Emilia Sercan, Romanian antiplagiarism journalist

Interview: Emilia Șercan, Romanian antiplagiarism journalist, tells a story of determination against all odds

/ October 29, 2020 / Translated by Antonia Sâmpălean

Emilia Șercan has a long career as an investigative journalist in Romania. She spent the last several years fighting to unveil system-wide plagiarism at the top of Romania’s political establishment, with profound ramifications that can endanger even international institutions like NATO or the EU.

During this time, she received death threats, had to sue Romania’s institutions to get access to information and fought in court for this, but ultimately her efforts started to pay off. The doctoral schools of the Police Academy got shut down by the Government, and the Ministry of Education announced a thorough examination of all the doctoral diplomas issued by these institutions. 

I discussed with her about all of this several weeks before these victories. Here is the story of a small but extremely strong journalist that fought the system and won.

Mona Dîrțu: Let’s take a look back at July 2015, the day when you published your first article about a plagiarized doctoral dissertation: the one belonging to Gabriel Oprea, who was also Minister of the Interior. What happened between the first article and the next ones?

Emilia Șercan: When I began writing about plagiarized doctoral dissertation, I did not for a second consider the possibility that my article about Gabriel Oprea’s dissertation would transform into a series of articles that would be published over the next five years. 

After I published the article about Gabriel Oprea, who was serving as interim Prime Minister at the time, I discovered the list of students whose doctoral dissertations Gabriel Oprea – who was also a university professor and doctoral supervisor – had supervised. And then I asked myself the question “if he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, is there any chance that the doctoral students whose dissertations he supervised also plagiarized dissertations?” 

And so I discovered, with great ease, that six of the 22 doctoral dissertations that Oprea had supervised were also plagiarized. In a relatively short period of time and over a period of a few weeks, I managed to publish several articles in which I demonstrated that the doctoral dissertations of some politicians, magistrates or senior state officials were plagiarized and that they were all part of a network that had been supervised by Gabriel Oprea.

Gabriel Oprea. Photo: mai.gov.ro

M.D: Can you give a little estimate regarding how many of those people you wrote about then, in 2015, still have their doctoral titles today? Let’s talk about say the first four, five, six individuals you wrote about. One at a time. So Gabriel Oprea, the chieftain, what is the situation now?

E.Ș: Gabriel Oprea had his PhD withdrawn in 2016, more than a year after I wrote about his plagiarized dissertation. Obviously, he initially tried – using the same method that had been used four years before ago by Prime Minister Victor Ponta – to obtain a verdict of non-plagiarism. 

Gabriel Oprea was extremely powerful in 2015. That verdict was a politically directed one, but in the end it was refuted by the National Council for Attestation of University Titles, Diplomas and Certificates, in short CNATDCU, which is the Romanian institution that deals with the investigation of dissertations that have been brought forward on accounts of plagiarism. 

The CNATDCU had been abolished in 2012, precisely when Victor Ponta was also, in turn, accused of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. However, under pressure from civil society and the press, it was re-established in the spring of 2016, after a long series of disclosures about the plagiarized doctoral dissertations of some politicians who I had written about in the latter half of 2015. The first verdict of plagiarism was given to Victor Ponta. The next verdict was for Gabriel Oprea’s doctoral dissertation.

M.D: The mini-series about the four to five investigations turned into a series with several seasons. In the last five years, you have written over 100 articles, all about plagiarism. Are you not tired? Haven’t you gotten sick of writing about the same topic?

E.Ș: No, I’m not sick of it, even if I could say that the way I discover plagiarism has almost become a routine. I haven’t gotten bored because I understand very well that, in fact, what started from a prompt discovery has now become a mission for me. 

My entire professional life has turned into a public mission. I feel that people, who have understood really well the importance of my discoveries, perceive what I’m doing now in the exact same way. I have to admit that I do have moments of despair, I have moments of frustration, I have moments of anger. 

All of these moments are a result of the stumbling blocks put in my path, the unjust attempts to be stopped, mostly by being denied access to various doctoral theses, although they are public documents. Yes, I have moments when I feel all these things, even acutely. I also had moments of despair, I was seriously considering whether it would be better not to write about plagiarism and to return to the investigative work I was doing before, but boredom is not the issue at hand.

Investigating plagiarism: a meticulous, boring, yet challenging work

M.D: And yet – when you look at it from the outside, you see five years of meticulous work, well-supported, but without much variation.

E.Ș: Each dissertation presents a challenge because there is no pattern in the way it was plagiarized and in each work, I came across a particularity. For each dissertations, I had to put my imagination and intuition to the test in order to understand how it was plagiarized. 

Many times, I felt like I was playing the role of a police officer trying to elucidate different cases, some complicated, others not so much. I took each dissertation as a challenge and then, as a result, I didn’t feel bored. 

Yes, it’s kind of routine work because I sit in the library, read, compare – but I repeat, because of the fact that each thesis had something unique about it, I had to use my imagination and creativity to discover the plagiarized passages and their sources.

