Ethics in research cooperation. The problem of plagiarism at the international level – interview with Prof. MIRCEA DUMITRU

This interview was recorded by Alina ROINITA as a task for 7th ASEF Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum (ARC7) – Higher Education Taking Action Towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Perspectives from Asia and Europe, which was held in Bucharest, between 11 – 15 May 2019.


A.R.: Dear Sir, I know you have a very firm position regarding Ethics in general. But what does Ethics mean?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: That is a very broad question. There are several perspectives on this topic. The most important, from a historical view, is the philosophical perspective because, since beginning, Ethics was the most important part of Philosophy. It all started in Ancient Greece, especially with the work of Aristotle, who was the first philosopher and scientist who wrote on this topic. Previously, there were some ideas, some concepts and discussions about Ethics which we can trace in Plato’s dialogue, especially the so-called Socratic dialogues, in which the main questions that are addressed and discussed are ethical questions regarding how is our behaviour in the city, in the society, our relation with the tradition, what is the good or the right act to do on the several circumstances and sings of that sort. But in Aristotle’s treatises, especially in Nicomachean Ethics, which is one of the most important treatises, we have already the standard questions and issues of Philosophical Ethics. Ethics, traditionally, has been about the right conduct. How we should live our lives in order to achieve our desiderata, how we could achieve the good life in order to be happy, in order to do our duties toward our family, friends, and not the least, toward our fellows in the whole country, our duties toward humanities, in general. Ethics also have been developed during the centuries, then we have some other major contributions in the modern time, with Immanuel Kant’s treaties on practical reasons, which is also a very important tradition to the ethical theory. Then, in the 19th century, we have a major contribution, especially in the British Anglo-Saxon environment, with John Stuart Mill or Henry Sidgwick, for instance, people who contributed a lot from a more pragmatist perspective because the paradigm they developed is the so-called utilitarian paradigm. So, in general, we have 3 major ethical systems and some combinations of them. It is the Aristotelian Ethics, which is about how we should live our lives, what are the rules, the norms we should implement in order to achieve the Eudaimonia, which is the well-being of our lives, the happiness I would say, in modern jargon. Then we have the deontological system according to which the ethical individual subject is that person who is doing his or her duties, who is applying some strict rules in his or her affairs and last but not least, we have this impressive body of scholarship on the utilitarian Ethics which is maybe, at the moment, the prevalent view in Ethics, especially in Anglo-Saxon Ethics. But there is some new Aristotelian revival of Ethics in the 20th century, some authors went back to Aristotle and they developed the so-called the Virtue Ethics. So those could be roughly the main systems.

A.R.: As we know, ISI Thomson Reuters is one of the impact factors when we talk about the quality of the published papers. Anyway, there were some cases of plagiarism trying to get through in a very subtle way, as reformulation or ideas mentioned in a veiled form. How can we better tackle this issue?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: There are several forms of plagiarism and people reacted to this kind of intellectual fraud or cheating long ago; it did not just happen with us in recent times. Some people actually suggested that this is something new and before that they were allowed to borrow heavily from the work of other people without properly citing and mention those fragments. For sure, the word plagiarism can be properly used when you literally take whole sentences, passages from the work of some other people without acknowledging at all the source of your paper. But then, as you said, there is a more subtle way of plagiarizing which is just taking some ideas and rephrasing slightly and then pretending that those ideas are yours. This kind of plagiarism is as vicious as the other one to my own understanding and taste. As a matter of fact, the other one is just silly because it is very easy to be discovered if you just took something from the work of some other people, because now we have softwares which can retrieve the sources and a full list of names from which you took and you did not acknowledge that properly. The other one is more subtle and that shows more intelligence, but not in a good sense. Let me give you this thought experiment, not a real thing, but something we can easily conceive. I am a logic professor, I teach several kinds of Logics, especially Contemporary logic, but when I am teaching Aristotelian logic, since I have mentioned Aristotle in the beginning, I am going now to mention Logics because he was the one who invented Logics. What if I took, for instance, some chapters from his Organon, one chapter of Analytica Priora? Just rephrase that from Greek or from modern translation, from French or English, into Romanian and I would say that I am the one who actually authored that? That would be the end of my academic career and I will be completely a shame for my academic colleagues. That is an extreme case, no one will dare to plagiarize Aristotle or Kant, but you can never know. Maybe someone is not plagiarizing Aristotle, but is plagiarizing someone who actually wrote on Aristotle. Actually, in order to be aware of that and to prevent that you should work very thoroughly with the sources when you coordinate a PhD dissertation or another paper with your students, you have to stay in contact with them and look each month what he or she is doing and then is very hard for them, if they have that idea, because not all students are cheating, but if they have that kind of attitude, this kind of academic surveillance might act as a prevention in order not to do that. But you mention ISI-Thomson Reuters, now they change it, now is Clarivate, it is another company which is doing that. The impact factor is quite a different thing, is about the rating of the journals, and for sure the journals, the academic journals which are part of this huge database which is now sponsored by former ISI Thomson, are the best academic journals; and being admitted to submit a paper, to publish a paper into that kind of journal it means already a recognition that the paper is a qualitative one. It can be the case that you can submit and you can be accepted, but it is very, very unlikely if you are admitted in such a journal, that your paper is just rubbish or nonsense. That shows that the peer review system is very important in science, the way we should work with our students is just another dimension of this academic system in which we have to do things in a cooperative way, we have to work together and to submit our results to some other people in order for them to be able to criticize constructively our paper and to improve our research.

