Concerns about plagiarism keep Romania’s brightest abroad

26 Jul 2023 | News

Despite government efforts to lure the science diaspora back home, many researchers are not convinced Romania can improve its scientific culture and move past the reputational damage done by a series of high-level plagiarism cases

Former research minister Sebastian Burduja speaking to Romanian researchers at the Smart Diaspora conference in April

During an awards gala in May at the Palace of the Parliament, a room packed with over 200 of Romania's brightest students who were studying abroad was put to a colourful test. With the call of the then research minister Sebastian Burduja to "give back to the country" still lingering in the air, the students were asked to lift coloured post-it notes to express their plans for the future.

Yellow signalled a desire to stay abroad, red indicated uncertainty, and blue showed an intention to return home. The room erupted in a sea of red, suggesting Romania's brightest are unsure of their path forward. Amid the uncertainty, a sprinkling of blue emerged, but this was drowned out by the more prominent yellow notes of those who had resolved to forge their futures abroad.

The gala took place in mid-May, just a couple of weeks after Burduja announced €150 million in funding directed at convincing the Romanian scientific diaspora to return to the country. And it was two weeks before former minister of internal affairs, Lucian Bode, received a “not-plagiarised” verdict on his PhD thesis from a national ethics committee.

While the three events may not seem connected, the latter is perhaps key to understanding why so few Romanian students studying abroad have decided to return home and why initiatives aimed at the Romanian science diaspora are likely to fail. Of course, a major factor is simply money and reputation:  a post as a researcher at Cambridge or Boston is hard to pass up. But another factor is that many Romanian expats simply do not want to come back to a culture they believe tolerates plagiarism, academics tell Science|Business.

“At my university in Vienna, plagiarism is punished, and this matters to me”, says one of the winners of the student gala, Gabriela Ciolacu, who just completed a master’s degree at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and will pursue a PhD on artificial intelligence in Germany.

Ciolacu was born into a family of university professors, and she has experience with the education systems in both Romania and the Republic of Moldova. She decided not to study in either of them, preferring a system that offered transparency on grades, teacher feedback, and her class ranking. “Yes, there is plagiarism everywhere, but here I feel comfortable that teachers always check homework for plagiarism, and there is even a plagiarism checker offered as a free service by the student league,” Ciolacu said.

Copy and paste

While this attitude might seem straight forward at a student level in Vienna, things are not so clear in Romania, where a slew of politicians like Bode have been confronted with plagiarism accusations about their PhD dissertations.

Opposition MPs first flagged potential plagiarism issues with Bode’s PhD dissertation, which was later analysed by investigative journalist Emilia Șercan, who reported Bode had copy-pasted nearly 20% of his dissertation, without clearly citing sources and even claiming authorship over stolen charts.

An experienced investigative journalist, Șercan has been writing about high-level plagiarism cases over the past few years and she has pointed to a number of plagiarised dissertations, mostly authored by politicians. She now teaches a course on ethics in academia at the University of Bucharest.

Bode defended his thesis, “Energy security and resource management at the beginning of the 21st century. Romania in the current European context”, in 2018 at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca (UBB). Șercan’s report  prompted the university’s ethics committee to review the dissertation. The committee issued a statement saying that only 3% of the text was plagiarised and acknowledged quotation “issues”.

Under public pressure, the university reviewed the thesis again - in its entirety. It then concluded, "the suspicions of plagiarism are mostly confirmed" and "the ethical deviations found are significant enough to conclude that the thesis is deeply flawed."

Bode filed multiple lawsuits against the university and against the national ethics committee, an advisory body working under Burduja’s research ministry. The courts rejected a few of Bode’s claims, but three more rulings are still pending this autumn.

The national ethics committee determined that Bode had not plagiarised his dissertation but that doesn’t satisfy many in the research world. Octavian Voiculescu, a Romanian scientist working at Cambridge University. “When the [plagiarism] case concerns a politician, and especially a minister, it is obvious that these committees and commissions do not even have credibility in what they say,” he said.

As a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, Voiculescu is one of the diaspora who always keeps an eye on what is going on in his home country, which he left 30 years ago. He says that plagiarism is seriously affecting Romania’s reputation abroad. “Universities are losing credibility. Each of their graduates is increasingly viewed with suspicion by the rest of the world,” he said. However, while the scientists in the Romanian diaspora look on, they “find that the same episode is being replayed, the same absurd play - with actors who are interchangeable,” said Voiculescu.

