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Court ruling deals blow to Croatia’s research ethics body

National ethics committee for science and higher education cannot issue opinions on individual misconduct

Croatia’s embattled national committee for research ethics, which has been out of action since 2018, has suffered a major blow that could bring an end to meaningful national-level investigations of misconduct in the country.

According to local media, in March the Croatian constitutional court overruled the committee’s opinion on plagiarism charges brought against four academics at the University of Zadar, on the basis that the committee does not have the right to rule on individual misconduct cases—which has so far been its main activity, as defined by law. The court ruling was made in a case brought by the accused academics.

Supporters of the committee claim it is unconstitutional that the court ruled against an opinion. They claim that the court has a conflict of interest because the president of the court, Miroslav Šeparović, was previously found guilty of plagiarism by the committee, and some other members have been accused of plagiarism. Šeparović strongly disputed the committee’s finding, reached in 2017. Research Professional News has contacted the court for comment.

“Some of [the court’s] members are accused of plagiarism, some of which we—the national ethics committee—reached an opinion [on]. So, the constitutional court decision is biased by the conflict of interest,” said Ivica Vilibić, the chair of the committee, who is an oceanographer at University of Split.

The court’s decision is the latest setback for the committee, which has struggled to maintain political support while finding that various professors and officials, including Šeparović and former science minister Pavo Barišić, committed plagiarism. Like Šeparović, Barišić disputes the finding against him.

“It was really hard to sink deeper in the mud, as I thought that it cannot be worse than it is,” says Vilibić. “It seems that I was wrong…it is a hard time [for] science in Croatia.”

The committee is appointed by the country’s parliament. It was first set up in 2006 but, following high-profile plagiarism cases, parliament failed to appoint it in 2011-14 and then again since the summer of 2018.

This failure to appoint the committee itself is against the law, claims Vilibić, but he added: “This is not a problem to our decision-makers, the problem is an opinion [we issued].” He added that the committee’s reports to parliament from 2016 and 2017 are still awaiting approval.

Following political uproar over Barišić and Šeparović’s cases in 2016-17, Šeparović’s own court, with him abstaining, in 2017 struck down terms of reference for the committee approved by parliament that say its opinions are “final”, and challenged its ability to issue opinions on individual cases.

“This goes against the current science law which specifically gives the committee such powers,” said committee member Vlatko Silobrčić.

The latest court ruling did not address the plagiarism accusations against the Zadar academics directly, according to local media and other sources, but simply said it was not up to the committee to decide either way. This sets a precedent and essentially means that the committee cannot investigate and issue opinions on misconduct cases it receives. Instead, such cases will have to be handled by individual institutions.

But the closely knit world of institutions and its potential for nepotism and corruption were the arguments for setting up a national-level ethics body in the first place.

The rector of the University of Zadar, Dijana Vican, said the university “is an institution that promotes and implements the highest ethical standards in the academic community”. She said it “has an ethics committee, which regularly conducts procedures based on applications, that is, knowledge of various forms of violation of ethical standards”.

According to Vilibić, Vican was being investigated by the committee on an unrelated case before its term ended in 2018. Research Professional News has asked Vican whether she wants to comment on the allegation that she was previously being investigated.

Of the four Zadar academics involved in the latest case, two responded to our requests for comment.

Ljiljana Zekanović-Korona, head of the tourism and communications department at the university, denies plagiarism but admits there was a “technical omission” in one of her studies that “could be unclear”.

“I cannot accept the opinion of the Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education as either the author of the studies or as a head [of the department],” she says. “The only option that the authors had at their disposal is lawsuit at the constitutional court to protect their reputation.”

Her deputy, Božena Krce Miočić, who also denies charges of plagiarism, says that “as there is no way to object to the opinion of the Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education, the only way to preserve our scientific and personal dignity was to initiate proceedings before constitutional court, which we did”.

“As you have seen,” she adds, “the constitutional court issued a judgment which considers that this committee isn’t competent to make such opinions”.

Beyond the current case, given what they see as parliament’s lack of interest and the court’s conflicts of interests, Vilibić and Silobrčić are not optimistic about prospects ahead.

“It is unlikely that a new committee will be appointed any time soon,” said Silobrčić. “And it is even less likely that it will have any role in resolving the many instances of unethical behaviour in the Croatian academic community.”

Vilibić added: “Regarding who might sort this mess, I don’t see anybody in Croatia. Parliament is a political body, not operational. [In my opinion] this should be a body on a European level.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe