Romanian researchers have called on academic publishers to remove Elena Ceaușescu’s name from almost two dozen scientific papers and books fraudulently published as her work, more than 30 years after the wife of the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed.
Elena Ceaușescu was celebrated by state propaganda under her husband’s regime as a world-famous chemistry researcher, despite having no credible qualifications. The researchers say some of her work is still being cited and accessed, even though she was barely literate in science and unable to recognise basic formulas taught to first-year chemistry students.
They also want Ceaușescu’s honorary titles, awards and PhD to be revoked, and for institutions that honoured her – including the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry and the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) – to withdraw recognition and acknowledge that her scientific career was bogus. Her PhD was never retracted in Romania, even though it was widely known she did not write it.
Chris Isloi, a neuroscience and psychology researcher based in London, and Andrei Dumbravă, a doctor and senior lecturer at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași, are leading the call to have the scientific record corrected. But Isloi says it is proving difficult “since no academic publishers ever wrote their publishing guidelines anticipating an author might be a communist dictator’s illiterate wife”.
The Ceaușescus were executed on Christmas Day 1989 after Romania’s attempt to follow the other countries of eastern Europe in a peaceful overthrow of their regimes descended into bloodshed that ultimately allowed former communists to retain power under the guise of democracy.
Craving for legitimacy
Elena Ceaușescu’s claim to scientific status was driven by her own desire for prestige and Romania’s curious position as the communist state most indulged by the west, despite the crushing brutality of the regime.
Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power in 1965 and won praise in the west for opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia three years later. In 1969, Richard Nixon visited Bucharest, the first US president to set foot in a communist country. Ceaușescu was invited to the White House in 1970 and 1978, and in the same year was the first communist head of state to visit London.
Margaret Thatcher, herself a qualified chemist, visited Bucharest in 1975 as opposition leader and was received by the Ceaușescus, then met them again on the 1978 visit, a year before her first election victory.
But at home he drove the Romanian economy into the ground, presided over an appalling human rights record, cut funding for science and medicine, and constructed a shameless personality cult around himself.
“They were hard times,” Dumbravă says. “It’s always complicated to tell the whole story for people who never experienced any kind of totalitarianism.
“It was a world in which everything was dictated to you,” he said. “The efforts of the Ceaușescus to pay off foreign debt meant they wanted to avoid any imports which required currency … Everything from oranges to bananas disappeared … And everything was under strict control. You could not sacrifice a cow in your village. It was illegal. You could go to prison if you got caught with some meat.”
Isloi believes the Ceaușescus’ craving for international recognition and legitimacy was the reason Elena’s scientific credentials were raised to such heights, but her connection to chemistry research began well before Nicolae came to power.
Her biographer Lavinia Betea, a professor and historian at the University of Arad, says holding the title of scientist legitimised Nicolae Ceaușescu’s “rise as a leader of the intellectual elite”.
“The Ceaușescus never needed money again after Nicolae Ceaușescu was appointed general secretary of the Communist party in 1965,” Betea says.
“All their expenses for food, clothes and leisure were taken care of. However, the constitutions of communist countries stipulated that citizens had both a right and an obligation to work. As the wife of the most powerful politician in the country, Elena Ceaușescu wanted to portray herself as a role model, worthy of being next to the ‘great political leader’, her husband. She wouldn’t hear of having just any job. As communism prized science as a force for industrial production, and being an intellectual had also been valued when she had been younger, a job as a scientist would work well with being the first [female] comrade of the country.”
Elena Ceaușescu was born to a family of farmers and traders in 1916, according to her biography in the Romanian national archives. She attended night school at the Polytechnic Institute in Bucharest for seven years from 1950, and after her graduation went to work at the National Institute for Research and Development in Chemistry and Petrochemistry (ICECHIM), in the department working on elastomers – a type of polymer.
Dumbravă says this is probably why she “specialised” in polymer research in her academic publications.
“It was just a matter of chance,” he says. “Before she got her ‘PhD’, and before she got her bachelor of science ‘degree’ in chemistry, she was an unskilled worker in the institute, under the supervision of the person who had most worked on her PhD.”
In his book Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite: the Rise and Fall of the Ceaușescus, Edward Behr writes: “There is no record of her chemistry degree in advance of her doctorate … but by 1960 she had a full-time job as a researcher at the Chemical Institute (ICECHIM), and by 1965 she had become its director.
