Letter alleges plagiarism, cronyism and other bad practices are tolerated and widespread

More than 800 scientists have signed a petition started two weeks ago campaigning for an overhaul of research ethics and the assessment process for researchers in Serbia, amid systematic and widely-tolerated academic misconduct. An open letter has also been sent to the science and education ministry.

The letter details a damning situation of research and publication misconduct, including widespread plagiarism, self-plagiarism and duplication of papers; the formation of ‘citation cartels’ where friends’ names are added as co-authors on papers; and artificially upping the impact factor of predatory journals that publish low quality work by citing unrelated research from the same journals.

The current government in Serbia will certainly reinstate the monstrous concept of “nationally important or relevant science”

These instances of misconduct help to secure a better rating for corrupt scientists and, therefore, higher salaries and better promotion prospects. This is because the Serbian system for evaluating scientists looks mainly at the number of papers published and the impact factor of the journals, rather than the quality and the impact factor of the papers themselves, the letter states. This means that the majority of honest researchers have to work much harder to gain the same benefits as those playing the system, the letter adds. 

The evidence used to back up these assertions comes mainly from research conducted by the Centre for Evaluation in Education and Science (CEON/CEES), in Belgrade. Last year CEON/CEES found that the overall incidence of plagiarism in journals covered by SCIndeks: the Serbian Citation Index was 11%.

‘The integrity of the system of evaluation has been shaken to its foundations in recent years,’ the letter states. ‘A widespread belief has developed among researchers that scientific impact in Serbia is not evaluated justly or productively and that the betterment of one’s position in Serbian science is too often not earned through work and talent.’

Reluctant partner

The scientists blame the situation on current regulations, the way they are implemented and the ministry’s unwillingness to deal with misconduct. Reluctance to deal with evidence of wide-spread plagiarism in the past has paved the road for more and larger offences, such as the fabrication and falsification of results. The letter also outlines potential solutions to the problem, including setting up a national research integrity office, protecting whistleblowers and using individual’s citation records to evaluate them.

The letter was sent to coincide with the first 100 days in office of the new, right-wing government, which had already ignored the demands of an earlier petition to re-establish a dedicated ministry for science. Many scientists have reservations about the new government, as it is headed by the party of former president Slobodan Milosevic who led the country into more than a decade of civil war and international isolation in the 1990s.

The ministry did not respond to Chemistry World’s request for comments.

‘If the government is fighting corruption in other segments of society – as they claim they do – they can start to fight corruption in research publications, results, promotions at universities,’ says Rastko Selmic, a professor of electrical engineering at Louisiana Tech University, US, and one of the petition’s signatories. ‘Let’s have a fair competition where the best and the brightest will be promoted to lead our universities, departments, and laboratories.’

‘My impression was that there is a real need to raise awareness regarding the poor state of ethics in research, in particular in medical research, and the urgent need for improvement,’ says Radmila Mileusnic, a visiting professor at the Open University, UK and at the School of Medicine, in Belgrade, who also signed the petition. ‘The current government in Serbia will certainly reinstate the monstrous concept of “nationally important or relevant science” and the few young, bright ones who have until now failed to leave the country, will certainly start looking for outward flights from Belgrade. The last elections in Serbia proved that there is no short- or long-term memory in Serbia and that the ghost of Milosevic is coming back,’ she adds.