M.D: As your editor, I can best attest to the volume of work, how many checks and how much rigor are behind each article. Technically, you do this investigative journalism – few of your readers know this – in your free time because you haven’t given up your university teaching career. 

More precisely, these articles came out of the work you did in the evening, after classes; on weekends; during student holidays. You were talking about a public mission earlier. Since I don’t know any Romanian journalist who has been investigating one subject – the same subject – for five years, I wonder what motivates you.

E.Ș: When I went to the library to investigate whether Gabriel Oprea’s doctoral dissertation was plagiarized, it was only a short time after I had defended my own doctoral work. After finishing my doctorate – with the qualifier “summa cum laude” – I became depressed. And it was a depression that dragged on for about a year. I felt that I couldn’t find myself on neither a professional nor personal level. 

It was a very difficult time, although I should have seen the completion of my doctorate as a relief. It was not a relief for me: on the contrary, I felt that I could not find my compass and that I did not know what to do with my life. In this personal context, I discovered that the doctoral dissertations of Romania’s interim Prime Minister had been shamelessly plagiarized and this flared my anger. I was revolted.

I took it somehow personally – up to a point, obviously – because I put myself in the position of those who have obtained their doctorate through hard work, effort and sacrifice. Basically, my motivation was – in the initial phases – a personal one. 

Later, I realized that the level of imposture in Romanian politics and the way individuals have been promoted to public office because they hold a plagiarized doctoral degree is unacceptable. 

Judging each case separately, and then as a whole, I understood that what we are dealing with is a phenomenon, that what we have at hand are not isolated cases. Plagiarism in some universities – and in some scientific fields – has reached an unimaginable threshold, it is extremely widespread, to be very precise.

M.D: What I’m understanding from you is that what began accidentally in 2015, as a result of an honest doctoral student’s revolt against university imposture, was combined with your talent as an investigator. So, a public mission emerged.

E.Ș: Yes, then I realized that things cannot remain like this, because they have a profound effect on the whole of society as well as the educational system. Let me explain it very briefly: people who have obtained a doctoral degree based on a plagiarized dissertation can become university professors. 

And these university professors will form the future teachers of elementary schools and high schools. On a practical level, this imposture is transferred, like a waterfall, to the entire system of education. We, as a society, have no guarantee that the people who are in the position to educate elementary school and high school students are people who have been trained by the most qualified professors; these professors having behind them a career that is strictly built on competence, on what we call meritocracy. 

And if there are many teachers in academia with careers built on deception, then we have a deep problem as a society – and this turns into a matter of security. Education is included in Romania’s latest National Security Strategy as a potential vulnerability. 

This potential vulnerability is amplified, generated and perhaps to a certain extent, even caused at some level, because of these plagiarized doctorates. I have written a lot about politicians and senior civil servants, but I have also started to expose the fact that certain university professors, who hold leadership positions in certain universities, also have careers built on plagiarized doctorates.

Finding motivation in an investigative work that stretches on many years

 

M.D: Based on what you’ve shared, it appears that in these last five years, you have been dually motivated: firstly, as a university student struggling with academic imposture and then secondly, as an investigative journalist who wants to show the public how academic imposture is paralyzing key institutions of the Romanian state.

E.Ș: That’s right. It really is a double motivation. I’m first of all motivated by the fact that yes, I teach – and I also have a doctorate and I know how grave the situation is in academia. In fact, it was my academic background that helped me discover these plagiarism cases. 

Since I profoundly know and understand the rigor and rules behind obtaining a doctorate as well as the legal provisions and procedures it entails, I have discovered plagiarism cases and understood the phenomenon with a sense of ease. 

All I need is to examine the profile of the individual who has a doctorate and get a sense of the activity he was engaging in during that time. My intuition has always been correct, and what I do at the library is confirm my intuition. And I have had a 100% success rate. I have not yet been wrong. My academic background has helped me a lot, along with the skills I acquired as an investigative journalist.

M.D: Indeed, this combination of journalistic and academic skills is rare, probably something that is unique in the Romanian press. At the same time, we are talking about a form of corruption that has gradually established itself over the years and has taken over key state institutions. The press only wrote about specific plagiarism cases rather than about the phenomenon itself and about its mechanisms.

E.Ș: I think it was a result of the powerlessness of the press, because it is difficult to examine a doctoral dissertation and to ask yourself which parts are plagiarized, in the absence of help from a person who knows the field, who understands the field and who can possibly guide you and show you the sources of plagiarism. 

I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is due to the complicity of the press. I would say that it is an inability of the press to write about such an arid and technical subject.

M.D: Starting from this premise that another journalist, let’s say, had both your skills and motivation, would she have been able to publish investigations about politicians, generals from SRI (Romanian Intelligence Service) and police, ministers, judges, prosecutors in the mainstream press?

E.Ș: No, absolutely not. But I myself couldn’t publish any longer, at one point, on the site where I first published when I began writing about this topic. We know very well how complicated the situation surrounding the Romanian press is and we are absolutely aware that there are newsrooms where any investigative initiative is killed outright. 

There are very few newsrooms that still have investigation departments, and in many cases, when it comes to topics with political connotations, they are outright destroyed. 

