Romania PM ensnared in plagiarism scandal

His first education minister resigned for allegedly plagiarizing a book about Romania's entry into the European Union. His second quit soon afterward, also accused of copying academic work. Now, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta faces claims he plagiarized half his own doctoral thesis.

His government less than two months old, Ponta has found himself devoting an exceptional amount of time to explaining the alleged academic misdeeds of himself and his appointees. All as his country struggles through political instability and deep unhappiness over harsh austerity measures.

Some Romanians see a political vendetta at play. Others a reflection of a culture of academic cheating that sprang up after the collapse of communism, when university credentials became a way of climbing up the social ladder.

"People with ambition, money and influence have been buying doctorates for the last 20 years," said political analyst Stelian Tanase. "It looks good on their CV to have a doctorate, it's fashionable, so they buy them like they'd buy an Armani suit."

Nature said Monday that an anonymous whistle-blower had provided it with documents that indicate that more than half of Ponta's 432-page thesis, written in 2004 on the International Criminal Court, was plagiarized from the work of two Romanian law scholars.

At first Ponta denied the accusations, saying they were politically motivated. But on Tuesday he partially admitted to some of the allegations.

"The only reproach I have is that I did not list authors at the bottom of each page, but put them in the bibliography at the end," he said: "If this is a mistake, then I am willing to pay for it." He said that he would give up the title of doctor if wrongdoing was proved, but would not resign as prime minister.

Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are endemic in Romania.

After communism fell in 1989 and Romania pursued free market reforms, a large number of private universities and institutes opened, offering what some say were spurious academic qualifications. Cheating starts early in Romania and is widely acknowledged as common in schools. Teachers are known to accept bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to students who copy during exams.

There have been widespread reports about cheating in university finals. Medical colleges have been accused of selling exam papers and questions in advance to students, eroding trust in doctors.

Ponta completed his doctorate in 2004 when he was a state secretary under former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who has just been sentenced to two years in prison in a corruption case. Nastase has appealed and denies the allegations.

The Nature journalist who wrote the article said the science magazine published the allegations because of concerns about Romania's academic integrity.

"Domestic politics are not our focus," said Quirin Schiermeier, adding that what was at stake was "the academic reputation of Romanian-produced science."

Ponta is the latest high-profile European politician to be enmeshed in a net of accusations about plagiarism. Former Hungarian President Pal Schmitt and ex-German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg both resigned when accused of plagiarism

Ponta claimed that he was the victim of a smear campaign by his bitter rival, Romanian President Traian Basescu, alleging that the whistle-blower was presidential adviser Daniel Funeriu. Neither Basescu nor Funeriu commented on the allegations. Last week, Basescu made fun of Ponta for having a doctorate in international law.

Ponta became prime minister on May 7 after the previous government was ousted upon losing a confidence vote. Two of his appointments for education minister stepped down after they were accused of plagiarism.

"It seems there is an electric chair at the Education Ministry," said Ponta at the time.

The plagiarism flare-up is the latest chapter in a year of political instability for this Balkan nation of 19 million people, beginning in January when thousands staged weeks of protests against austerity measures. Two prime ministers resigned this year before Ponta was tapped for the job.