There is no doubt that science in Serbia just got the worst slap in the face in recent history, worse even than Milosevic’s famous statement that university is as important to him as any agricultural cooperative. Regarding the scandal of the police minister’s PhD, the prime minister said that the argument of the scholars who came out with allegations of plagiarism – is stupid: “I graduated from the state law school with top grades and I thought I knew something about this field, but never in my life have I heard a dumber explanation.” This single sentence encapsulate all that is wrong with today’s Serbian authorities – the arrogance, the willingness to ignore the obvious, delusions of grandeur, vulgarity, and this deep-rooted anger that the prime minister has tried so hard to contain these last few years. To what degree should a man be possessed by his own magnificence and convinced of his own wisdom to believe that, just because he was once a good student, he can reject with a few arrogant words a detailed analysis of three professional researchers? How much self-importance does it take for a man who never went past a bachelor’s degree and who never dealt with science to believe that he is competent to pass judgment on scientific research methodology?
On second thought, maybe Vucic is right. A man doesn’t really need a PhD from the London School of Economics or Goldsmiths College, University of London to understand what is going on here. Every sophomore at any half-decent university should be able to tell if this really is plagiarism. And so Vucic doesn’t need to talk to Srdjan Verbic, a man of science, or Kori Udovicki who got her PhD at Yale and who certainly knows a thing or two about scientific research methodology. Instead, it would be enough if he spoke to his finance minister Lazar Krstic, whose memories of undergraduate s studies are still relatively fresh. As an undergraduate at Yale, Krstic was undoubtedly already in his freshman year familiar with the rule book regulating student behavior, which clearly states that plagiarizing someone else’s work is a serious offense: “Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s work, words, or ideas as if they were one’s own… If one uses a source for a paper, one must acknowledge it.”1 And so on, and so on. This is, therefore, not a guidebook for researchers, but a guide which students get to know already in their first year of studies. Clear as day.
However, perhaps Yale’s standards are too rigorous. So for example, the professor at the Faculty of Political Science who was a member of Stefanovic’s thesis committee, said that Stefanovic was “just paraphrasing” a research of hers and that she doesn’t consider it plagiarism. She added: “We are far below the standards of Oxford and Cambridge. Don’t forget that we had isolation, we had no books, no literature, and these standards have unfortunately dropped. This is why I think it is inappropriate to call this a very poor dissertation.” I can accept the claim that Serbia it is difficult to attain research standards characteristic of the best universities in the world. But this is not about high performance, but rather about respecting the rules that should apply to freshmen. Moreover, at the same Faculty of Political Sciences there is a rulebook which sets identical requirements as the one at Yale. Article 4 of the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Political Science Honor Code says: “Plagiarism, or presenting other people’s ideas or someone else’s work, in whole or in part, without acknowledgement or citation, is an unlawful appropriation of other people’s intellectual production and presenting it as if it was one’s own.” The same article also states that “by committing an act of plagiarism or self-plagiarism the student is making one of the most serious academic offenses.” What is considered plagiarism is discussed in Article 6. These are the following acts:
1) literal appropriation of another author’s text, or copying from electronic or print sources, in Serbian or in a foreign language, in parts or in whole, without specifying the author’s name and the source from which the text was taken, as well as without clearly markings out the appropriated part;
2) paraphrasing or summarizing another author’s text from electronic or print sources, the Serbian or foreign language, in parts or in whole, without specifying the author’s name and the source from which the text was taken, as well as without clearly markings out the paraphrased part;
3) presenting other authors’ ideas by other authors as one’s own, without specifying the author’s name or the source from which the text was taken.2
I am slightly embarrassed of having to play Captain Obvious here – all the more so as the authors of “Getting a PhD in Serbia Has Never Been Easier” were very precise in their analysis – but after the prime minister’s statement it is apparent that in Serbia you have to prove that the sky is blue and that grass is green. From the above it is clear that, if the allegations in the article published by Pescanik are true (and no one tried to deny them), minister Stefanovic’s thesis is really full of plagiarism, not only by some inappropriately high foreign standards, but by universally accepted criteria, which local higher education institutions incorporated in their regulations and of which every scientist in Serbia is aware (if not every gifted high-school graduate). Or perhaps the prime minister will tell us that the Faculty of Political Sciences Honor Code is also stupid?
The nice thing about plagiarism in science is that everything is quite simple and there is not much room for pontificating. As the famous beer advertisements say – you either are or you’re not. Even if we allow that occasional inadvertent blunder with citations can occur, what Grusic, Radeljic and Tomic described in their article was obviously systematic plagiarism. And there is no use thinking up excuses how Stefanovic was, well, “just paraphrasing.” Just last year I initiated disciplinary action against a sophomore for “paraphrasing” far less than Stefanovic.
The responses to accusations offered by the police minister and his attorneys do not merit an in depth comment, since they are nothing but a sequence of nonsense, insults and bureaucratic excuses. So, just a few words about them. First of all, Stefanovic’s mentor claims that the minister had produced an original empirical study with 200 interviewees, and that, therefore, his thesis cannot be plagiarism. Perhaps the minister had really written such a study, perhaps it is written well, but it’s no use: the offenses listed in the analysis of the minister’s thesis are more than sufficient to disqualify the thesis altogether.
