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December 7, 2022

A double-edged sword

Emilia Sercan (photo) is a journalist who likes the power of the press. The power to replace ministers and governments. In the style of the French satirical magazine ‘Le canard enchaine,’ whose revelations about right-wing candidate Francois Fillon, after all, propelled Emmanuel Macron toward the presidential chair. We are talking, in fact, about a mechanism that is specific to modern democracy, through which the press checks the ruling power’s excesses and abuses. In other words, the press is an efficient countervailing power. Of course, in the swamp of political life the press too is easily perverted and often puts its force in the service of those whom it should denounce. Better put, it denounces selectively, to the benefit of others who are just as reprehensible as the accused. But beyond these serious imperfections, the press still maintains that aura of “the watchdog of democracy.” Let’s be honest: today, most journalists bark only at the command of those who pay them, not egged on by their own consciences. In recent years, Emilia Sercan has specialised precisely in detecting the intellectual imposture of top-level politicians. Her most famous victim so far has been Gabriel Oprea, who had a brilliant career before his eyes. The plagiarism accusation contributed to his downfall and, in the wider sense, to the outlining of an opposition to the regime ushered-in by Premier Victor Ponta, another victim of the “plagiarism hunters.” In Ponta’s case, the attack had come from the circle of Traian Basescu, back then a president dissatisfied with cohabitating with a Social-Democratic Government. In Emilia Sercan’s case too, the idea put forward was that some secret services handed out information to her in order to scuttle certain politicians. An accusation that sounds, anyway you were to look at it, like a diversion, especially since, in the meantime, the journalist has specialised in this domain, so that she methodically monitors the Ph.D. plagiarism phenomenon – which is entirely different from someone whispering a little rumour in your ear. In any case, her investigations, recently taking the concrete shape of a book – ‘The Ph.D. Plant (or How to undermine the foundations of a nation)’ – were not refuted and the quantity of work and her stubbornness to break through a veritable “Omerta” are praiseworthy.

Several days ago, a provincial newspaper published a scandalous revelation, which was rapidly picked up by most of the press, regardless of orientation: Emilia Sercan allegedly plagiarised her own B.A. thesis. The journalist was in Brno, Czech Republic at the time, attending the ‘Plagiarism across Europe and beyond’ international conference where she presented ‘Plagiarism in Ph.D. theses. A case study of military universities in Romania.’ The accuser turned accused, that’s a veritable twist – many journalists, commentators, politicians and others shouted. Sercan promised to come up with a reaction after a visit in Sibiu, where she will consult the university archive to check whether the thesis quoted belongs to her. She no longer has the thesis and she cannot precisely recall what she wrote 14 years ago – credible arguments, for now. The journalist admitted he received a copy of the thesis and he did not investigate further. The accused noted the absence of any stamp confirming the authenticity of the paper brought as evidence. Since it’s difficult to get hold of a B.A. thesis after so many years, the question is: how did it come to the possession of the anonymous source? Maybe from the coordinating professor, provided he kept the copy. At any rate, the suspicion that, this time around, people from the secret services are behind this leak is credible. This suspicion is seriously strengthened especially by the fact that precisely plagiarism at the Academy of National Security Sciences was under the scrutiny of Emilia Sercan. Even the name of George Maior was being mentioned, the person whom the journalist was just investigating.

Let’s assume the accusations turn out to be true. Even so, some context is called for. We are talking about a B.A. thesis. We live in an age of generalised university education. In other words, far more youngsters are enrolling in tertiary studies today than several decades ago. The B.A. thesis is a research project, but many barely manage to put one together – they have neither the training, nor the culture, nor the talent for real research. Most B.A. theses are compilations. Of course, the exigencies of correctly citing the works consulted are important to discipline the young consciences in a world that is increasingly reliant on intellectual property. But let’s not expect so many students who complete their studies to have just as many original researches. A successful B.A. thesis is a successful compilation – except for the few who are already creative at this age. Emilia Sercan enrolled in faculty while she was already working in the press, first in the local and then in the central press. The situation of Ph.D. theses is entirely different: the age is different, the requirements are different, the stakes are different. Intellectual stakes – the Ph.D. corresponds to an excellence in research –, but also social stakes, because the holders of Ph.D. titles receive significant salary bonuses. This is also one of the reasons, identified by Sercan, for the proliferation of the plagiarism phenomenon. Thus, rewarded are people to whom you can call when needed – sometime, those plagiarised are the plagiarists’ Ph.D. thesis coordinators themselves. And social collusions with deleterious effects are thus created – from nepotism to influence peddling. Another reason is the artificial construction of a social status. Plagiarism thus confers a position you would otherwise obtain with great difficulty or that surpasses your real competencies. Romanian politicians have, many of them, the complex of status. They lack the brilliant studies that most politicians have in France for instance. They do not stand out intellectually – some even talk ungrammatically sometime. Having the Ph.D. title compensates for all these shortcomings, at the level of public image. So, they do anything to get their Ph.D.

But there is another argument in favour of Emilia Sercan – even if her plagiarism will be proven. Let’s assume that, in a haste and not very sensitive to this aspect, she did copy fragments without using citations. The fact that years later she ended up undertaking the uncomfortable battle against the plague of plagiarism among politicians is even more so a virtue. In the Christian sense, her conscience evolved. If tomorrow Victor Ponta, for instance, were to become a fighter against plagiarisms, it would be a praiseworthy step. But there are slim chances he will. We need as many “repentant” people as possible, we do not need unblemished beings with no sins on their consciences.

Something else is worrisome. The fact that we need to expose some plagiarists to replace a minister or Premier. Political mechanisms are not functioning in a healthy manner if we are incapable of dislodging a nefarious ruling power other than by blowing the hot air out of the politicians’ fabricated biographies.

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