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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bucharest gets more like Budapest

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been accused in a highly respectable international scientific journal – Nature (based in London) - of copying large sections of his 2003 PhD thesis in law from previous publications, without proper reference. A third PM resignation in 4 months could result. 
Ponta, leader of the Romanian Social Democratic Party, took office as prime minister only last month, replacing a Prime Minister who had only been in power for 3 months following protests against austerity measures.
Ponta’s defence so far has consisted of denial; saying that Law Doctorates require a lot of pasting and source-referencing (but this is true of all doctorates); that he may have failed to observe the correct referencing system; that the doctorate is worthless to him and that he will be happy to resign it.
The allegations are also raising fresh doubts about the government’s ability to tackle corruption in the higher-education system. Education and Research Minister Prof. Ioan Mang was forced to resign for plagiarism last month on accusations of plagiarising in 8 articles; this is still under investigation by The National Committee of Ethics in Research. And Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania's 39 year-old Head Prosecutor, and close to President Basescu, is also accused of having plagiarized her PhD thesis. 
Government measures to make the country’s struggling science and education system more competitive and transparent were proposed recently, but the plans met ferocious opposition from large parts of the academic establishment, and were substantially relaxed by the current government.
Ponta obtained his PhD from the University of Bucharest while acting as Secretary of State in the government of an earlier prime minister, Adrian Năstase — who was also his PhD supervisor; faces 7 charges ofcorruption; and who was sentenced recently to a 2 year jail sentence  

These are the bare facts – but the case is not straightforward -
  • Ponta was undoubtedly one of the few Romanian experts in his field (international penal code) 
  • he did not have the time then to undertake serious research work on top of his other commitments (eg State Sec)
  • It is almost 10 years ago that Ponta was awarded his PhD. Why is the accusation surfacing only now?
  • The thesis was published as a book in 2010 – with the foreward written by one of the people from whom Ponta is accused of plagiarising
  • there is a possibility that the person plagiarised was in fact also plagiarising!
  • Nature is a highly respected international scientific journal (started in 1869) which does not normally go for political “scoops”. An article about standards in Romanian Academia would have been highly appropriate after the resignation of the Education Minister (and the widespread concerns about the purchase here of Degrees) but no such article was written – instead a rather superficial and biased scoop about the Prime Minister. Why and who pointed the journal to the issue?
  • The Romanian President (Basescu) is a hyperactive paranoid who had Ponti foisted on him. It is highly plausible that he is behind the story seeing the possibility of killing three birds with one stone – getting rid of Ponta; smearing the social democrats just before the upcoming parliamentary elections; and bringing the reform of the higher education issue back on the agenda.
  • A respected foreign scientific journal was chosen simple because the local media are simply no longer trusted here. 
Comments on the article on the website have been extensive (more than 100) and give a good insight into life and attitudes here in Romania. Everyone has an opinion – only a couple of the comments suggest that more evidence is needed and most involve complex rants.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that –
  • Ponta is undoubtedly guilty of plagiarism – the casual nature of his comments demonstrate the mentality of the political class here. The article in question says - Members of Romania’s post-communist elite — including many politicians — have been eager to acquire academic credentials. In the view of some critics, a number of private and public universities in the country are consequently degenerating into ‘degree mills’ that care little about the quality or novelty of the knowledge that they produce, and which are a breeding ground for academic plagiarism.
  • The higher education system is indeed deeply corrupted
  • "Nature" should indeed be ashamed of the way they have dealt with the issue – the story should have been a more substantive one (and perhaps after the results of the National Committee of Ethics in Research investigation) with Ponta merely being an example. Now the issue is completely politicised
  • In his few weeks in power, however, Ponta shows every sign of being a pupil of the control freak in Hungary, Victor Orban. Two days after the Education Minister resigned, the National Committee of Ethics in Research was fired for 'incompetence' reasons. The new Ethics Committee has been accused of being composed mainly of personnel closely related to the prominent SDP member and former Minister Prof. Ecaterina Andronescu. And his government has just politicised the highly respected Romanian Institute of Culture by transferring it from the Presidency to the Senate.
This last move is bad enough -  but it is the way in which it was done that really stinks - an emergency ordinance! It's a major story in itself which you can read more about here.  
Paul Dragos Aligica, a Romanian political scientist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia sums up the plagiarism issue - 
“One could almost feel pity for all these guys who have power and money, and who are now craving intellectual recognition. Unfortunately these incidents just add to the disrepute of Romanian academic standards and create extra pressure that real Romanian scholars and scientists will now have to fight against.”

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