A.R.: When I am thinking about international plagiarism I have into my mind the idea of a double degree program. Regarding the fact that students can graduate from two universities with a joint degree, there can be a thin channel of transferring information from one university to another one without quoting it. What is your opinion regarding this?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: There were some cases which actually went to the Court of Law, some people claimed that even if they worked with other professors, there were their original ideas which have been stolen from them. There are some strict protocols, in general, and if you know who is originating the idea or who elaborated this idea, then you have to acknowledge the role of each and every author into that project. And this kind of co-tutelle dissertation research could be very well regulated and, in fact, we have that system with some French university especially, francophone programs that, for example, we used to have them here, at the University of Bucharest. Some of them in the field of Literature, Linguistics and in the Humanities, in general, which is in your own field, and a thing that I know from my own experience was that there were not very serious problems with regard to plagiarism in that kind of activity. So plagiarism, actually, could be stopped if there is an active attitude and there is awareness. You should actually teach your students to act properly in research. You don’t have to take for granted that young students and young researchers already know how to do it. And it is not something offensive if you have that kind of intro classes in which you tell them what are the rules of the research in that field. Because the rules might differ from one field to the other. For instance, in my own field, which is Philosophy, it is quite rarely to have multiple authors. Usually is one or maybe two authors. But in other fields as chemistry, or in applied sciences, you might have teams of 20 people and you have to acknowledge the contribution of each one.

A.R.: When we are talking about the educational system in Romania, especially about secondary school and high school, we know that there is a problem with the citation system. How do you think we should tackle this issue?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: Actually, I gave a lot of thought of that some years ago when I was interviewed by some journalists, especially because we had some public attitude against plagiarism in some famous cases here, in Romania. Imagine you give a certain task to the pupils in secondary school or in high school and that task is just something in which you ask them to reproduce some fragments, to write down a sort of story about what they read, and the task is very demanding in terms of the time you have to allocate for that task. And you have many tasks of that sort. Imagine that you have each day a schedule in the school and each day you are supposed to submit a paper. Then it is very likely that, in order for those kids to cope with that huge amount of work, it is kind of rational just to use some sources, some shortcuts. I don’t think this is something to appreciate, of course, we have to say that this is a bad thing, but we need to be aware that the school is done in the way that teachers want the school to be. I mean, if I am asking my students every day to write 10 pages or 20 pages on some topics, they can’t do it. They don’t have the physical resources, the time, to do it. In some other places, as I know the educational system in some other countries, they have a sort of portfolio, they know that in 2 months or 3 months they have to write a report on a topic. They give you a topic: about environment, about global warming, about some issues that are important and students are supposed to do research in an independent way or also supervised by some instructors. And they have to show day by day how that thing grows in a steady way. And, eventually, in two months, three months, at the end of the semester, they have to submit that paper or that report. And that is a thing that you do in a more intelligent way, not something mechanical, but something in which you are much more involved, your imaginative resources, your creativity, more than the sheer memorization and rehearsal of passages. So, again, it is how we defined the scholastic task. If we are satisfied with the young students who are submitting to us reports even if we know they are not able to do it every day, for sure they are going to use some sources from the internet. That is not the good thing, because you don’t give them the right signal. They know that you know that they cheated, and you don’t do anything about that and everybody is happy by the end of the day. Maybe it is better not to impose such a huge load of homework each day, but to invent some other scholastic tasks which require more imagination, more creativity. This is a measure that should be taken not just in secondary school or in high schools, but also in universities. There are universities in which they teach creative writing, for instance. This is an art that could be taught and for sure can be learnt. It is not something we are born with. We are born with the capacity of learning native languages, natural languages, which is something innate, but other activities as writing, reading are socially acquired.

