By Dr Uglješa Grušić (lecturer, University of Nottingham), Dr Branislav Radeljić (senior lecturer, University of East London) and Slobodan Tomić (PhD candidate, London School of Economics and Political Science)
DISCLAIMER: The procurement of dubious academic degrees, especially those obtained through nepotistic and corrupt activities, is a serious problem in the Serbian system of higher education. Acquisition of said degrees has produced a whole host of concerns for the country, including negative selection, brain drain, the degradation of values, an uncreative and non-competitive economy, and so on. Needless to say, the state and the civil society must try to address this issue. To begin with, those who fail to respect academic standards and legal norms must be held accountable. Since the relevant institutions have failed to react, it is up to us, as citizens, to take the initiative and confront the problem.
The purpose of this article is to encourage accountability rather than personal disqualification or political harm. In preparing this article, we contacted a number of academics in order to verify our findings. We are not interested in the political context. As a matter of fact, we plan to continue to examine suspicious doctoral and masters dissertations belonging to other public figures in Serbia, regardless of their political affiliation.
In Serbia, many have obtained degrees of higher education through bribery or other connections. Such degrees are particularly popular amongst politicians and party officials. Therefore, as citizens as well as academics, the three of us have decided to conduct a detailed analysis of some possibly problematic degrees earned by some of Serbia’s top public figures. We’ll start with the most glaring and recent example – Dr Nebojša Stefanović, former President of the National Assembly of Serbia and now Minister of Internal Affairs. The Ministry’s website clearly states that he was awarded an MA in Economics from Megatrend University in 2011, and then, only two years later, earned a PhD from the same university. The title of his doctoral dissertation was “The New Role of Strategic Management in Local Self-Government: The Case of the City of Belgrade.”
Doctoral studies with dissertation usually last three to five years. They require commitment and hard work. Every PhD student is expected to read hundreds of books and journal articles, in order to become familiar with existing arguments and to identify the most suitable research methodology and methods for his own original research. In addition, a good PhD student is expected to regularly provide his supervisor with written parts of his dissertation and consider any comments and suggested revisions, to attend and present his work at conferences, to publish various sections of his prospective doctoral dissertation, and to take an active part in the research community. Therefore, the question is: How did Stefanović manage to complete and defend his dissertation in such a short period of time, while at the same time perform his duties as President of the National Assembly?
By invoking the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance, Anđela Milivojević, a journalist at the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Serbia, visited Megatrend University and looked at Nebojša Stefanović’s PhD, after which we also received a copy. A detailed analysis of the dissertation reveals that Stefanović’s work is heavily plagiarized and for this and other reasons it fails to meet the criteria for a successful PhD.
Plagiarism is the act of copying the work or ideas of others, without crediting the original source. In other words, plagiarism is academic theft. For example, the Regulations on the Academic Offence of Plagiarism of the London School of Economics and Political Science insist that every piece of written work must be the student’s own work: “Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks or indented and must be cited fully. All paraphrased material must be acknowledged. Infringing this requirement, whether deliberately or not, or passing off the work of others as the work of the student, whether deliberately or not, is plagiarism.” Plagiarism in a PhD dissertation is the gravest of all academic offences; most often, the sanction for plagiarism is that the doctoral title is not granted or is revoked, without any right to appeal. In its Guide to Using Sources, Harvard University distinguishes between two types of plagiarism – verbatim and mosaic. While the former implies copying the original text without any modifications, the latter suggests that some changes exist, so that the act of plagiarism is less obvious. Needless to say, both types represent serious offences. Finally, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Belgrade and former president of the Council of the University of Belgrade, Professor Sima Avramović, also talks about two types of plagiarism – one referring to the copying of ideas and the other to stealing sections from other texts, without naming any of the original sources (15 January 2012, Novosti). He states that both types are unacceptable and subject to sanctions, and emphasizes that the humanities and social sciences are particularly prone to plagiarism.