Let’s not forget that the revelations regarding Victor Ponta’s doctoral dissertation, when he was Prime Minister, did not appear in the Romanian press, but rather appeared in the scientific journal Nature and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is a newspaper from Germany. 

I don’t know how things would have been if that investigation had appeared in Romania. Most likely, the approach would have been discredited, the journalists would have been accused of political games, as, in fact, they attempted to do in my case. 

When I started writing about doctoral dissertationss, I was a freelancer and I published some of my articles on HotNews, until I was told that I could no longer publish there. That’s how I got to publish on PressOne – and I think it was the wisest decision I could make that I chose to publish on an independent site, which did not have a Romanian owner. So I had all the editorial freedom, all the independence I could have asked for.

Why plagiarism is not a soft crime

M.D: The public tends to view plagiarism as a soft crime compared to bribery or influence peddling. You discuss a “state that has been captured” by networks of academic corruption. What do you think of when you use this phrase?

E.Ș: I am referring to the networks of complicities that exist in politics, branching out into almost all state institutions. When I say state institutions, I also mean institutions run by politicians, but also institutions that should theoretically be independent, run by technocrats, experts – that is, secret services, justice, police and everything that means government infrastructure. 

These networks of political-administrative complicity are so intertwined that we often do not know where their command button is, whether it is in the political area or if it is in the area of the secret services. This notion of a state that have been captured is an expression that was used many years ago by specialists from the World Bank. 

Among the defining characteristics of this expression are the control of state institutions by influential groups and the formation of networks of complicity to limit political competition. As a result of these plagiarized doctorates that were granted by particular universities, it was possible to create this kind of complicity networks.

M.D: Which universities are you referring to?

E.Ș: In Romania, there are three large universities controlled by law enforcement institutions: a university belonging to the Romanian Intelligence Service, one belonging to the Ministry of Defense and the third belonging to the Ministry of Interior, and these three large universities offer doctoral degree programs.

These doctorates – which are doctorates in science and not professional doctorates – are not just obtained by people in the intelligence system, officers or individuals who are connected to the intelligence system. 

We discovered, beginning in 2015, that the doctorates awarded by these universities were solicited mainly by politicians, prosecutors, judges, police officers and senior civil servants from key state institutions. I started to wonder why these civilians – it’s important to reiterate that they are civilians – completed their doctorates at these military universities? 

Why didn’t they go to civilian universities, where they could get doctorates in political science, sociology, law or other fields? I discovered that these very people, who obtained their doctoral degrees in these military institutions, have plagiarized their doctoral dissertations. 

These military universities were, practically speaking, a production line for the development of the plagiarism phenomenon in Romania: they always operated in a hermetic system, there was never any real civilian control over these universities, as there is, in fact, none over the Romanian Intelligence Service or even over the entire intelligence system in Romania. 

And then these universities operated according to their own rules, and the degree of academic corruption and imposture that has been reached is unimaginable for any university system in the Western world. The amplitude of the phenomenon is monumental.

Adrian Iacob, former rector of the Police Academy. Photo: Octav Ganea / Inquam Photos

How plagiarism threatens NATO and the EU

M.D: What does this mean for Romania, as a NATO member state? How does the fact that army, police and Romanian Intelligence Service officers are in direct relations with our allies make us vulnerable?

E.Ș: It makes us deeply vulnerable. First of all, it makes us vulnerable because it relates to what we talked about earlier regarding the competence levels that these universities pass on to their own students. 

It’s really about what I just mentioned referring to the Romanian academic system as a whole. In these military universities, even though some of the professors were only partially literate, they were doctoral supervisors. 

The entire security system in Romania has been made vulnerable by these plagiarized doctorates and this vulnerability has come from within for years and years now.

If I, as a simple journalist, with access to publicly available information, could reveal how grave things were on the inside, then I wonder: did their internal protection systems – the SRI’s counter-intelligence, the Ministry of Defense’s or the Ministry of the Interior’s very own secret services – not know what is happening in their own universities? Didn’t they know what was going on in their own education systems? 

The establishment of the doctoral school at the SRI Academy was approved in 2007 by the former Director of the SRI, George Maior, currently Romania’s ambassador to the USA. Didn’t he know that Gabriel Oprea was only semi-literate when he accepted him as a professor and doctoral supervisor at the SRI Academy? 

Should we be surprised that following an auditing process that has taken place over the last two years, the SRI Academy has officially declared that almost half of the doctoral degrees awarded – 40 of the 85 – are based on plagiarized works? Maybe some of the other 45 are also plagiarized, we have no way of knowing yet.

M.D: So we have a systemic problem in the field of education: when teaching staff is poorly trained, the graduates of the programs will be the same – the future police, army and intelligence officers. But what does it mean, on an individual level, to have a plagiarized doctoral dissertation? Does that make you more vulnerable, more blackmailable, more prone to compromise?

E.Ș: Yes, definitely. You become prone to being blackmailed; you are vulnerable when you have a plagiarized doctoral dissertation and I can tell you for certain that the individuals who have plagiarized their dissertations are terrified that at some point, they might be exposed by the press. 

