Why We Need To Talk About Academic Corruption

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Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for Balkanist:

In societies where public opinion plays little part in political turns of events, the most onescandal can do is to afford the plebs a short-lived vent for outrage. It’s a bread-and-circuses pact, where the public is fed a regular dose of “civic concern” in exchange for keeping business as usual. Think of the past year’s moral panic about the homicide of children in Serbia, or the hype over the Albanian drone incident. Sadly, it seems as though the outcome of this summer’s wave of academic plagiarism scandals in Serbia will be as ineffectual – a few good jabs in televised debates, but no meaningful change in policy or practice.

Let’s recap: in June, a group of Serbian expat academics exposed the PhD of then-Speaker of the Parliament, Nebojša Stefanović, as a work of plagiarism. Doctorates of Mr. Stefanović’s mentor and Megatrend University President Mića Jovanović, Belgrade Major Siniša Mali and politicianAleksandar Šapić were also debunked as massive frauds. Expert commissions, formed to investigate the matter, backed the authenticity of Messrs. Stefanović and Mali’s works in short order. And yet, the publicly disclosed evidence was so overwhelming, and the copy-pasting so blatantly obvious, that the commissions’ conduct will go down in memory as a spectacular case of academic disgrace.

The hype soon spilled over to neighboring Montenegro: in September, it was revealed that Minister of Science, Sanja Vlahović, had plagiarized an academic paper from Prof. Dimitros Buhalis of Bournemouth University. Two thirds of a paper Madam Minister presented at an academic conference in 2010 turned out to be copied (almost verbatim) from a work Prof. Buhalis had published in 2000, without reference to the original. It was also discovered that, when applying for a tenured position at Mediteran University’s School of Tourism, Ms. Vlahović’s CV cited authorship of an article published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. The said Journal issued a statement denying publication of any work authored by Ms. Vlahović. The pattern repeated itself – public calls were made for the Minister’s resignation – her official reaction was to shrug it off. Just like in the case of her two fellow scholars-in-power in Serbia, an expert commission was formed by Mediteran University to investigate the allegations, and (surprise) it found no grounds to launch a formal inquiry because “the exact practices that constitute plagiarism have not been defined either by the University’s governing Statutes or by the Law of Higher Education”. It’s hard to say whether this was the most gut twisting excuse of all made by commissions of the kind, but it sure does close a loop that starts with a Science Minister committing academic theft and a university that doesn’t have a way of authenticating academic works.

It would be a great shame if the public backlash generated by the latest of these high-profile scandals whimpered away with the next new juicy gaffe, as seems to be the case in Serbia. It is imperative we recognize that these instances are the tip of the iceberg – they shed light on a grave problem. One that permeates the two countries’ educational systems, labor markets and every societal echelon; one whose existence and scope our institutions have so far ignored, but about which a public conversation has to begin. We need to start talking about academic corruption, raising awareness of the issue and demanding that our judicial and educational institutions finally do something about it.

Almost every student coming from the ex-Yugoslav region has either heard about instances of buying term papers, bachelor’s theses, master’s theses or doctorates, or has had personal exposure to this practice. A staggering percentage of students buy academic works from specialized “producers” and submit them for a grade, a course credit or a degree. In Montenegro, there are online ads, Facebook profiles and even posters placed on entrances to university buildings that advertize the sale of academic works. Some of them even leave their phone number.

Curious about the black market of Montenegrin academia, I contacted some of these “producers” – they were very open about their line of work, giving interested parties bank account numbers on which to transfer required funds. For 15-25€, you’ll get a term paper, and at a price of 60-100€, a BA thesis will be drafted for you. A Master’s thesis will cost you a couple hundred Euros. It is enough for the customer to leave the desired paper topic and length, and the product will be sent to your inbox in as little as one week. If you’ve got a grand and a couple months to spare, you may even commission a doctorate.