Nebojša Stefanović’s PhD is heavily plagiarized. While some sections of his dissertation are copied from other people’s work without referencing them, others are more mosaic in nature. Some of the examples are as follows:
– on page 14, Stefanović writes about self-government in Italy and, among other things, says: “Nadzor nad radom lokalne samouprave, osnosno aktima opština i provincija, vrši nadzorni odbor regije, koji može imati svoje pododbore za određena upravna područja. Odbore čine eksperti…” – this is copied from Decentralizacija kao polazište daljeg razvoja Srbije: priručnik, a book published by Dejan Vučetić and Dejan Janićijević in 2006, in which we find the following on page 94: “Nadzor nad aktima provincije i opštine sprovodi nadzorni odbor regiona, koji može imati pododbore za različite upravne oblasti. Jedan takav odbor najčešće je sastavljen od eksperata…;”
– on page 35, Stefanović writes about Moldova – this is plagiarized from pages 279 and 280 of Jačanje lokale vlasti, a volume edited by Emilia Kandeva in 2002, which is not mentioned here;
– on page 48, Stefanović writes about Austria – this is paraphrased from pages 15 and 16 of “Priručnik za uključivanje građana i civilnog društva u procese odlučivanja,” published by Snežana Đorđević in 2011, which is not mentioned here;
– on page 57, Stefanović plagiarized part of page 16 from Lokalna agenda 21: uvod u planiranje održivog razvoja, published by Slobodan Milutinović in 2004;
– on page 59, Stefanović writes: “Nerazvijene zemlje su osetljive na ograničenja u privrednom razvoju, jer su suočene sa nedostatkom potrebnih resursa, posebno kapitala i novih tehnologija.” This is plagiarized from Milana Mrkalj’s piece, “Menadžment u funkciji održivog razvoja” from 2012, which states the following (on page 468): “Nerazvijene zemlje i zemlje u razvoju su posebno osetljive na ograničenja koja njihovom privrednom razvoju postavlja ubrzani rast populacije i nedostatak potrebnih resursa, najčešće tehnologije i kapitala;”
– on page 61, Stefanović starts a new chapter by observing: “Osnovni uslov za efikasan menadžmenta (sic!) je demokratizacija upravljanja i angažovanje sposobnih kadrova za izvršavanje kompleksnih poslova i zadataka u lokalnim samoupravama.” This is plagiarized from an abstract belonging to Mehmed Avdagić, Maja Radić and Dževada Avdagić’s “Demokratizacija menadžmenta u procesima promjena,” from 2012, which reads: “Jedan od osnovnih uslova za djelovanje menadžmenta promjena je demokratizacija upravljanja i okupljanje najsposobnijih kadrova za izvršavanje delegiranih poslova i zadataka;”
– on page 77, Stefanović’s dissertation contains pieces plagiarized from Modeli lokalne organizacije lokalne samouprave: Slovenija, Hrvatska, Bosna i Hercegovina, Makedonija i Srbija, a volume edited by Zdravka Zlokapa and Dušan Damjanović in 2008;
– on page 120, Stefanović writes: “Najveće učešće javnih prihoda imaju Švedska (60%), Francuska (54%), i Danska (49%), dok najniže (ispod 20%) imaju Nemačka, Italija, Irska…” – all these data are copied from page 27 of Reforma sistema finansiranja lokalne samouprave, a volume edited by Antony Levitas and Gábor Péteri in 2004, neither of whom are mentioned here; furthermore, on the same page, Stefanović adds: “Učešće sopstvenih javnih prihoda u ukupnim lokalnim prihodima je ispod 25% u većini savremenih država (Mađarska – 32%, Poljska – 33%, Slovenija – 34%…)” – again, all of this data is plagiarized from the same volume (page 28);
– on page 146, Stefanović plagiarized the introductory section of Srđan Isaković and Lidija Marković’s “Organizacione mogućnosti za poboljšanje procesa upravljanja ljudskm resursima u državnoj upravi,” from 2012 (page 257);
– on page 149, Stefanović plagiarized a part of the first paragraph on page 10 from Lokalni ekonomski razvoj – evropski putokaz ka modernoj lokalnoj samoupravi, a book published by Vanesa Belkić and Milica Hrnjez in 2010, who are not mentioned here;
– on page 170, Stefanović plagiarized from page 74 of Efikasan opštinski menadžer, a book published by CeSID in 2007.
It is important to add that the majority of the aforementioned publications are not even included in the list of references at the end of the dissertation.
In addition to plagiarism, the dissertation suffers from other irregularities. Regarding the procedure, it remains unclear how Stefanović gained the right to defend his dissertation only two years after obtaining his MA degree. The Megatrend University Rule Book on Procedures and Requirements for Defending a PhD Dissertation stipulates that a candidate qualifies to “defend the doctoral dissertation in the 6th semester” after “passing all exams as per curriculum of the PhD program” (Article 2). Since Stefanović finished his masters in 2011, he couldn’t have spent more than five semesters in a PhD program before he defended his dissertation.