“Mircea Corciovei, a scientist at ICECHIM … recalled that ‘in her [Ceaușescu’s] new position it was very difficult to talk to her. She gave orders, she wanted no arguments’,” Behr writes.
“It was impossible for him to discover the extent of her knowledge of chemistry, for she never discussed the scientific aspects of the institute’s work, ‘concerning herself only with political and administrative matters’ … Corciovei discovered she didn’t know what a chromatograph was, and didn’t recognise the formula for sulphuric acid – H2SO4 – taught to first-year chemistry students.”
The book describes how in 1967, when Ceaușescu was due to appear before a board of examiners to defend her chemistry doctorate while she was still working at ICECHIM, Corciovei tried to attend – such events were open to the public by law and university tradition.
But when Corciovei showed up, the door was locked. The session had occurred in camera.
‘Everyone knew she was an imposter’
Ceaușescu’s scientific reputation may have had the full resources of the Romanian state behind it, but it could not have reached international proportions without the help of western publications, institutions and political leaders.
“Her international fame was supported by forcing Romanian chemists to write papers, some of which were published in international journals, as well as a book that was translated in English and published by Pergamon Press, a widely known British academic publisher,” Isloi says.
That book – based on Ceaușescu’s PhD – was published by Pergamon under the title Stereospecific Polymerization of Isoprene and carries a foreword by the Nobel prize-winning British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, who wrote: “I am not equipped myself with enough technical knowledge of the field of this work to give a critical scientific evaluation of its contents.
“But even a necessarily brief reading makes one think that the field of research surveyed by the author is vast and recent.”
Pergamon, which was owned by Robert Maxwell, also published hagiographic biographies of several eastern bloc leaders, including one on the Romanian dictator titled: Nicolae Ceaușescu: Builder of Modern Romania and International Statesman (1983).
In 1991, a few months before his death, Maxwell sold Pergamon to the academic publishing giant Elsevier, where Ceaușescu’s two books are still available. Her work is also available through the publishers Taylor & Francis and Wiley.
Journal articles under her name appeared in publications such as the Journal of Macromolecular Science and the now discontinued Journal of Molecular Catalysis.
Ceaușescu’s reputation was also promoted by Romanian officials who pushed for recognition from respected institutions in the west. Dumbravă says she had a “childish desire” to be showered with gifts from around the world as a sign of her prestige.
Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former head of Romania’s intelligence service, who defected in 1978, wrote in his 1987 book Red Horizons that Ceaușescu demanded he arrange for universities in New York and Washington to award her honorary titles.
“I tried my best to explain that the American president did not have the same power that the Romanian did,” Pacepa wrote. “The only result, however, was Elena’s wrath.”
Dennis Deletant, a historian and emeritus professor of Romanian studies at University College London, says in 1978 he was approached by the principal of London University, who told him Romanian diplomats had been trying to get Ceaușescu an honorary title ahead of her state visit in June of that year. Deletant was asked whether this was a wise decision.
He says: “The Romanian embassy in London made strenuous efforts to persuade certain British academic institutions to recognise Elena’s ‘scientific achievements’– she was trumpeted in the Romanian press as ‘a scientist of world renown’, even though her doctorate was the work, I was reliably informed by Romanian sources, of a professor at the University of Iași.
“I was invited by the principal of London University to discuss with him the grounds for the award of an honorary doctorate to Elena,” Deletant says. “I expressed a strong opposition to such a step.”
An emissary from the Romanian Academy was also sent to plead Ceaușescu’s case for recognition by the Royal Society, the oldest national scientific society in the world.
Deletant’s wife, Andrea, who taught Romanian at Bradford University, acted as interpreter at a meeting with the society’s president, the Nobel prize-winning chemist Alexander Todd.
“After giving the emissary generous hospitality, in which alcohol played a significant part, Professor Todd asked the emissary in all frankness whether Elena deserved an honour from the society,” Deletant says. “The answer he received was no.”
Both the University of London and the Royal Society rejected the Romanian requests.
The Romanian embassy then turned to the Royal Society of Chemistry, which made Elena an honorary fellow, and the Polytechnic of Central London, which gave her the title of honorary professor.
Neither organisation responded to a request for comment on the call to revoke Ceaușescu’s credentials.
Her biographer Betea says it is important that those outside Romania share responsibility for the legitimisation of Ceaușescu.
