On Friday, October 3rd, 2014, the media reported that the new commission of Megatrend University released a report regarding the plagiarism accusations and the PhD revocation procedure for minister Nebojsa Stefanovic’s doctorate. The headline summarizing the commission’s conclusion was almost identical everywhere: “Independent commission says doctorate is not plagiarized”. However, in the report, the commission didn’t rule on whether Stefanovic’s doctorate is plagiarism. Nor, incidentally, is the commission independent: it is only external.
What, then, did this external commission decide? It determined wisely that there is no need to launch the procedure for investigating the charges of plagiarism. Four months after we provided evidence of plagiarism and other deficiencies in Stefanovic’s dissertation, and after a whole month of studying the case, this new – the second – Megatrend commission sent a dismissive message to the public: we have decided not to decide! In a detailed report consisting seven grandiose paragraphs, a little over a page long, professors Bozidar Lekovic, Svetislav Tabarosi and Ivan Radosavljevic offered the following argument: “the opponents’” (so, this is the trick) analysis is based on a thesis draft rather than the final dissertation of Mr Stefanovic.
There are two flaws in this line of reasoning of the external commission. First, the doctoral thesis which we analyzed in the article on Pescanik is the final thesis of minister Stefanovic. Again, Megatrend University itself provided it to the reporter Andjela Milivojevic, based on her request for access to information of public importance, which she possesses undeniable evidence for. The thesis was requested nine months after the doctorate was awarded. It was hard bound and filed in Megatrend’s library, where no essays, drafts, early or temporary versions are kept. No modifications of the work are allowed after the doctorate is declared official – if a commission has objections to the thesis, it returns the paper for minor or major reviews before proclaiming it successfully defended. Hence surprises the following statement of the Megatrend external commission: “It is customary for a candidate to somewhat modify the final version of the thesis, the one that he usually makes public, taking into account the comments and suggestions given during the viva”. If this is the common practice indeed – that’s a case for the Ministry of Education’s inspection. If such a practice was allowed, then every PhD holder could correct the final version of the thesis in a post-hoc manner, in accordance with own interests, and no plagiarism could be sanctioned, because, after the discovery, everyone can edit or remove the illegal theft.
Another flaw in the external commission’s line of reasoning is the following: even if we analyzed a draft, temporary, imperfect, an incomplete version of the doctorate which Megatrend gave to Mrs Milivojevic “by mistake”, the “final” version also includes all of the plagiarism either. As professor Danica Popovic confirmed in her column in Politika, all the plagiarism is still “alive and well” in the new version of the doctorate (which was brought up by Megatrend University two weeks after the accusations had been made on Pescanik); some of them have only been moved to other pages. However, Megatrend’s external commission, unlike the first internal one, decided not to check this.
Instead, the external commission offered the following argument: “The Commission has observed that the [final version] contains certain formal deficiencies… By carefully analyzing the content, scope and relative importance of the disputed parts of the text for the whole thesis, the commission has taken the position that they cannot be the basis, in accordance with the regulations, for initiating the PhD revocation procedure based on the work’s originality.” Staggeringly, the commission didn’t find it necessary to explain what the “formal deficiencies” they have found are, and why those are deemed relatively insignificant, but expects us to take their word for it. Put differently, the report is unsubstantiated for is does not investigate any example of plagiarism.
Let us now observe the context and chronology of minister Stefanovic’s plagiarism case.
The first reaction to the evidence of plagiarism was that we are part of a conspiracy against the government, the minister and the police, and that, in collusion with and in the interest of the mafia, we are trying to prevent the impending reforms. The aim of these charges, according to which a group of scholars from the UK is accused of an attempted coup d’etat, was manifold: to offer some sort of defense of minister Stefanovic, but also to intimidate us (the authors of the text).
