Purging Romania’s PhD plagiarism ‘will take decades’

As investigations into a third Romanian prime minister stall, experts say awareness and consistent policies are needed

April 5, 2022
The Romanian flag. The country is beset by academic integrity issues, some of which have ensnared high-profile politicians
Source: iStock

Nicolae Ciucă is the third Romanian prime minister in a decade to face allegations of doctoral plagiarism. And, despite recent reforms, experts say it could be 30 years before the wider issue is resolved. 

The Romanian investigative journalist and academic at the University of Bucharest, Emilia Şercan, is a major reason why the problem has come to public attention in her country. Her work has exposed two prime ministers, two former internal affairs ministers, two former defence ministers, a health minister and an education minister, among others. 

As a result of her investigations the doctoral school of Romania’s Police Academy has been closed, a national doctoral plagiarism investigation committee has been reintroduced and academic integrity courses are now mandatory at all Romanian universities. 

But despite these reforms, she said it will take decades to fix the problem. “Maybe in 20 years, in 30 years, maybe then things will be changed, but this will happen [across] generations and [through] changing the mentality and procedures and laws and even people in some specific positions,” she said.

Her most recent case, concerning prime minister Nicolae Ciucă, illustrates the limits of legal approaches to addressing the issue. Dr Ciucă has filed a civil case to appeal three anonymous complaints against his 2003 dissertation. The investigating committee’s work is also blocked by a parallel investigation by Romania’s top prosecutors, who have seized the original copies of the dissertation held by his university and the national library. “They took all the copies and all the original documents,” said Dr Şercan. Dr Ciucă was approached by Times Higher Education to respond to the allegations.

Andrei Terian is vice-rector for research, innovation and internationalisation at Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, also in Romania, and a member of the steering committee for the European University Association’s Council for Doctoral Education.  

“Plagiarism shouldn’t be decided in a court of law,” he said. “It’s enough…that our community of specialists unanimously agrees upon the fact that this is plagiarism and that this researcher is not welcome in our community,” he said, referring to the issue in general. “This is perhaps the strongest mechanism, stronger than committees and courts and administrative structures.” 

Professor Terian said the academic community and wider public “need to be continuously aware of the fact that plagiarism is a serious issue, not only for doctoral studies but for the entire Romanian academia and for the entire Romanian society”. 

Alexander Hasgall, the head of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education, said plagiarism was now an “important sensitivity” at doctoral training centres across Europe. As well as providing training and creating structures detached from the supervisor-candidate relationship, universities must improve public understanding of the problem, he said. 

 “It's important to think about how a public can productively discuss plagiarism cases given the fact that we all depend on [the] views of experts in a certain research field,” he said. “It’s important to focus on the research-related question of the plagiarism case and to separate this from political discussions. Being sensitive to the context is important.”

In the past month, Romanian parliamentarians have made two attempts at introducing a plagiarism amnesty for doctoral theses defended before 2011, which Professor Terian said was an unhelpful approach. “A zero-tolerance policy should be a non-negotiable item on the government’s agenda,” he said. 

While he said Dr Şercan’s estimate of the decades needed to finally fix the issue was “valid”, he said he was optimistic change “could be significantly speeded up” if the government had a coherent policy of patching legal loopholes and the community was united in condemnation. 


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