Photo: Predrag Trokicic
Photo: Predrag Trokicic

Now we have a confession. Thus spoke Sinisa Mali: “I will take the consequences and accept the opinion they gave that it was a lapse for the thesis not to quote all the sources”. The confession is flawed, of course, as are the ethics of the one offering it. For as soon as he confessed, Mali carried on: “But, there, I will accept the responsibility for some mistakes that were made, and let’s move on.” That’s responsibility to Mali – you accept it and move on. It is now pointless to ask Mali what this accepting of the responsibility actually means, for he has already moved on.

However, we should get back to the confession, however flawed. It is flawed simply because Mali said that he would accept ‘their opinion’ that it was a lapse that he, Mali, didn’t cite all the sources used. If it was up to him, to Mali, he wouldn’t have deemed it a lapse, because it’s no big deal not to cite all the sources he had used. But, since they insist on calling it a lapse and that he should accept the responsibility for that lapse, he will accept it, as it costs him nothing and he can calmly move on.

So, Mali has no problem with responsibility. It would be a problem for him if instead of a mere lapse, they had found that he had plagiarised his doctoral thesis. That’s why he concluded with relief: “I’m glad that they have confirmed once again that my thesis was not plagiarised, for I know I wrote it, I am confident in my knowledge, I am confident in what I did.” And as to “what they at the University are going to do again”, he added, it actually doesn’t matter. It only matters, Mali repeated, that the Faculty of Organizational Sciences “has confirmed for the third time the same decision that the doctoral thesis was not plagiarised.”

Although the FOS would like to denounce Mali and thus symbolically disown him and his work, Mali and the FOS staff share an important feature – both are ready to move on, that is, away from the discomfort caused by a stolen ‘scientific’ work. Attention was drawn to this similarity precisely by the confession, and that is why it is so important to us here. Mali virtually confirmed that it was true that he had not cited all the sources he took pieces from in his phony scientific work.

The truth is, of course, something more, and just a little more complicated than that – not only did he fail to cite the sources, he didn’t put the sections he “borrowed” under quotation marks. If there were quotation marks, without a reference to the original source, it would indeed be possible to talk about a lapse. It goes the other way around too, if the sources were properly referenced it could be deemed a lapse that there were no quotation marks. But there are no quotation marks and no sources, which undoubtedly points to a conclusion of academic theft. Under years of pressure, Mali has now finally confessed to this theft, even if only partially.

But, as it was partial, in the end it was also irrelevant. For there are no criminal charges being brought against Mali. If there were, it would be reasonable to investigate if there was intent to commit theft. Then his confession would have gained importance. Then it would make sense to punish him, by an admonition or a public condemnation, whichever. But, again, Mali is not on trial. Mali is not important at all. The text is important. And it is a matter of establishing whether that text contains parts from other texts that were not quoted as someone else’s, while those other texts were not even referenced.

It is precisely because it is only the text that matters and not its author, that the Expert committee, Ethics committee, and finally FOS Academic council did not summon Mali to give his statement, which would be necessary if this were a criminal justice process. The intent in this particular occasion to steal someone else’s scientific work is perfectly irrelevant for the entire case. In order to establish plagiarism, the text is the one and only thing needed, and also entirely sufficient. That should make things easier, in principle, but not in this particular case.

The Expert committee, Ethics committee, and FOS Academic council respectively concluded: there are unmarked quotations in Mali’s work. The work references no sources for those quotations. Unmarked quotation + lack of source = plagiarism. It’s that simple. But the Expert committee, Ethics committee and FOS Academic council respectively failed to solve this equation. Just as Mali did, each of these bodies admitted to having made a lapse in the previous round of deliberation, which is now indicated by issuing an admonition or condemnation, whichever, and pleading – let’s move on.

But, if there is something for Mali to move on to, there’s no such thing for the FOS and the University of Belgrade. They are stuck in this single point, in this simple equation, seemingly unsolvable to them, making a loop from which they can’t seem to find an exit. And while Mali is moving on, the FOS and the University run in circles. It turns out it’s easier to issue an admonition or condemnation, whichever, of Mali than to establish that his text was plagiarised. How did this text become so fetishized? How did this text prove to be untouchable, when its author clearly is not?

We believed that the author was the problem. The author must have covered his act of dishonor through his political position. But, here we are: due to lapses sufficient to flag the text as plagiarism, the author is to be issued with an admonition or condemnation, whichever, but the text is not declared plagiarism. Of course, Mali the author couldn’t care less for admonitions or condemnations – to him, as well as to the Expert committee, Ethics committee and FOS Academic council it is only important that the text remains sacrosanct, not declared as plagiarism.

Mali knows this, just as the FOS staff has known for a long time, ever since 2014. It is no longer a question of Mali’s doctoral thesis, it is now a question of survival of the entire institution. If it is so obvious that Mali’s work was plagiarised, how could it ever pass for a doctoral thesis? And if, by some miracle, it did pass why did they keep postponing the correction for five years? It is simple – they can’t declare the work as plagiarism and then move on. On the contrary, the entire institution would be back to square one, questioning the responsibility of each of its members. Even if Mali could easily disregard his responsibility, FOS and the University cannot. FOS and the University would collapse under the admission of plagiarism. The more the decision kept being postponed, the more difficult it became to make it. Mali knew that and waited patiently.

And now, in addition to “genocide”, we have one more taboo word in Serbia – plagiarism. That’s not a coincidence. By banning the use of both words, the current regime gains power and remains in charge. It is sad to watch the FOS staff torturing themselves over words. And it seems it was so simple, all they needed to do was say the word – plagiarism.

Translated by Milica Jovanovic

Pešč, 31.10.2019.

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Dejan Ilić (1965, Zemun), urednik izdavačke kuće FABRIKA KNJIGA i časopisa REČ. Diplomirao je na Filološkom fakultetu u Beogradu, magistrirao na Programu za studije roda i kulture na Centralnoevropskom univerzitetu u Budimpešti i doktorirao na istom univerzitetu na Odseku za rodne studije. Objavio je zbirke eseja „Osam i po ogleda iz razumevanja“ (2008), „Tranziciona pravda i tumačenje književnosti: srpski primer“ (2011), „Škola za 'petparačke' priče: predlozi za drugačiji kurikulum“ (2016), „Dva lica patriotizma“ (2016), „Fantastična škola. Novi prilozi za drugačiji kurikulum: SF, horror, fantastika“ (2020) i „Srbija u kontinuitetu“ (2020).

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