public statement concerning the plagiarism.  It turned out that  things were  much uglier under the surface.

On the evening of June 28 2012  Liviu Pop,  interrupted  the CNATDCU debates,  and  gave  the participants a cease-and-desist order.    Mr. Viorel Barbu, one of the participants at those debates,  Vice-President  of the Romanian Academy, member of the European Academy of Sciences and arguably one of the most influential Romanian mathematicians, officially protested this arbitrary decision and  had a heated  exchange with Liviu Pop widely reported in the press. (For disclosure, Viorel Barbu  is one of my  former  college professors and is one  of the  people who had a  tremendous positive transformative influence  on my becoming a mathematician.)

A few days later  Mr. Viorel Barbu issued an official statement, partially reproduced below.

"This Council legally expressed  an opinion, and it was abusively disbanded.  This is an egregious abuse of Power given that I and my colleagues  have investigated the allegations of plagiarism of Prime Minister Ponta and we have offered evidence  that it was a clear case of "copy-paste".  It is inadmissible  that the members of this committee be threatened with criminal prosecution by a minister of  the Ponta  cabinet. "

Soon after that, Mr. Barbu resigned  its position as  head of the local section  of the Academy.  The media attacks against Mr. Barbu  became so poisonous that  University "Al. I. Cuza", where Mr. Barbu is Professor Emeritus,   sought to intervene.  On July 5, 2012,  the university  Senate issued an official declaration  supporting Mr.  Barbu.

Mr. Barbu is a person who shuns media spotlight, and his intervention  was  motivated purely by his desire to defend  the principle of academic  integrity. That did not do him any  good.  

More disappointingly, some  influential members of  Romanian Intelligentsia   who  normally seek the media spotlight and  always find  a public platform  to air  their   opinions were  quiet or  dismissive of the whole plagiarism incident.  I will mention here two names, well known in Romanian circles.  

One is Mrs. Zoe Petre, a politically connected, distinguished professor of  history, member of the Romanian Academy. When asked her opinion about plagiarism  she  commented that  "it is difficult to believe that the five members of the doctoral  committee were that naive   to accept a plagiarized  dissertation". (One of the sources plagiarized by Mr. Ponta is a book written by one of the members of his doctoral committee.)

The other person I would like to mention is Mr. Andrei Marga, currently the head of the Romanian Culture Institute.  When asked his opinion, he deflected the question by pointing to other unnamed cases of plagiarism.  He also hinted  that   the Romanian legislature is not very clear on the definition of     plagiarism. Two years  earlier, in a newspaper interview, Mr. Marga was less shy on what he believes constitutes plagiarism  and the  dangers this phenomenon poses. It should be required reading  for anybody confused about this issue.

If you are a young Romanian at the beginning of her academic  career, what  would you make of these events?  Influential public figures such as Zoe Petre and Andrei Marga  turn a blind eye, while a Vice-President of the Academy who took a stand for academic integrity was tarred and feathered in the media. What's a poor schmuck to expect?

I was personally disappointed  and genuinely  worried by the opinions I heard in private exchanges with some members of my hometown intelligentsia. The amount of profanity  and  baseless accusations  thrown at Mr. Barbu  were well beyond I would call acceptable in an intelligent debate. The sense I had  was that plagiarism was so prevalent in the system, they became imune  to its occurrence and they were telling me in so many words, "you should get used to it buddy".

To its credit, the University of Bucharest, the institution that  awarded Mr. Ponta the title of doctor, met soon after these  tumultuous events and  investigated the accusations of plagiarism and concluded   that  the Prime Minister dissertation was indeed plagiarized. Alas, in Romania  things are not as simple as say in US. Legally the title  of doctor is  conferred  not  by the university where you attended the doctoral program, but by the Ministry of Education.    In  September 2012,  the University of Bucharest sent a report to the Ministry of Education  with  the recommendation that  Mr. Ponta should be  deprived  of the title of  Doctor.    Ecaterina Andronescu,  Minister of Education  at that time,  wanted to stay as far away from this report as possible.  (I turned out  she  was also involved in a plagiarism scandal  of her own.  She's now blacklisted by several influential scientific publications.)

The reply from the Ministry came only in  March of 2013, only after it was threatened with a lawsuit by  the newspaper Gandul. Mr. Ponta gets to keep his title because, according to the ministry experts, there was no plagiarism.

Also, the Romanian Parliament, in its infinite wisdom,  modified  the existing law which allowed universities to rescind degrees in proven   unethical violations. Under the new law,  a university  has to   initiate a lawsuit and go through the courts.

Some would  say that this battle was lost. That may well be the case.  However, I do believe that some good came out of Ponta plagiarism scandal. The subject  of plagiarism  in Romanian academia finally got  a lot of attention. The stigma attached  to  this type of behavior  is  hitting closer and closer to home.  I personally hope that  intellectuals  that are not outraged by this will understand that the only power an intellectual  has in society is the power of persuasion.  This power is effective when  it is backed by credibility, and the tolerance of plagiarism is a credibility buster.

Ultimately there is no immediate or easy solution to this problem. One has to be  constantly on guard, draw public attention to cases of plagiarism, and help grow the  public opprobium towards  this activity. Plagiarism should be perceived as so  shameful and so degrading that the cost of committing or condoning it would be too high to  make it an acceptable  choice.

The new web initiative hosted  by  Integru.org  seems to me an important first step in the right direction.  If you are one of the  three  readers of my blog who  has  academic expertise, please volunteer your services at Integru.org  It is important to put the fear of God into intellectual thieves.

Intellectuals living and working in Romania take a lot of personal  risks  defending academic  integrity. Intellectuals outside  Romania, and especially the intellectuals in the Romanian diaspora can do a lot  to help them. This is my first attempt to contribute to this  process. It won't be the last.

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