Asmara, Eritrea 2015, photo: Wikimedia/Sailko
Asmara, Eritrea 2015, photo: Wikimedia/Sailko

Siniša Mali obtained his PhD “Value Creation through the Process of Restructuring and Privatisation – Theoretical Concepts and Achieved Results in Serbia” at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Organizational Sciences (FOS) in 2013. He originally submitted his thesis at the faculty where he studied, the Faculty of Economics, but his work was rejected. Mali then modified it and submitted it to the FOS. Dragan Đuričin, one of the members of the commission which accepted Mali’s thesis at FOS, actually claims that Mali wrote two doctorates, one which was rejected at the Faculty of Economics and one that was accepted by the FOS. Submitting one the same thesis at two faculties is forbidden and the Faculty of Economics never published Mali’s original thesis nor the reasons why it was rejected, so it remains unclear if these were different theses. Mali stated that he wrote the thesis for 3 years, which would mean that he concurrently wrote two theses.

In July 2014 the website “Peščanik” claimed that Mali had plagiarized at least one third of his Ph.D. thesis. Raša Karapandža, finance professor at the EBS University of Business and Law in Wiesbaden, Germany, and visiting scholar at the New York University and the University of California in Berkeley, showed that Mali plagiarized the thesis with the content from other theses, authored articles, site of the Agency of Privatization of Serbia and Wikipedia by publishing several examples. At that time, Mali said that he “is firmly standing behind his work”. In September 2014, German publisher De Gruyter announced that the article published in their journal, which qualified Mali for the title, contains uncited paragraphs from a doctoral dissertation of Stifanos Hailemariam, from Eritrea, titled “Corporate Value Creation, Governance and Privatisation: Restructuring and Managing Enterprises in Transition – The Case of Eritrea”, University of Groningen (2001).

In November 2016 the FOS formed Ethics Commission which found that doctoral dissertation is not plagiarism, and that report was accepted by the Teaching – Scientific Council of the Faculty. The Ethics Commission concluded that it can not be challenged on the original scientific contribution of the doctoral dissertation. Dušan Teodorović, a member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts and president of the Academy Board for Higher Education sent 20 pages of evidence which he alleges prove the work is a plagiarism to the Rector of the University of Belgrade asking for Mali’s PhD to be annulled. On 18 January 2017, citing procedural reasons, the Senate of the University of Belgrade rejected the Ethics commission findings, instructing the faculty to form an Expert Commission instead, as it should have done in the first place by the university’s rule book.

On 27 February 2018, a group of professors and doctors of philosophy delivered a request to the Belgrade University’s Rectorate to prevent the promotion of Mali into the doctor of philosophy and to annul his PhD altogether. 379 doctors of philosophy, including 8 members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts signed a request, which also asks for the ethical scrutiny of three members of the commission which originally confirmed his doctorate. On the same day, economist and professor Boško Mijatović, accused Mali of blatantly copying study “Novi model privatizacije u Srbiji” (New model of privatization in Serbia), published in 2000 by Mijatović, Boris Begović and Boško Živković. The study is available online and comparison showed that some sections were rewritten to the letter. A day later, rector of the University of Belgrade Vladimir Bumbaširević announced that the National Council for Higher Education will soon name its representative to the commission, adding that Mali is not a doctor of philosophy, since he hasn’t been awarded the doctoral diploma yet, nor has he been promoted to PhD, neither he will be until the entire process is over. Still, on the Serbian Progressive Party’s list for the local elections in Belgrade, set for 4 March 2018, Siniša Mali named “doctor of philosophy” as his “occupation”.

In February 2019, the FOS formed an experts commission which, with the help of the specialized software Turnitin, by the late April concluded that Mali properly quoted only 2 out of 126 quotations in his thesis, that he copied 4,500 words without quotations, but that he plagiarized only 6.97% of his thesis, which the commission claimed is not enough to dispute its scientific contribution. The commission found that actually 14 to 16% of the text is copied, but the difference came from the “official state reports”, “common phrases”, “formulas”, etc. The commission also stated that Hailemariam’s thesis was the “starting point” for Mali’s thesis, even though Mali doesn’t quote or mention Hailemariam in his PhD at all. Commission also ignored the accusations of plagiarism by Mijatović, Begović and Živković.

Ethical code of the Belgrade University however states that plagiarism is “literal transcription of the other author’s text, or copying from the electronic or printed sources, either in Serbian or foreign languages, in parts or entirety”. Other professors protested, claiming that you can’t “plagiarize a little”, that, depending on the context, you can properly cite other authors but not the entire passages and pages, and that what the commission described is a textbook of “hidden plagiarism”. In general, the commission was accused of polemicizing with Karapandža’s evidence instead of dealing with the thesis itself. The composition of the 4-members commission was also criticized. None of the members deal with the corporate finances, which is the theme of the PhD. One of them speaks no English so he couldn’t compare the original doctorate to the Mali’s one, only one published works in a journal with impact factor, while the third was removed from the state university after he was caught by the police for selling exams to the students. Also, the commission in its report referred to Mali as “doctor”, which he still isn’t as the University hadn’t promoted him yet.