Also, Stefanović’s work doesn’t even meet the minimal technical standards. His dissertation contains a staggeringly small number of footnotes in the text – just 41 – out of which 29 refer to the same two collections of essays about the comparative experiences of local governments, issued by Magna Agenda. What’s equally problematic is the fact that the author refers to sources that he didn’t specify (one of many examples – on page 58, Stefanović says “The European Commission adopted a new strategy on sustainable development in 2001, which was afterwards discussed at several meetings,” but he doesn’t specify which strategy and meetings he refers to).
Stefanović’s dissertation falls far below standard concerning both its content and scientific contribution. He doesn’t provide an overview of his scientific discipline, doesn’t explain key debates and up-to-date empirical evidence, and he doesn’t even explain his key arguments or how his dissertation advances science (through discoveries of new laws; proving, refuting, or reformulating dominant theories; presenting original empirical evidence as the basis for relevant conclusions, etc.). Therefore it’s not clear how it was possible that the committee approved such a paper as a complete PhD dissertation, having in mind that Megatrend’s Rule Book stipulates that the “PhD dissertation should synthesize and apply the acquired knowledge, through an original scientific contribution to the field of research of the dissertation, in order to solve a specific theoretical or practical economic problem. PhD dissertations should contain an overview of up-to-date scientific achievements in the subject area in which the candidate will make their scientific contribution” (Article 10).
Furthermore, the dissertation topic doesn’t fully reflect its content. The title specifies “Belgrade” as a case study. However, the Table of Contents reveals that only one of 16 chapters (in the Table of Contents chapter 13 is entitled “Research – case study on the example of the City of Belgrade”) examines Belgrade specifically. But the real headline of chapter 13, on page 148, is different. It says: “Managing the economic development of local government in Serbia.” Since no other chapter focuses on Belgrade, Stefanović’s dissertation cannot fulfil the condition of coherency, as its topic doesn’t fit the actual content.
As far as methodology goes, the author says on page 11 that he will use “deductive, inductive, comparative, synthetic, and analytical methods,” without explaining how each of them would be used, or their shortcomings and advantages in the given context. Furthermore, Stefanović says that he will also use “a multiple multivariate regression analysis or Spearman formula, depending on the question.” In short, regression analysis is a quantitative method used to measure the influence of one or more factors on a particular phenomenon. In order to employ it, it is necessary to have data representing the indicators of those factors. However, Stefanović’s PhD does not contain a single section with data of this type and therefore there is no regression analysis. Nevertheless, Stefanović’s paper provides some superficial and superfluous recountings of local governments’ experience in other European countries, which is far from a serious comparative analysis. The entire dissertation is actually descriptive, with an eclectic amalgamation of different portrayals that don’t add up to a meaningful whole, nor do they have scientific value. Finally, the author doesn’t explain how he came up with his hypotheses, why they are relevant, or which debates they refer to, nor did he provide any examination or proper analysis. Some “hypotheses” are mere tautologies (for example, “the more efficient local government is – the more cost-effective it is”). So it is hard to believe that Professor Mića Jovanović, Rector of Megatrend, shares Stefanović’s dissertation with his PhD candidates “as an example of remarkably good paper, especially in the field of methodology of scientific research” (30 April 2014, Pressonline).
This article doesn’t argue that a politician or party official must have a good PhD dissertation, but it does call for accountability. A person who is ready to “push” a scientifically worthless paper, especially plagiarism, as a PhD dissertation, is not fit to hold public office. Joining the European Union is the Serbian Government’s strategic priority. Then we should learn from European examples. Former German Federal Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, had to resign in February 2013, after it was proven that she had plagiarized her PhD dissertation. In 2011, the same thing happened to Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, then-Minister of Defense and one of Angela Merkel’s closest ally. A similar situation took place in Hungary in 2010 with former President Pal Schmitt. In his inaugural speech at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić claimed that it is worrisome that the “educated cadre who stays [in Serbia] largely have diplomas of suspicious quality thanks to a devastated educational system.” So, this is an opportunity for him and relevant institutions to take action.
A version of this text originally appeared on Pescanik.