“Her first ‘recognitions’ came from France and the United States, before entering the Romanian Academy,” Betea says. “Can you excuse the interests of those who did not live in a communist dictatorship, and blame only those in the country? Or just her? That’s not fair, in my opinion.
“Obviously, everyone knew she was an imposter. Those who gave her titles or pressured others to do so … are guilty of having contributed to an intellectual imposture of colossal proportions.
“Those who took part in the deception were not penalised. Without them, those like Elena Ceaușescu would not have existed as a ‘world-renowned scientist’.”
‘Offence’ to honest scientific work
Professor Mircea Teodorescu from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest’s Department of Bioresources and Polymer Science, co-authored papers with Elena Ceaușescu between 1984 and 1989. He is part of the push to have her name retracted from scientific works.
At the time, Teodorescu was a young assistant professor with a research laboratory in ICECHIM’s rubber department.
“The whole scientific output of this department had to have Elena Ceaușescu as the first author, because of the orders of the Communist party,” Teodorescu says.
“This included all joint projects with researchers from other institutions, like me and other colleagues of mine. I knew from the very beginning that all papers resulted from these joint projects would have Elena Ceaușescu as the first author, but I accepted the situation due to the location of the laboratory and also because the projects I participated in involved high-quality scientific research which offered me the opportunity to learn a lot and gain research expertise.”
Teodorescu wants the works on which she was the sole author withdrawn and her name removed where she was a co-author. The science in those papers was sound, Teodorescu says – it’s just that Ceaușescu had no involvement in it.
“In fact, I believe that she did not even read those works because I very much doubt she had the ability to understand them,” he says. “I consider that it is a moral issue to correct this.”
In their letter to Elsevier, sent on 10 December, Teodorescu, Isloi, Dumbravă and their co-authors call Ceaușescu’s behaviour “a ruthless act of intellectual misappropriation”.
“In the name of the self-correcting nature of science, as well as the hard-earned Romanian democracy, we ask that you consider retracting the titles bearing her name, as her authorship on these works is not only fraudulent, but an offense to Romanian anti-communist protesters who were killed during the Romanian Revolution, as well as every Romanian scientist who has ever done honest work.
“We are well aware that these titles have ended up in your catalogue through no fault of your own. However, we consider this correction of the scientific record to be crucial.”
Similar requests have been sent to Wiley and to Taylor & Francis. All the publishers have guidelines stating that false claims of authorship and plagiarism are grounds for retraction.
A spokesperson for Wiley said: “We take all allegations of authorship abuse very seriously and thank the individuals who brought this to our attention.
“Since receiving their letter, we have quickly initiated an investigation into four articles in Acta Polymerica, a journal which was discontinued in 2003, in accordance with industry standards set forward by the Committee on Publication Ethics.”
Elsevier and Taylor & Francis did not respond to a request for comment.
The co-authors are also calling for 36 patents registered under Elena Ceaușescu’s name with the European Patent Office to be retracted.
ICECHIM’s website still lists her as a former general manager, but says nothing about her dark history, harsh cuts to scientific funding or lack of credentials.
Its current general manager, Mihaela Doni, said: “The period of 1970-1980, in which Elena Ceaușescu held the position of the institute manager, cannot be removed or permanently erased from the history of this institution.
“Our institute, as it is now, has no [qualification] in determining whether Elena Ceaușescu would have asked to be the co-author of some scientific works to which she did not contribute, and even more, to ask the publishers to withdraw her name from the published works,” she said.
“The only ones who are entitled to do this are the co-authors themselves.”
Isloi says Ceaușescu’s impact on science in Romania persists.
“In Romanian academia, plagiarism is rampant, as is nepotism,” he says. “Sloppy science is ubiquitous, [much of it] a consequence of Elena Ceaușescu’s nefarious and outsized influence in the 70s and 80s.”
Betea says Ceaușescu is now perceived less harshly than when she was alive. There’s a certain collective guilt over her hasty trial and execution, she says. But her fraud had a lasting impact on politics and science.
This month, Romania’s minister of innovation resigned after an investigation found significant irregularities on his résumé and evidence he plagiarised from an academic paper.
“Being enrolled as a student in a private university, and paying to have your own books or articles published in order to advance your academic career, is usually associated with Elena Ceaușescu’s model,” Betea says.
“As is the Romanian politicians’ objective of having academic titles or PhDs, which is looked upon as a consequence of the obsession that the Ceaușescus had of embodying both political and scientific figures.”