A string of high-level plagiarism cases

The case of Bode is only the latest plagiarism case. In 2022, Șercan also reported that then prime minister Nicolae Ciucă copied over 40 pages of his PhD dissertation which he defended in 2003 at the Carol I National Defence University. Ciucă subsequently obtained  a court decision that cancelled the three complaints filed to verify suspicions of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis.

Bode and Ciucă have not answered requests for comment by Science|Business.

Bode’s predecessor, former minister of internal affairs and deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea, was reported by Șercan to have copy -pasted paragraphs from books written by his PhD coordinator Nicolae Volonciu. Oprea had also served as PhD coordinator for tens of candidates, some of whom were later suspected of copying their material from other sources. (Oprea was later forced to resign after he had an official motorcade for personal business and a police officer in the convoy crashed his motorbike and died).

But no plagiarism case echoed so far as the one in 2012, featuring Victor Ponta, Romania’s prime minister at the time. Vlad Martinuși, a visiting lecturer at the Israel Institute of Technology, had an unwilling front-seat view to the entire drama, when he had his PhD reviewed in the same session as when Ponta’s PhD was being reviewed after claims of plagiarism. 

In 2012, the journal Nature published an article accusing Ponta of copying more than half of his 432-page thesis, citing information from an anonymous source. The thesis was submitted for a review to the National Council for the Accreditation of University Degrees, Diplomas and Certificates (CNATDCU), on 29 June 2012 — the same day that Martinuși’s own thesis was supposed to be reviewed. In a statement sent to Nature at the time, the Romanian government said the accusations were “trumped up”.

CNATDCU concluded that Ponta had copied 85 pages word for word, but the committee's powers to do anything about it had by then been weakened by a restructuring implemented by the same government that Ponta was in charge of. 

While waiting for his own PhD confirmation, Martinuși had left the country, taking an academic position in Israel, after a short academic employment in Romania. He says he decided to move because of the “widespread corruption, academic dishonesty, communist mentality, inversion of values and lack of stable personal and professional prospects.”

Now as a lecturer in Israel, Martinuși says he is “flourishing in his mid-forties,” finally being given the liberty to do research and guide students to the best of his ability without any worry of unethical pressures. Martinuși says he has no intention of returning to Romania and that he has been disconnected from Romania’s academic integrity scandals ever since. 

Vlad Niculescu Dincă is an assistant professor at the University of Leiden but has not detached himself from Romania, having founded a Romanian STEM school and a Romanian library corner in the Netherlands. He has also spearheaded a pro-science proclamation in Romania, asking for more funds to be given to science engagement.

But the plagiarism issue also gives him pause. “The problem of plagiarism is systemic in Romania, starting perhaps as early as elementary and high school,” he said. Dincă says he left his home country for the Netherlands “to experience an academic environment that values quality education, and there I discovered an emphasis on academic integrity.”

New government push

The Romanian government hopes that a budget of €168 million might make researchers abroad such as Dincă, Martinuși, Voiculescu and Ciolacu change their minds about returning home.

A recently-launched government initiative invited Romanian researchers abroad to submit applications to receive funding to lead research projects in Romania. “We expect these researchers, through their previous experience, to open up new research directions or add to existing ones, form strong research groups, attract other researchers from abroad, and last but not least, attract researchers in training and new research funding”, says the official description of its objectives.

After a first round of financing, the largest budget was awarded to Babeș-Bolyai University: €17 million for twelve projects. When asked what is the main driver of the university’s success, rector Daniel David said it “implement[s] the set of international academic best practices very well, and international researchers feel [the university] is a valuable university in this world.”

However, Babeș-Bolyai is not a stranger to plagiarism cases, given it awarded Bode’s PhD. David says, “Even the world's most renowned universities have had cases of plagiarism. But what is important is how widespread it is as an academic practice and how you deal with it when it occurs.” He added that “Looking at the large number of international students in representative Romanian universities, I dare say that at least there the reputation is not affected in a major way.”

The budget for the funding-scheme aimed at researchers from abroad has 28% still left unallocated. A second round of funding was announced on 26 June 2023.

Science|Business asked the research ministry for comment and has not received a reply.

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