The “producers” with whom I’ve talked sometimes work in teams. They’ve been selling academic works for years now, and we can only guess how many dozens of term papers, undergraduate degrees and graduate qualifications they have so far provided to incompetent young people who were ready to pay. Most, if not all, of these paid academic papers are themselves works of plagiarism, simply because the “producers” don’t have enough time to write a decent paper for their numerous customers. The practice in which these “producers” and their customers are participating is not only dishonorable and illegal: Since academic qualifications are the most relevant determinant of entrance in the labor force, the practice of “buying” grades and degrees is plainly dangerous.

Imagine a not-so-hypothetical case of a well-off Economics student who pays for every term paper in his undergraduate studies, buys a Master’s degree in Finance and pulls strings to land a job at the Central Bank of Montenegro. This utterly unknowledgeable bloke, having never done any academic research, gets to deal with interest rates and other vitally important bits of the country’s fiscal policy. Think of the hundreds of sons and daughters of the ruling elite who have bought their way out of university and instantaneously hired by the Government’s various ministries, agencies and municipal institutions – coupled with the partitocracy and nepotism that dominate the labor market, these young people’s lack of knowledge and competence poses a real and imminent threat to the management of the State’s affairs. If we don’t take urgent measures to stop and sanction the corruption that runs rampant in our educational systems, every level of our institutional system will soon be flooded with entitled idiots.

The judicial system of Montenegro hasn’t managed to bring a single criminal investigation, let alone an indictment for academic corruption yet. The total number of official reports of this crime made to the district attorney offices in the country is – one (filed by Yours Truly, nine months and seven days ago). As I write these lines, this lonely push for justice, the naiveté of whom had likely afforded the D.A. clerks a good day’s laugh, hasn’t moved past its initial post-instigation phase. It’s been shoved up on top of some shelf, safely cushioned in those endless, thorough-paced dodge tactics that bureaucrats employ to avoid dealing with a problem.

The effect that the status quo has on the social fabric of countries such as Montenegro is even graver than that of a professionally crippled public sector. In a society where there is a continuous and systematic push, on the part of the ruling elite, to establish corruption as an uncontested modus vivendi, giving up the system of higher education to its corroding clout is as good as capitulating. That’s why we cannot treat what happened in 2014 as yet another scandal. Instead, we should open a public debate on what to do about our problem with academic corruption – and persistently demand that the issue be prioritized. On that note, I should like to take this opportunity to propose three concrete things for which the public might want to advocate:

First, petition our elected representatives to mandate that every accredited institution of higher education purchase an authentication software such as TurnItIn (available in S/B/C) and run every academic paper (including BA, MA and PhD theses) in their databases through it. Whichever institution fails to do so within one year should have its accreditation automatically revoked.

Second, insist that our institutions make the criminality of “buying” academic works crystal clear. This would include demanding that the D.A. offices start filing criminal reports against those advertizing the sale of academic works and their past customers – a glance at the transaction histories of their bank accounts will give plenty of material. An effort of the sort would also include a public awareness raising campaign, although, from talking with the said “producers”, I can tell you that the majority of both buyers and sellers are, in fact, perfectly aware of their wrongdoing.

Third, insist that the mentors of degree candidates who have plagiarized their work be held accountable for negligence, at best, or complicity. Some may reasonably object to punishing an instructor for overlooking one instance of plagiarism among a hundred student papers they had to grade in a short time period. That’s a fair point, but it’s far off the mark. For instance, Montenegro’s former Chief of Police, Mr. Veselin Veljović, successfully defended a Master’s thesis. It turned out some forty pages of Mr. Veljović’s thesis were copied (verbatim) from a (sic!) undergraduate textbook written by Prof. Milenko Kreća. The funny thing is, Prof. Kreća was a member of the commission that evaluated Mr. Veljović’s Master thesis. Meaning, Prof. Kreća either failed to spot a chunk of his own writing in the thesis he had been evaluating, or he made a deal with his politically powerful protégé. This is why we need to hold the mentors accountable.

I look forward to discussing these and other suggestions as part of some eventual public discussion on how to start cleaning up the mess in which our system of higher education has gotten itself. There are competent individuals in our academia that could come up with actual policy proposals and action plans – the public’s role is to insist that something gets done. Are we capable of it? Should we even bother?

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