The moment you have this kind of skeleton in the closet, you become vulnerable and you are willing to make compromises – this is of course is in relation to those who may eventually blackmail you. 

As a result, the entire public system becomes vulnerable. I’ll refer to what I said a little earlier: incompetent people have been promoted to high functioning positions. These are individuals who are part of networks of complicity. 

Meanwhile, true professionals, people who have years of solid university education behind them, are blocked from any kind of promotion. As you mentioned, this transcends the political system, and when I refer to the political field, I have to include all political parties – because we have plagiarists in all political parties.

Plagiarism in Romania: an endemic plague

M.D : Can you list some key positions in state institutions that are currently being occupied by plagiarists?

E.Ș: The head of the High Court of Cassation and Justice, in other words, the individual who has the highest position in the Romanian judicial system. We then have the second most important position in the General Prosecutor’s Office occupied by a plagiarist. Same goes for the second highest position in the Ministry of the Interior. 

The head of the Judicial Inspection – a key institution in the judiciary. There is a member of the Superior Council of Magistracy who is a plagiarist, but also other judges and prosecutors. The head of the General Anticorruption Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior is a plagiarist. 

Then there are many politicians, some with more visible functions, others less visible. I wrote about some of those: a former Prime Minister, two Ministers of the Interior, a Health Minister, a former Defense Minister, a former Finance Minister – have since lost their jobs; but no Romanian politician has ever stepped away from politics because of a plagiarism accusation.

From my perspective, a major problem is the fact that although these issues has been greatly written about and the vulnerability that they bring about discussed, no one has ever resigned after being proven to be plagiarist, and this is grave. 

This is not the case in Germany, for example, where Defense Minister Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned just before he received an official plagiarism verdict. Likewise, the former Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, also resigned. In Hungary, the then incumbent president, Pál Schmitt, accused of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation, resigned. We have many examples of this nature in Europe. 

In Romania, however, no person accused of plagiarism has ever resigned. This probably happened because in 2012, Prime Minister Victor Ponta – whose doctoral degree was withdrawn in 2016 – refused to resign, setting the stage for the others. If Victor Ponta had resigned, things would have probably been different now. 

What mostly likely occurred was that all of those who were accused and proven to be plagiarists later said “if Ponta was able to remain in office, so can I” – and this has been the case ever since.

M.D: Yes, that’s a good observation, I’ve never thought about that. They probably said to themselves, “If you can plagiarize and still be the Prime Minister, why shouldn’t I continue to be the Mayor?”

E.Ș: Yes, or the Attorney General.

M.D: Victor Ponta, who was in the role of Prime Minister until November 2015, was the same individual who used his power to prevent getting a verdict of plagiarism. He changed laws, amputated institutions, stood in the way of the general process of cleaning up shop. And, despite the fact that you have written more than 100 articles in which you revealed the extent of the phenomenon, we still have not yet begun this clean-up process.

E.Ș: No, we never went through the general clean-up process, and this was the case because there was resistance within the academic system. I talked a lot about these military universities, but I also wrote about the fact that there have been many cases of plagiarism in other well-known public universities, maybe some of Romania’s biggest universities.

How the sistem fights back

M.D: Let’s go through them one at a time. What does resistance within the system look like, level by level? How do universities prevent, for example, the onset of a general clean-up?

E.Ș: It’s simple. The moment you, as a university, are not interested in setting up your Ethics Commission and on a practical level, do not have a public commitment regarding plagiarism, it means that you are an accomplice. Moreover, the rectors of Romanian universities, who have organized themselves and belong to the National Council of Rectors, have always been in the way of any change and reform regarding academic ethics. 

They are well aware of the fact that a long-winded scandal, as was the case with the SRI Academy, which is a very small university, would drastically destroy the credibility of a university. In a public universities, there might be about tens of thousands of undergraduate students, Master’s students and doctoral candidates, and a large-scale scandal would demolish their credibility. 

And so these universities try to maintain a certain appearance of integrity, yet they also halt any kind of reform regarding doctoral dissertation and academic ethics.

M.D: How do they, concretely speaking, put a halt to the process of reformation?

E.Ș: Through their Ethics Commissions, which can indefinitely postpone the investigation of dissertations and the pronouncement of the consultative verdict. They also do this through the attempts to influence the decisions made at the level of the CNATDCU, because the CNATDCU is made up of professors from these universities.

M.D: The CNATDCU oversees things at a higher level and is the institution that gives the final verdict. How do things get stuck at this level?

E.Ș: First of all, the CNATDCU did not comply with the legal deadlines for investigating claims of plagiarism. Many cased were filed four years ago and have still not been resolved, although the legal deadline is 45 days. 

For example, the complaint concerning Bogdan Licu, who holds the second highest position in the General Prosecutor’s Office, was filed in May 2016. In addition, within the CNATDCU, there are certain networks of complicity – professors who have ultimately tried to influence the issuance of non-plagiarism verdicts in various ways, especially for individuals in public office or people with political positions, and this is totally unacceptable. 

