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In Plagiarism Protest, Expat Researchers to Boycott Romanian Conference

21 September 2012 5:27 pm
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Wikimedia Commons/RobertGomulea

Ministerial dispute. Scientists are upset about Prime Minister Victor Ponta's Ph.D.

On Tuesday, the Romanian government will celebrate its biannual meeting for Romanian scientists working abroad with a networking event at Prime Minister Victor Ponta's official palace in Bucharest. But an expat Romanian scientist has issued an appeal to boycott the conference over concerns that Ponta committed plagiarism to receive his law Ph.D., an issue that has consumed many in the Romanian academic community for months.

Like many other Eastern European countries, Romania has lost much of its young scientific talent to Western scientific powerhouses following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The biannual "Diaspora" meeting, organized since 2008 by the Romanian Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding (UEFISCDI), aims to reunite expatriated and Romanian scientists to foster dialogue and international collaborations. But in a saga that developed over the summer, Ponta has been accused of plagiarism in his law Ph.D. thesis, which he obtained from the University of Bucharest in 2003. While a newly formed National Committee of Ethics declared the thesis in accordance with the academic regulations of the time, a separate investigation by the National Council for Attestation of Titles, Diplomas and University Certificates (CNATDCU) concluded that large chunks of the thesis had been copied without proper referencing. The ethics committee of the University of Bucharest has since come to a similar conclusion, and it is now up to the education minister, whom Ponta appointed, to make a decision on whether to retract the title. So far the prime minister has denied the charges.

Many expat Romanian researchers, as well as some researchers in the country, are now apparently worried that attending the Diaspora conference would equate to endorsing academic misconduct. On 9 September, Cristian Dogaru, a Romanian health and social scientist studying pediatric respiratory epidemiology at the University of Bern's Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, launched an online petition "urging researchers to boycott the conference and thus send a message that the scientific community does not endorse (and has zero tolerance for) academic fraud," he explains in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. The petition has garnered more than 180 signatures at this point. Dogaru adds that it's "extremely offending" that the upcoming conference is chaired by the prime minister given the conclusions about his thesis from several scientific committees.

"The boycott is caused by a regrettable error of perception," Luciana Bratu, head of UEFISCDI's International Relations Department writes in an e-mail to Science Insider. The conference has always been organized under the patronage of the figure of the prime minister, which "remains the same regardless of the person who temporarily occupies this position." Currently, there are more than 900 people registered for next week's conference, Bratu adds. (The conference's Web site mentions there were more than 700 participants in 2010.)

Although not cited in the boycott petition, other issues are angering Romania's expat researchers. Among the reforms that former science minister Daniel Funeriu passed under the previous, Democratic Liberal Party government was the recruitment of a large number of foreign-based Romanian scientists to sit on CNATDCU for the validation of doctoral theses and scientific titles. "It was in the direction of reforming Romanian academia, which was marred by all kinds of degrees" granted to politicians without any scientific basis by a merely corrupt system, says Gabriel Cornilescu, a Romanian structural biologist at the University of Wisconsin's National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison.

But back in June, just as it was writing up its conclusion that Ponta had plagiarized part of his thesis, CNATDCU's general committee was dissolved by the science and education minister of the time. Earlier this month, on 7 September, a government order announced the new composition of CNATDCU. "The scientific level of the people that were named members in the new committee is well below the previous committee," says Lucian Ancu, a Romanian expat particle physicist at the University of Bern's Albert Einstein Center for Fundamental Physics. Ancu alleges that some on the new panel don't meet the minimum requirement for the titles they hold, which disturbs him as one remit of CNATDCU is to establish criteria for scientific titles. "These rules for becoming a professor and so on seem to be on shaky ground," he says.

All foreign-based scientists were also dismissed from CNATDCU's disciplinary commissions, which some who have been removed call a political move. The idea is to populate "these commissions with a majority of people that can be controlled by the actual political entities in Romania. They are trying to punish everyone that has said that the prime minister made a plagiarism [and] his Ph.D. is invalid," says Cornilescu, who up until the announcement was part of CNATDCU's biochemistry and biology commission. Cornilescu issued a petition to return to the original structure of CNATDCU that to date has gathered about 200 signatures from scientists in Romania and abroad. The current science and education minister went on to declare that expat scientists may soon be reincorporated within these commissions, "but everybody is skeptical," Cornilescu adds.

Ad Astra, a nongovernmental organization of Romanian scientists with an interest in bringing the country up to international standards, has also protested the changes at CNATDCU in a recent public statement, where it pointed out that the Romanian government is sending contradictory messages by removing all expatriated scientists from CNATDCU while organizing a conference aimed at building bridges between at-home and expatriated scientists.

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