However, one verifiable fact had been disregarded here: the journalist Andjela Milivojevic asked for insight into the doctoral dissertation of Nebojsa Stefanovic even before he got appointed. How, then, could we have planned undermining of upcoming police overhauls, when at that time Mr Ivica Dacic was in charge of this department? In addition, if we pointed out Minister Stefanovic’s plagiarism in order to forestall reforms in his sector, what interest did drive us in pointing out plagiarism in Aleksandar Sapic’s [an opposition politician, mayor of New Belgrade; member of Democratic Party] dissertation? To prevent reforms in his municipality?
Prime Minister’s anecdotal reaction is now widely known: “Never in my life have I heard a dumber explanation.” As Aleksandar Stevic rightly notices in his subsequent article on Pescanik, Mr. Vucic dared “reject a detailed analysis of three professional researchers with no more than a few arrogant words, just because he had been a good student, a while ago”. We do not deny that Mr. Vucic, during the little more than six years of study at the University of Belgrade (1988-1994, according to the website of the Law School), acquired general knowledge of the law of SFRY and FRY, as a probably successful student and later a decent lawyer. However, he has never done scientific research that would result in a published article or book (Vucic’s reviews of Mr Seselj’s books, unfortunately, can’t be taken as scientific endeavor). A month later, in the TV show “Stav Srbije”, Mr. Vucic said that he read Stefanovic’s doctorate, suggesting it is a “good thesis”, which again showed his tendency to act an arbiter in matters beyond his competence.
These statements by Vucic in fact represented the verdict that all future internal and external commissions must make. What followed has been a pitiful protraction, mockery of higher education, erosion of the rule of law, and also a slap in the face of honest citizens, graduates and current students. And we don’t just mean the epilogue of minister Stefanovic’s plagiarism case. Here we also refer to not sanctioning the lies of minister’s mentor Mr Mica Jovanovic, who claimed to hold a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, the inability of the Union University to summon a commission to investigate our findings that Aleksandar Sapic’s dissertation is plagiarized and the shameful (non)response of the Faculty of Organizational Sciences (FON) and the University of Belgrade about the findings of professor Rasa Karapandza that Sinisa Mali’s [Belgrade mayor] dissertation is plagiarized and the recent withdrawal of Mr. Mali’s co-authored journal article by DeGruyter, a German publisher, because of plagiarism. We consider this decision of Megatrend’s external commission to be one of the many acts of the Serbian academic tragedy.
Academic institutions should have represented defense against such developments, but they have proved unworthy of their formal status in the society. We primarily refer to the University of Belgrade, which, despite the decision of its Senate, failed to ensure the formation of a truly independent and impartial commission to evaluate the plagiarism allegations through the Conference of Universities of Serbia. The reactions of other institutions, such as the Ministry of Education, the National Council for Higher Education and the Accreditation Commission only demonstrate that the rule of law or genuine concern about the higher education don’t play a role here.
This, fortunately, does not mean that the academic communities from Serbia and the diaspora have failed. A number of honorable professors, teaching assistants, researchers and students publicly stood up to the corruption in higher education. The multitude of scientists who joined the protest against dodgy degrees – the intellectuals who spoke out in their press columns as well as about 1,800 members of the academic community who signed a petition for minister Stefanovic’s dissertation to be analyzed by a credible, independent and impartial commission, shows that, despite the overwhelming political control over the universities, many still refuse to stand aside silently observing the destruction of the Serbian higher education system.
The case of plagiarism of minister Stefanovic is not closed yet. We believe that a time will come when the circumstances will allow for a truly impartial, independent and professional analysis, not only of the content of his dissertation, but also how was he allowed to gain a PhD before a commission whose one of the members (Snezana Djordjevic) was physically absent and two other members (Sung-Jo Park, and Jean-Jacques Sanaron) do not understand Serbian. And, of course, we should not forget that the fourth member of the commission (the mentor) subsequently had to resign his position of Rector of Megatrend, because he was impersonating himself as an LSE PhD.
In conclusion, no matter what some wish for, the case of the “doctor minister” is not closed.
Ugljesa Grusic, PhD, University of Nottingham
Branislav Radeljic, PhD, University of South London
Slobodan Tomic, London School of Economics and Political Science
Translated by Marijana Simic