The CNATDCU has issued scandalous non-plagiarism verdicts in recent years, deliberately contradicting the evidence and finding justifications such as “the plagiarized portion represents only four percent of the doctoral dissertation, so it’s a minimal amount compared to the entire work, therefore let’s not issue a plagiarism verdict.”

Romanian politicians at the forefront of the plagiarism phenomenon

M.D: Let’s look at the next level – the political one. Politicians have multiple ways of standing in the way of plagiarism verdicts. The most notorious example is that of the former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who, in order to keep his doctoral title, removed the responsibilities of the CNATDCU in 2012 . He did it with the tools of the executive branch.

E.Ș: Not only is the CNATDCU controlled by levers of political power, but so is the entire educational system. Even though universities have autonomy, it is not complete autonomy and has certain limits. 

The Romanian system has particularities, because all of its universities operate on the basis of a national law of education that regulates doctoral studies as well as every layer, every segment of the university in addition to the means of accessing university positions and so on. 

Virtually everything is controlled by the political sector – and this explains why many of the provisions that would have sanctioned plagiarism have been changed by various legislative modifications.

In 2014, for example, a provision was introduced in the Law of Education, stating that a person who has obtained a doctoral degree can voluntarily give it up. This provision is completely ridiculous. Why would anyone who has worked so hard for three years, five years, or even eight years in order to obtain a PhD, making sacrifices on both a professional and personal level, want to later give up the degree? 

Why would you introduce such a thing into the law, what normal-minded person would do such a thing? Well, in Romania, politicians have thought about this. Obviously, it serves to give plagiarists a way out from receiving a shameful plagiarism verdict, given institutionally, by the CNATDCU.

Another provision that was enacted in 2019 and for which almost all the political parties voted, states that the Ministry can withdraw your doctoral title based on the plagiarism verdict given by the CNATDCU, however it cannot withdraw the doctoral degree. 

The degree can only be annulled when a final sentence is given by the court – which is aberrant, because the diploma is nothing but an act issued on the basis of the title. In addition, as we know, a trial takes an average of four years in Romania.

At a certain point, a serious discussion was held in regards to the intention to pardon plagiarists, and the idea came right from within the academic environment, from professors who also hold positions in politics – some were Ministers of Education and some are simultaneously rectors and senators or deputies in the Romanian Parliament. The proposals to remove culpability from past plagiarists came from these people – and this is a very alarming sign for society, within the context of reform and of progress.

M.D: The last attempt to block the reform is a proposal to abolish the CNATDCU, which came from the Association of Rectors itself – you wrote about it a few weeks ago.

E.Ș: This is the political class and the academic environment’s most recent attempt. Since they realized that they had no other solutions, the idea to abolish the CNATDCU arose, because after all, it is the institution that deals with the issuance of plagiarism verdicts for doctoral dissertations. 

This demonstrates that even though there have been some small positive changes, and yes, there have been some positive changes that have taken place over the years, the system has a great deal of resistance, and the interests and fears of the political class and members of academia are just as great.

Fighting plagiarism when you’re basically on your own

M.D: Let’s discuss the trench work of a journalist who plagiarism – and writes about how there has been an attempt to block your access to information.

E.Ș: I experienced a big sense of shock at the beginning of 2016, when I wrote about the Academy of National Security Sciences (ASSN) – of which the members, who were all considered academicians, were some of the most important people in Romania’s political and law enforcement scene. 

I asked for the list of the members of the ASSN, because the public did not know who were the members of the Academy. I was denied access to this information. So I was not given the list of members that the Romanian state paid with a lifetime annuity – a monthly salary – for the rest of their lives.

M.D: You mean that you said: “please give me the list” and what did they answer you?

E.Ș: They didn’t respond to me at all. In reality, that was a huge shock, the fact that I didn’t get any response. I sent the first request by e-mail, then mailed it, thinking that maybe the e-mail is not good. I did not receive any answer – and then I sued the Academy, based on the law on access to public information. 

When the Academy lost the first term and it was clear that it would be forced to give me the data, it put the list on the site. Since then, I have run into all sorts of ridiculous situations in which my access to certain information has been blocked.

M.D: Getting access to the doctoral dissertations, in itself, is difficult. Most people believe that you go to the library, ask for a doctoral work and you can withdraw it and take it home with you – just like any book.

E.Ș: No way. It can take up to an entire year to obtain an electronic copy of a doctoral dissertation – it happened to me. There has been a provision in library law since the 1990s that says that the public cannot have access to doctoral dissertations in printed format because they are part of the so-called “intangible” section of the National Library. 

Until 2016, when it was revealed that public figures had plagiarized their doctoral dissertations and this news began to circulate in the media, the restriction did not apply in practice: those who wanted to consult a dissertation – researchers, academics, PhD students – could have access to it in the reading room. 

Since 2016, however, everything has become more complicated: you can only gain access to the electronic version. And, because there are no electronic versions of all dissertations, someone has to scan them manually. And that takes time.

Getting access to the printed format of a dissertation is allowed only at the library of the university where it was defended. There, however, you are forbidden to photograph pages of the dissertation.

