The Constitutional Court in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital

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Croatia’s top judge sues national ethics panel after it finds him guilty of plagiarism

One of Croatia’s top judges is hitting back at the country’s national research ethics panel after having been found guilty of plagiarism. Miroslav Šeparović, president of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, announced last week that he has filed criminal complaints against all five members of the Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education (CESHE), after it concluded that Šeparović’s 2013 doctoral thesis about children’s rights in EU and Croatian law contained repeated instances of “incomplete and opaque citations” of other people’s work.

Šeparović confirmed to Science that he is suing the CESHE members—as a private citizen, not in his capacity of a judge—for misusing their positions and overstepping their jurisdiction, which his own court limited last year. “I am not happy for having to sue, but I have had no alternative,” says Šeparović, who says he seeks to “protect my right to honor and reputation.” Šeparović says he filed the charges on 28 November 2017, days after CESHE ruled against him, and decided to make them public last week after the committee’s unpublished report leaked to the press. Šeparović’s legal team has also called on the CESHE members to resign immediately.

Members of the committee say they have only heard about the case from the press so far. “It is crazy that some team of lawyers is asking for members of a national ethics body to resign just for doing their job, for which they have a parliamentary mandate,” says CESHE Chairman Ivica Vilibić, a researcher at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split, Croatia. Vilibić says he worries about ending up in prison—the charges carry a maximum sentence of 5 years—and says Šeparović’s suit is a dangerous new development in an ongoing effort to weaken or end the committee.

CESHE was set up in 2005 by the Croatian Parliament. Until then, charges of scientific misconduct in the country were handled at the faculty or university level, if at all. Critics said investigations often weren’t objective and rarely found wrongdoing, in part because Croatia’s scientific community is small, with just a few thousand researchers. Neglect during the Communist era and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s eroded standards and triggered a brain drain.

The panel has since embarrassed quite a few politicians and top academics, including an influential obstetrician named Asim Kurjak who was found guilty of extensive plagiarism in 2007. Last year, CESHE found that then–science minister Pavo Barišić, a philosopher at the University of Split, plagiarized parts of two research papers; disputes about that case led four of CESHE’s nine members to resign. (Many other top officials in Croatia have been accused of plagiarism, including another member of the Constitutional Court and Minister of Defense Damir Krstičević; CESHE hasn’t yet ruled on those cases.)

The charges against Šeparović were filed on 1 February 2017. Three months later, in a suit against the panel brought by the University of Zagreb, the Constitutional Court weakened CESHE’s influence by ruling that the committee’s findings don’t take precedence over those of lower-level bodies, such as universities’ ethical committees. Šeparović says he abstained from voting in that case because of his conflict of interest.

In his statement to the media last week, Šeparović claimed the decision means the committee is not allowed to rule on individual allegations of misconduct at all, an interpretation the committee members vehemently dispute. Without the power to rule on individual cases, CESHE would serve no purpose at all, Vilibić says.

Šeparović says the panel is wrong on the merits of his case as well. He says he has acted in accordance with “unwritten rules and standards” at the law faculty of the University of Zagreb, where he obtained his doctorate, and which has defended Šeparović when the allegations surfaced.

“Mr. Šeparović is trying to bring down this issue to a legal one—and it would be bad if this was the case just because of his reputation and influence in the Croatian justice system. Ethics and morality are not only a matter a law,” says Saša Zelenika, a professor of engineering at the University of Rijeka in Croatia who was deputy science minister from 2012 to 2014. The case shows that the University of Zagreb should take misconduct charges much more seriously, Zelenika says. The committee’s opinion, he says, “is important for raising awareness and standards in the whole Croatian scientific community.”

CESHE worked well until powerful people were affected by its rulings, says Matko Marušić, a medicine professor at the University of Split and one of the people who led the push to establish the committee. “When this issue comes down to real cases, the potential culprits resist fiercely, using connections and counterattacks,” he says.

Croatia’s academic community hasn’t taken a strong stand to protect CESHE, says Pavel Gregorić, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy in Zagreb and a visiting fellow of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. But he sees hope in the next generation: “Interestingly, and perhaps fortunately, students are among Croatia’s loudest voices demanding higher standards of academic integrity.”