Then Stefanovic’s mentor, with the same conceit later exhibited by the prime minister, said that the analysis of the minister’s thesis was written by “so-called experts” and that the whole thing was a political conspiracy. Although the academic qualifications of the authors are clear, one other thing is more important. Whether the authors are scientists or day laborers earning a living picking plums, whether they are on the CIA’s or on Djilas’s payroll – it’s perfectly irrelevant. Their analysis offers precise textual evidence, with page numbers and all, where plagiarism was committed. Their allegations could be refuted only by the same type of analysis – referencing specific sections of the text and their comparison with the sources.3
Next, Stefanovic’s mentor says that there is nothing to check because the committee had already done everything. The argument is, again, pointless. The fact that the committee had not found something does not mean it doesn’t exist.4 But it can mean that the committee has not done its job properly. We already saw that one member of the committee has a very peculiar understanding of plagiarism. Among others there were two foreign experts with serious academic affiliations in the committee (one is a long-time Free University of Berlin professor emeritus, the other a lecturer at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business). However, a rather obvious question must be raised: did the committee members read the thesis, and if so in what language did they read it, since it is not a known fact that they speak Serbian? But even if the committee had done its job in the most conscientious manner, it would not diminish the importance of the objections that were put forward: the allegations from the analysis published by Pescanik can be refuted only by a thorough examination of the contentious passages in the thesis, and this is obviously something Stefanovic and his defenders are not ready to do.
As I see it, there are four possible outcomes of this affair. The first is to conduct a detailed analysis of the minister’s thesis in which specific allegations from Grusic’s, Radeljic’s and Tomic’s article would be credibly refuted. In this case, the police minister deserves an apology, and maybe even some other form of legally allowed satisfaction. Another outcome would be that the university at which the minister defended his thesis accept the findings published by Pescanik, suspend the minister’s PhD and reexamine their own methods of evaluating doctoral dissertations. This would, of course, include the minister’s resignation or dismissal. The third outcome would be that despite serious evidence the university at which the thesis was defended does nothing, but that the government finds a way to sanction the individual who cheated in writing his thesis, and the institution that allowed it to go unpunished. The fourth and the most probable outcome is that nothing happens.
That the fourth outcome is the one most probable is apparent not only from the prime minister’s arrogant statement, but also by the cowardice (this is no time to mince words) of the minister of education who already managed to say how in this case there’s nothing he can do. This is, of course, only one of the bureaucratic excuses we heard many times in regard to higher education scandals. We heard them when it was discovered that the current president somehow managed to graduate, despite simultaneously leading a major political party, despite his former close aides saying they know nothing about his studies, despite the fact that no one ever saw him sitting for an exam or attending a lecture, despite the fact that he himself couldn’t explain what he studied.5 We heard (and we still hear) excuses why after so many years is not possible to convict the people who were filmed taking bribes at the Faculty of Law in Kragujevac.
And I wonder how much longer will we keep hearing such excuses. More specifically, I wonder how much more humiliation in Serbia can the people actually engaged in science take, the people conducting long and complex research in impossible conditions, the people who somehow manage to get hold of relevant literature, the people who don’t steal? How many more suspicious degrees, non-existent or plagiarized PhDs, how many more articles in predatory journals can Serbian science put up with before it simply announces closing time? This is why I think the time for bureaucratic excuses has passed. If the analysis published by Pescanik is correct, and if we want the Serbian scientific community to retain at least some self-respect, then a way must be found to replace Stefanovic and strip him of his PhD. Or will we allow them to look us in the eye and shamelessly explain how a textbook example of plagiarism is not plagiarism?
This last question should first be posed to those people in Vucic’s government with a decent education and serious academic titles. Minister Krstic was able to see what research ethics is. The minister of education is dealing with problems of evaluation in education. The deputy prime minister and minister of economy attended doctoral or post-doctoral studies at outstanding research universities. The question for these people should be: are you embarrassed? Are you embarrassed to sit at the same table where a plagiarist is occupying the seat of police minister? Are you embarrassed to sit in a government where the fight against corruption is managed by a man who got his PhD by cheating? If you are not, then never mind.
The author holds a PhD in comparative literature from Yale, and is currently a researcher at King’s College, Cambridge.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic
- Similar wording from the documents of the London School of Economics and Harvard University were also cited by the authors of “Getting a PhD in Serbia has Never Been Easier: The Case of Minister of Internal Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic.”
- Pravilnik o akademskoj čestitosti studenata Univerziteta u Beogradu Fakulteta političkih nauka. Interestingly, searching for similar documents on Megatrend University, where the thesis was defended, I could not find any mention of plagiarism, but I did find a clause saying that students will be sanctioned if they made public make statements that could harm the university’s reputation.
- After all, in the numerous scandals which Miljenko Dereta cites, plagiarism was discovered mostly by journalists. When the recent findings of the French economist Thomas Piketty were questioned, again by journalists, he replied in the only way possible, with a detailed explanation of his results.
- Stefanovic himself also made excuses that the committee assessed his work positively. Again – pointless. He was as a researcher obliged to respect elementary ethical principles. If he plagiarized, and the committee failed to recognize his offense, this does not reduce his wrongdoing.
- Speaking of credentials, preparing to write this article, I tried to find something out about the academic career of Megatrend rector and Stefanovic’s mentor, professor Jovanovic. His official biography says that he got his first PhD at the University of London in 1983 and then another in Maribor. I admit I found the wording “PhD at the University of London,” curious, as doctoral degrees are generally acquired at individual colleges of this university (professional CV’s usually say that one got his PhD at, say, Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway or Kings College, London, and not “the University of London”). So I tried to find professor Jovanovic’s London doctoral thesis (or at least some mention of it) in all know PhD data bases, and I managed to find nothing. I wouldn’t want to jump to any conclusions, perhaps the thesis just got lost somewhere, but the matter is certainly interesting.