M.D: It sounds very complicated. Describe the process.

E.Ș: Beyond getting access to the dissertation itself, if I suspect that a section of the dissertation is plagiarized from a book – and I ask for that specific book – it is very possible that it will not find in that library. 

And then I have to copy down segments of the passage and then go to another library where I can find the book that has been plagiarized and compare the works. Before, for example, when there was physical access to all doctoral dissertations at the National Library, in almost two months, I wrote about six plagiarized doctoral theses. Now it takes much longer to collect all the sources I need. 

For a single dissertation, I might have to go to three or four libraries, because I can’t find all the books I need in one place. For some dissertations, I’ve been required to request an intra-library loan between other libraries in the country. For another doctoral dissertation, I asked my Facebook friends to help me by taking a picture of the original work for me from a book in a library in Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. 

I have encountered all kinds of situations, all kinds of obstacles of this nature butt I think the peak of the difficulty, so to speak, was an institutional attempt orchestrated by the Police Academy to change the rules of access to their library so that everyday citizens who had no connection to the Police Academy, could not go to the library, although the library is a public institution and everyone must have access. 

The Police Academy also tried to put another restriction in the same regulation so as not to allow access to the library with a mobile phone or laptop. Or if an individual were to bring in a laptop, it could not be connected to the internet. 

I discovered these things, I wrote about them and, fortunately, I managed to prevent the Police Academy’s intention to abuse their power. But I know that there are other universities where you have make an appeal to the rector to be allowed access to a doctoral dissertation which is, again, an abuse of power. The doctoral dissertation is a public document.

How GDPR is used to block access to information

M.D: Many journalists in Romania complain that public institutions use the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) to block access to information of public interest. What is your experience in this regard?

E.Ș: I could say that the GDPR – the way it is interpreted by the authorities, more specifically – is a real mess.

Even before this European Regulation for the Protection of Personal Data was implemented, it was extremely difficult for me to obtain the names of people from various public institutions who held the title of doctor. 

Even then, my access was blocked on the grounds that it is personal data. Well, now, post- May 2018 – the month when the GDPR was implemented – this deadlock is common. Any time I request information, even if it only involves a person’s name, the standard response from the institution is “we cannot provide this information to you because it is protected by the GDPR.” 

Obviously, in many cases, this interpretation is an abuse of power because in actuality, the GDPR must be applied together with other provisions of primary laws that very clearly state that certain information is public. In the case of doctoral dissertations, doctoral supervisors and documents related to the doctoral dissertation, all of this data is public. 

I found a solution to this abuse of power as well. I started suing public institutions when they do not give me information that is of public interest. This of course has a cost. The cost is, first of all, time. In Romania, a trial can take up to two years – and this is in the best case scenario. 

I started a lawsuit with the Romanian Government, which I eventually won, (similar to most lawsuits I filed against the institutions that refused to give me access to public information), and it lasted three years and eight months. And that’s just to get access to some information of public interest.

M.D: What information did you ask for?

E.Ș: I asked the Romanian Government to give me the list of their employees who had the title “doctor” as of November 2016. This lawsuit lasted three years and eight months, I recently won it and I finally gained access to the list. 

It required a high use of energy and nerve but I think every lawsuit I file is worth the process because as a result, many state institutions have begun to discipline themselves and treat requests for information that is of public interest much more seriously.

From investigative journalism to legal battles fought in court

M.D: How many lawsuits for the purpose of accessing public information have you started?

E.Ș: I haven’t really counted them to but I think there are around 50. I definitely won the majority of them. 

Just this summer, I filed about eight more lawsuits. I am not obsessed with lawsuits, but I have become very hardened against institutions that block my access to information in an attempt to protect key individuals or groups, or certain situations that would put either of these in a challenging situation or that would reveal illegalities they were involved in. 

Nowadays, when I receive refusals, my response is to take legal action. It is true that many institutions know that I will sue them if they don’t give me a response so they take my requests more seriously.

M.D: In the end, the lawsuits you file – if you win them after three years and eight months, are practically useless in regards to obtaining certain information and are more effective in correcting a particular behavior from the level of the institution.

E.Ș: Yes, certainly. In many situations, the information I gain access to after winning the lawsuit is outdated, no longer relevant, no longer bearing the same weight or having the same impact. 

However, I think every trial is worthwhile because institutions need to understand that the information they have is not their own private property. They are not institutional goods, they are public goods and must be made available to the public. I do not request the information for personal use, I request it as a journalist and I request it because that information holds some sort of relevance for the public, for the readers. 

And as a result, I think that every trial I start is worth the effort just for the sake of correcting things. There are institutions that I had to sue every time I’ve made a request because they never gave me the required information, such as the Ministry of the Interior or the Academy of National Security Sciences. 

On the other hand, there are other Ministries, for example the Ministry of Education, which after an initial trial, has become incredibly open and has understood that they must take things seriously.

M.D: Both the GDPR as well as copyright law are invoked to block your access to public documents.