Karapandža pointed out that Turnitin can’t compare theses in two different languages and Mali literally translated it from English to Serbian word by word (with some extremely poor translations), using italics and bolded text in the exactly same places and copying almost all of the schematics and diagrams. The only thing Mali did was to replace Eritrea with Serbia in sentences. Mali even kept the example of value forming for cotton, which is one of the main crops in Eritrea but doesn’t grow in Serbia. Teodorović also said there is a zero probability that two persons, from different parts of the world, name 100 exactly the same references, in the exactly the same order, including exactly the same typos. Karapandža then showed that the commission actually only cited several pages which he originally published proving it was a plagiarism. He then continued to publish further pages of blatant copies, which the commission never mentioned, asking the commission to tell what is the percentage of plagiarism needed to dispute Mali’s PhD. He also noted that the fact that Mali simply copied texts from the government documents was taken as a mitigating circumstance, while in Germany, in the case of Guttenberg plagiarism scandal it was taken as an aggravated circumstance because of the misuse of state and government resources. Total of 4 complaints were filed to the University’s Professional Ethics Board against the findings of the FOS commission, one of which was signed by 140 university professors.

Professors Todorović and Karapandža are often attacked by the pro-government tabloids and members Mali’s political party. Mali labeled them “twitter professors”, adding he will “continue to fight for better and more prosperous Serbia and for the higher quality of life for its every citizen”. He described Karapandža as “completely anonymous individual” who attacks him for political reasons. Tabloid Alo in August 2017 sent a letter to dean of the university in Wiesbaden, asking him to fire Karapandža whom they accused of plagiarism and of smearing the names of Serbian citizens. Independent commission was formed by the university which cleared Karapandža of all allegations from the letter, labeling them materially incorrect and non-academic, with the university supporting Karapandža in debunking the fake doctorates. Alo refused to publish the rebuttal. Rectors and deans from the Belgrade University, academics, directors of the scientific institutes and numerous professors, received a letter from professor Đuričin, member of the original commission, actually an open discreditation of Karapandža which, among other things, was accused of being part of the “mathematicians clique” which intruded into the economics and caused the global Financial crisis of 2007-2008.

Acting upon the complaints, on 15 July 2019 University’s Professional Ethics Board again returned the doctorate back to the FOS for new deliberation. The board concluded that the commission’s findings, on which the faculty’s decision was made, were “incomplete, unclear and contradictory”. When published, board’s report stated that faculty’s commission didn’t check if the doctorate is plagiarized at all, judging the “scientific contribution” instead, which wasn’t its task. The board also asked for feedback from both the faculty and Mali, regarding new complaints. The faculty responded to the board, Mali didn’t. They also instructed the commission that software check is only one of the ways to check for plagiarism. Some professors criticized the board for not declaring a plagiarism right away, while others resigned their administrative posts in protest. Rector of the University of Belgrade, Ivanka Popović, asked for the professors not to pressure the board. Critics said that the board was left alone for months and again made bad decision, while the “post festum” criticism is not a pressure. A group of students, on the other hand, blocked the Rectorate protesting the decision. During talks with the rector Popović, they asked for the university to push the prime minister Ana Brnabić to fire Mali (and Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović, also because of the plagiarism), to ease the pressure on the university to declare the doctorate a plagiarism. Popović asked for some time over the summer to see into the students’ demands, so the students set a deadline for September, when they will continue their actions.

The doctorate of Mali was just one in the series of education-related scandals since 2014, regarding dubious doctorates and diplomas of the high profile public persons, mainly politicians (Tomislav Nikolić, Nebojša Stefanović, Mića Jovanović, Jorgovanka Tabaković, Aleksandar Martinović, Igor Bečić, Aleksandar Šapić). So far, only Jovanović’s PhD has been declared “non-existing” by the Ministry of Education. Citing actions of the FOS regarding handling of the Mali’s doctorate scandal as their starting point for credibility re-check, Center for Education and Evaluation in Science (CEES) announced in May 2019 that journals published by the FOS are dropped out from SCIndeks, Serbian version of citation analysis. The reason given is the faculty’s “compromised ethical status”. Fake diplomas, especially that of Mali, became regular part of performance acts in students’ protests. Head of the University of Belgrade, rector Ivanka Popović, stated that the case of Mali’s doctorate already harmed the reputation of the university.

Wikipedia, Siniša Mali

Pešč, 12.08.2019.