How Romania’s plagiarism hunter took on the prime minister

Investigative journalist Emilia Sercan defied threats to uncover high-level ring of fraudulent PhDs

July 27, 2017
gabriel oprea vice prime minister romania
Source: Alamy
Gabriel Oprea

Many academics are ferociously proud of their PhDs, and will pounce on anything that minimises the value of the letters in front of their name. But Emilia Sercan went further than most.

A Romanian investigative journalist of 20 years’ experience and a journalism teacher at the University of Bucharest, she put her “entire life, personal and professional, on hold” for her doctorate.

So about two years after finishing, Dr Sercan took particular interest in the news that Gabriel Oprea, who was then deputy prime minister of Romania, was being promoted to acting prime minister while the incumbent was undergoing surgery.

She knew that Mr Oprea had a PhD in law, and was a PhD coordinator at Romania’s National Intelligence Academy – positions that struck Dr Sercan as odd. His vocabulary and grammar suggested to her that “this man couldn’t have a PhD in a correct and proper way”.

Her ensuing investigation uncovered evidence of plagiarism in Mr Oprea’s doctorate as well as a ring of nine allegedly plagiarised doctorates that he had coordinated at the intelligence academy. Detecting the fraud was as simple as pasting excerpts from them into Google, she says.

Dr Sercan has now written a book about the phenomenon of fake PhDs in high places in Romania, Doctorates Factory: or How to Destroy a Nation’s Fundamentals, published in late May. Politicians sought out easy PhD titles in order to get salary bumps or to skip the exams needed to become generals, she concludes.

She said that several tricks were played to throw her off the story. Anonymous messages were sent to her phone saying that she could lose her position at the University of Bucharest. Hacking attempts were made against her private email and Facebook accounts. Dr Sercan also thinks that one “source”, who was ostensibly trying to feed her information about plagiarism, attempted to trick her into illegally handling classified documents.

Plagiarism had already become an issue in Romania in 2012 when a scandal engulfed the prime minister at the time, Victor Ponta, after the journal Nature alleged that he had copied parts of his law doctorate. An academic committee at the University of Bucharest found him guilty of plagiarism and two years later he handed back the qualification.

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As for Mr Oprea, last year, Romania’s National Council for Certification of Titles, Diplomas and University Certificates judged that his PhD thesis was plagiarised and recommended that it be withdrawn. Mr Oprea, who did not respond to requests for comment from Times Higher Education, said on his Facebook page at the time that he had been the victim of a “media lynching”.

A spokesperson for the National Intelligence Academy told THE that Mr Oprea had not been a doctoral adviser at the institution’s doctoral school since 1 December 2015. They also confirmed that “a number of those supervised by Gabriel Oprea have asked to have their PhDs cancelled...the requests were filed to the Romanian Ministry of Education.”

Still, Dr Sercan is disappointed that her accusations have not received more attention from the mainstream media in Romania. It has also been made harder for journalists to get their hands on PhDs, she said. Whereas previously she could walk into the national library and read any one, she now has to make an application to see them.

And there was a final ironic development in store for Dr Sercan: earlier this year she was herself accused of plagiarising her BA thesis, two days before her book launch, by a local newspaper reporting on a document that it had been sent. “The accusation is false and what they presented is not my BA thesis,” said Dr Sercan. “My assumption is that my thesis was changed.” It should have been destroyed five years after graduation, in 2008, she said – and she is now suing her alma mater.

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