Elena Ceauşescu did not have a BSc, but the power of her husband Nicolae — Romania's dictator until communism fell — still made sure that the University of Bucharest awarded her a PhD in chemistry. The contents of her many scientific papers were penned by others.

The couple were executed on Christmas Day 1989 for crimes more terrible than poor publication ethics. But their practice of playing fast and loose with academic principles has flourished in notoriously corrupt post-communist Romania.

Over the past 18 months, Nature has chronicled an epidemic of plagiarism involving prominent political figures in Europe, reporting, among others, on Germany's former defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who plagiarized material for his law thesis; Hungary's former president Pál Schmitt, whose thesis on physical education contained plagiarized material; as well as Romania's prime minister Victor Ponta, who continues to dismiss well-founded accusations that he plagiarized sources for his law thesis. On page 264, we highlight widespread plagiarism within Romania's universities and the worrying fact that so many academics there seem not to realize why this is a problem.

Plagiarism seems to be disturbingly prevalent among the European political class and in Romanian academia, but cases continue to pop up everywhere. The Internet makes it easier to detect, but also easier to perpetrate, because anyone can cut and paste more or less anything in a matter of seconds. Perhaps it is this easy access to the words of others that encourages some academics to think that plagiarism is not a serious issue.

They are wrong. Plagiarism is illegal (theft of intellectual property) and immoral, and anyone whose reputation and career rely on publishing their ideas and findings needs to care about it. True, it does not directly affect the scientific literature in the same way as other types of misconduct such as data fabrication. But it has an indirect impact on the academic system because it helps to promote the careers of the fraudulent and the undeserving. And those who climb the academic ladder on the back of dishonest publication records often imbue their students with the same disrespect for scientific method and academic principles.

It matters on a larger scale, too. Most countries accept that to attain economic prosperity they need a robust research base, a concept enshrined in the European Union's Treaty of Lisbon. But a research base contaminated with plagiarism can never function optimally. Romania, a signatory to the treaty, seemed to be on track to a more honest and promising future when it passed its education law, designed to inject competition into its universities and root out widespread scientific misconduct. Yet that law is now being undermined by political interference in the very ethics councils that should be helping to implement it. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why Romania's excellent scientists — and there are many of them — choose to work mostly outside the country.

A group of researchers is now trying to change things, partly through a website to track and investigate cases of misconduct in Romania. Their stated goal is to “reform and restore confidence” in the country's academic system. Scientists everywhere should back their effort and pass on their message — with appropriate attribution, of course.