E.Ș: Yes, this is in regards to Adrian Iacob particularly, the former Rector of the Police Academy, and Cătălin Ioniță, the head of the General Anticorruption Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior.

In Romania, in order to become a quaestor in the Police Services, you have to submit a paper that has an apparently scientific character, coordinated by a supervisor who has expertise in the field of science. I asked for the works of these two quaestors from the Romanian Police, wanting to see what was inside of them.

M.D: Who did you request them from? The Ministry?

E.Ș: I requested them from the Ministry of the Interior, yes. And the Ministry of the Interior responded saying it couldn’t give them to me because they were protected by copyright law. I sued the Ministry and won both lawsuits in the first instance, and now, we have entered the appeal phase of the trial. 

It is aberrant to be told that you cannot see a document because it is protected by copyright law. I experienced so many aberrant, unique situations that put my emotions and imagination to the test that I think I could more seriously consider the question you posed to me at the beginning of this interview. 

If I can continue on with this project, whether or not I’m bored, if I still have patience and if I still have energy. Yes, I still do, and maybe these aberrant situations make me even more determined and make me want to write more about them.

What has changed after several long years of fighting plagiarism

M.D: After all this monumental work, which, like an iceberg, has a lot of hidden, trench work, what has changed?

E.Ș: Many things have changed, despite the resistance that the system has put forth. Most significantly, two of the doctoral schools from the Police Academy were shut down. They cannot organize doctoral studies anymore. (update 28 October 2020).

Several doctoral degrees have been withdrawn. I’m referring to a few dozen doctoral degrees that have been withdrawn in the last four years, after the CNATDCU was re-established. 

All kinds of legislative provisions have changed because although the system tries to protect certain people in a timely manner, both the academic environment and the political class have understood that the situation is grave and that they cannot disregard them altogether. 

For example, the conditions for admission to doctoral programs have been tightened. The criteria for the carrying out of doctoral studies has also been tightened, as well as the way in which the doctoral dissertation is defended. Supervision is no longer a formality, as it had been in the past. 

There are several verification thresholds. The verification of all doctoral dissertations with similarity software has been introduced. 

There is another important thing: the number of people who have obtained a doctorate in the last four years has been cut in half. Likewise, the number of people who entered into a doctoral program was halved. 

And another important victory is the fact that for several months now, all doctoral dissertations that were defended in Romania have been published online, on a dedicated site belonging to the Ministry of Education. 

In this way, anyone can have access to doctoral dissertations that were defended in the last two to three years. Yes, only those defended in the last two to three years but let’s hope that at some point, that access will be extended. In any case, it’s a huge step forward from where we were five years ago.

Death threats against a journalist

Mona Dîrțu: In April 2019, you received a death threat via text message which read: “Stop all activities you have in progress if you do not want Calvary to ensue.” What investigation were you working on then?

Emilia Șercan: I received that threat after I published a series of three articles on PressOne. One of the articles was about the Rector of the Police Academy’s plagiarized doctoral dissertation and in the others, I wrote about some of the legal inconsistencies of the Police Academy, the countless plagiarized doctoral theses defended there and the fact that the management was trying to cover up plagiarism cases. 

I received the threatening message the day I published an investigation into how the management of the Police Academy was trying to change the rules regarding access to the institution’s library so that outsiders could not enter. Basically, I was revealing the Academy management’s attempt to block access to doctoral dissertations.

M.D: What came to mind when you first read the message? Who could have sent you this kind of a message?

E.Ș: My intuition was somehow accurate right away, because my first thought was that someone from the Police Academy sent the threatening message. All the information I had published in previous articles reveals how grave the situation was in the Ministry of the Interior’s university, which educates and trains police officers from all over the country. 

I guessed that the person who sent the text message was from the Academy. The prosecutors ultimately concluded that those responsible for threatening me were connected to the leadership of the Police Academy. 

There were three people involved: the Rector of the Academy, his Deputy and a police officer who was basically forced to send the messages by the former two and yes, there was more than just one message sent. 

The situation was serious in regards to the Rector and Vice-Rector, especially since their leadership positions were on the line and they could lose their jobs, which did eventually happen.

Five weeks after I received the threatening message, the National Anticorruption Directorate revealed that they were the perpetrators behind the threat. They were charged and were subsequently dismissed by the Minister of the Interior.

But I think what happened went beyond firing individuals from their positions: I think the Ministry was trying to maintain a status quo within the Academy. I think they did not want the public to know how serious the situation in the Institution is because some of the realities I had exposed in my articles before receiving the threat were related to the fact that several professors from the Police Academy have plagiarized doctorates. 

A professor who has been proven to be a plagiarist and who has his title of “doctor” withdrawm has to face the end of his academic career.

M.D: As you mentioned, the stakes are higher for academics: unlike politicians, who risk relatively little, a professor who is proven to be a plagiarist will have to watch his entire professional career turn to dust.

E.Ș: That’s right. A politician can ultimately persuade some voters to vote for him, meanwhile for a professor, an accusation of plagiarism and the withdrawal of his PhD means the end of his academic career.

