A one-woman crusade has turned Romania’s tide of plagiarism

Emilia Şercan has exposed a vast array of senior public officials for plagiarising their theses, writes Július Kravjar

March 27, 2022
A wave on the Black Sea coast, Romania, symbolising Romanian plagiarism
Source: iStock

In Romania, doctoral graduates who work in the field in which their degree was awarded have been legally entitled to a pay supplement since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It is hardly surprising, then, that demand for doctorates shot up – and shortcuts to obtaining them proliferated. Nepotism, plagiarism and other outrages against academic integrity flourished, and it can be said doctorate factories were established.

Yet after two decades of increasingly steep rises, the annual number of PhD awards suddenly fell off a cliff in 2012. So what happened?

The short answer is Emilia Şercan. This University of Bucharest lecturer and investigative journalist has done superhuman work uncovering dubious practices and bringing academic integrity back into the spotlight.

As an academic, she is interested in techniques for gathering information, with a focus on the communist press, communist censorship and propaganda. As a journalist, she has exposed a vast array of senior public officials for plagiarising their theses. They include prime ministers, advisors and other ministers (including health, interior, defence and education), members of parliament, civil servants, army generals, police chiefs, secret service bosses, prosecutors, judges and even the chief of the general anticorruption directorate.

Many of these degrees were issued by Romania’s three military universities, the Police Academy, the National Defence University and the National Intelligence Academy. Between 2002 and 2007, these institutions established four doctorates that do not correspond to any internationally recognised science, in fields such as “national security”, “public order” and “military sciences”. The Intelligence Academy, for instance, found on investigation that 42 out of a total of 85 doctoral dissertations that it issued between 2010 and 2017 were plagiarised.

In other cases, Şercan has presented evidence of corruption that involved not only doctoral candidates but also their supervisors and even the doctoral reviewers.

Predictably, such work has made her a constant target for intimidation and denigration campaigns. Most notoriously, in 2019, she received a text message that told her to “stop all actions that you are currently undertaking…if you don’t want an ordeal to follow”.

A police investigation found that the sender was a police officer employed by the Police Academy, which Şercan was investigating and exposing. The officer admitted his guilt but said he had been asked to intimidate Şercan by the academy’s rector, Adrian Iacob, whom Şercan had recently accused of plagiarising 70 per cent of his PhD thesis. Iacob and his deputy resigned and received suspended prison sentences last year. They were also ordered to pay compensation to Şercan.

Meanwhile, Şercan continued to badger the authorities to close the Police Academy’s doctoral factory, and in 2020, the minister of education suspended the academy’s right to conduct doctoral education. Its parent ministry, internal affairs, officially abolished its doctoral school last year. 

The “system” that produced such enormous numbers of doctorates still throw logs under Şercan’s feet, but she will not be intimidated. And her tireless efforts have resulted in many other positive changes in Romanian higher education. The criteria for enrolling on doctoral courses and for defending doctoral theses are now much stricter; as a result, many doctoral dissertations have recently been failed by Romanian universities for poor quality.

In 2016, a national committee for checking plagiarism allegations in doctoral theses was re-established, having been abolished in 2012; so far, its work has resulted in more than 60 doctoral titles being withdrawn. And, since 2018, academic integrity courses have been mandatory in all Romanian universities, on the orders of the minister of education.

And, last July, Şercan spoke out against an initiative of the Minister of Education to change the law that regulates sanctions for plagiarism cases. She initiated an open letter to Romania's president, Klaus Iohannis, complaining that the changes would "irreversibly jeopardize the efforts of academia to promote ethics and integrity". After it had garnered more than 700 signatures, the president issued a press release expressing “zero tolerance for any deviation from the culture of integrity” and asking the minister “to take into account the concerns and risks...and to act accordingly”.

In 2019, Şercan won the European Network for Academic Integrity’s award for services to academic integrity, and it was richly deserved. When corruption is rampant, it is easy for honest people to feel powerless. Şercan’s success shows that with determination and courage, individuals still can change the system for the better.

Július Kravjar is a board member of the European Network for Academic Integrity. 

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