A.R.: I think as long as a research paper remains in a laboratory/library environment, it can be plagiarized quite easily, because it doesn’t have notoriety and very few people know about it. Do you think that a more prominent orientation towards the practical use of the research paper would reduce the risk of plagiarism? For example, if a research paper is getting used in a practical way and is well-known in the same time, the risk of plagiarism will be diminished?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: The PhD thesis are public. Everyone can look at them and actually this is the way they discover if those thesis were plagiarized because they are public. In principle, you can do the same thing for the other major papers that students are supposed to write and submit, for the BA or MA. But, again, the cure for all these is a proper training, this attitude of the instructor or the teachers who should teach the pupils how to do research and then a very strong interaction between the instructors, the supervisors, and the students who should be properly supervised. And if they know their professors are looking at the quality of the research, for sure they will improve their papers and also they will improve their attitude, the attitude of the students who know that someone is really caring about what they are doing.

A.R.: Do you think that the quantitative reduction of content in the scientific papers would decrease the risk of plagiarism?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: This is another aspect of what I mentioned before, what is the type of the task that you set. If you ask a Ph.D. dissertation in 800 pages, then you need more than 3 years to do it. If you ask 1000 pages and if you ask the students to do that in one or two years it is impossible. Not even Aristotle could have done it. But if you ask reasonably enough, if you have more than enough time to get your own views, you have time to polish them, to elaborate them. That is good common sense! You don’t need too many rules for that. You need to have good professors who are motivated to do the supervising and you need to have smart students who are motivated as well. But, of course, we need rules for the institutions, because the rules would prevent people to do some shortcuts and to cheat.

A.R.: Is the constant inspection of the doctoral schools, for example, an international measure to avoid plagiarism? What other measures can be taken to improve the moral behaviour in research papers?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: There is a process of the accreditation and this is part of the qualitative dimension of the schools. Now, according to the law, we have to submit the dissertation, research and thesis before we publicly defend it and, unless we get the approval of the Ph.D. school, the student is not allowed to defend it. This kind of regulation was implemented just because we realized that before that plagiarism issue was huge. And we should do something about that. We should be more careful about how we proceed from now on.

A.R.: How should the principles of Ethics work better through cooperation?

Prof. Mircea Dumitru: Firstly, we know that there are some universities that started before us and you wouldn’t expect major universities from Western Europe, United States or from Asia to deal on a major scale with this phenomena, but in some of them could happen. There were cases at Harvard with this kind of problem. The idea is that they do not hide this kind of thing, they acknowledge that it was a problem and they take some other measures. And this is something we need to change here in Romania, where the attitude of the institutions is that we are more protected if we do not accept something, if we do not take responsibility. It is not a weakness to acknowledge that we have some issues. Yes, we have, it is a fact, and we should do something to prevent it or curtail the magnitude of that fact. But if we are in international teams, I am sure people who work within those teams would be more careful because they know those regulations are very strictly enforced. Some years ago, it was a notorious case in the Netherlands, a sociologist who just made up the experimental results. He was supposed to run interviews, there were some sociological hypothesis that they needed to be tested in a statistic way and instead of running it in an old fashion way, he just made those things up just to support, to back up the entire hypotheses he had. And after some time they discovered he cheated and that was the end of his career. Even though he had a very good reputation. But the fact that he cheated meant that no one would trust him from now on even if he would say the truth. And in some other professions this could mean life or death. Think about being a physician, a medical doctor, think about making calculations about how we build a bridge or a tower or something. That could mean life or death. This is a constant factor in the group of scientists and they are pretty much aware of the fact that unless they protect their reputation they lose everything. Building a reputation is something that can take years. But losing a reputation in science is something it can happen overnight.


(Mircea Dumitru was rector of the University of Bucharest and now he is professor of logics at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest. Between July 2016 and January 2017 he has occupied the position of Minister of Education. He is also a corresponding member of the Romanian Academy.)

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