M.D: The investigation of the death threat evolved relatively quickly after you filed a complaint. Five weeks later, it became clear that three police officers were behind it. What is the current state as of today, August 20, 2020?

E.Ș: The investigation was carried out very quickly compared to the way the investigations in the judicial files have been carried out in the last years. Basically, in September 2019, the Rector of the Police Academy, the Vice-Rector and the police officer who were responsible for this threat were sent to court. 

The police officer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison, and the other two, the Rector and the Vice-Rector, are still on trial for inciting blackmail. 

An important reason for why the trial moved so quickly- the criminal investigation phase was basically over in five months – was as a result of the media coverage around the case in addition to the involvement of international media organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, who sent messages to the Romanian authorities encouraging them to resolve the case quickly.

Why investigating and fighting plagiarism really matters

M.D: According to my knowledge, is the worst act of intimidation against a journalist that has occurred in the last 30 years. However, it did not stop you. On the contrary: since then and until now, you have published at least 15 articles about the Police Academy, revealing exactly what those who threatened you did not wish to become public.

E.Ș: The reality existing in the Police Academy has been grave for many years. Probably since the very moment when the Academy decided to set up two doctoral schools inside the Police Academy, one in Law and the other one in Public Order and National Security. 

In short, the doctorates awarded by the Police Academy are “Doctor of Science” titles, but the Police Academy’s professors and doctoral supervisors were far from what a university professor should be in any academic system in this world. 

The vast majority of them were, and some continue to be, police officers who converted themselves into professors. These are police officers who at some point, no longer knew their place or who were rejected by the system for various reasons, some even for acts of corruption, others for professional reasons. 

These police officers found a place for themselves within the Police Academy, where they became university professors, where they started teaching and overnight, turned into so-called scientists or so-called researchers. 

These people did not have a solid academic background, they had no idea what scientific research meant, and they have generated incompetence, imposture and corruption all these years. Corruption is not only material, but also moral corruption.

A lot of moral corruption. And the model that some of these individuals imposed on the Police Academy in the late 1990s was replicated and ultimately became a standard of good practice, a model for all other future employees of the Police Academy.

M.D: In the meantime, in the last year and a half, you have revealed that three out of the six rectors of the Police Academy’s faculties plagiarized their dissertations. 

You wrote about academic fraud and the self-plagiarism of the Academy’s Rector who took over after Adrian Iacob was dismissed. You also wrote about how the Ministry of the Interior’s second most important individual plagiarized his dissertation. And yet a general clean-up has not yet begun at the Police Academy. Where’s the hold up?

E.Ș: The hold up is political. The hold up is definitely political. It’s due to the decision-maker, who in the case of the Police Academy is not the Rector of the Academy, but rather, the Minister of the Interior. 

And if the clean-up does not take place, it is because the Minister realizes what it would signify if a real clean-up in this institution would begin and if it surfaces that some doctoral dissertations are indeed plagiarized, which is what happened at the SRI Academy. 

Here, things would be infinitely worse, because most of the professors in the Police Academy defended their dissertations at the Police Academy, and this would be equivalent to acknowledging that the professors who teach at the Police Academy are impostors, that they have plagiarized doctorates, that their entire careers are like a bubble of soap that would pop with the issuance of plagiarism verdicts. 

And then the Academy would be left, perhaps, with only 10-20% of the professors it currently has. The Police Academy risks, as you said, being turned to dust as an institution.

Cleaning up Romania’s corrupt academic system

M.D: What should take place, in your opinion, for you to be able to say to yourself “OK, they have started the clean-up process?”

E.Ș: The Minister of the Interior should make the decision to restructure this institution, he should make the decision to close the Police Academy’s doctoral schools. (this decision was taken until the interview was published).

Practically speaking, to liquidate all the PhDs that are in progress, so that in two, three years and from 2023 onwards, let’s say, the Police Academy can close its doctoral schools. To restructure the entire institution so that it is no longer a research university, as it is now considered. 

Basically, to become a vocational university for those who want to become police officers and join the police officers in Romania. Maybe there are also police officers who at some point, will want to have an academic career but they can very well complete a PhD in Forensics at a civil law university. 

They can very well do a PhD in Criminal Psychology in the Psychology department of a public university. They can complete a doctorate in the prevalence of I do not know what kind of crime in the Sociology department of any university. 

They have all the possible options at hand, in public universities, and these doctorates from the Police Academy should be abolished because their doctoral schools produce nothing but, as I said earlier, imposture, incompetence and moral and material corruption, all in a generalized form.

M.D: Can you give a time frame in which it seems plausible to you that this clean-up should begin?

E.Ș: No. Because everything has to do with political motivation, and in Romania, we are very much aware that the most complicated Ministry of all ministries is the Ministry of the Interior. 

About 10 years ago, three ministers were replaced within a month and a half’s time, precisely because of the political pressure, the pressure of the underworld and criminal clans and the pressure of the Intelligence Service of the Ministry of the Interior. 

All of these networks working together were so strong that in six weeks, three Ministers were switched out and replaced by individuals that were accepted by the three sectors which ultimately control the Ministry on an informal level.