TalTech Nurkse Institute researcher dissatisfied with coverage of scandal

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A screenshot shared by Ralf-Martin Soe on Facebook of the correction published by Postimees. Aug. 24, 2019.
A screenshot shared by Ralf-Martin Soe on Facebook of the correction published by Postimees. Aug. 24, 2019. Source: Ralf-Martin Soe/Facebook

In a social media post regarding daily Postimees' coverage of alleged EU funding fraud at an institute at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), Ralf-Martin Soe, a researcher at the institute, said that while the paper's piece did raise some questions, he found the entire scandal to be overblown. Postimees, in turn, responded to Soe's comments.

"Postimees' story on research funding raises questions," Soe admitted in a public Facebook post. "At the same time, this seems to be exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Perhaps the headline 'Researchers scheme with bureaucracy with aim to do more and better research' wouldn't have caused such a big storm in a teacup? I am likewise awaiting the results of the internal audit regarding this specific project."

He did, however, take issue with carelessness demonstrated by the paper, noting, for example, that it made three factual mistakes regarding his personal data. The paper issued a correction, a screenshot of which he added to his post.

Soe also included the full text of a statement he sent to the paper, as he was unsatisfied with its coverage of him personally as well.

'We don't need to know where our wages are coming from'

"Postimees including me among 'con artist' researchers is malicious and arbitrary, as doctoral students don't need to know where their wages are coming from," Soe wrote. "Their task is to learn how to do research, and this is what I have been proven to have done, exactly in accordance with my doctoral-junior researcher employment contract during period involving me mentioned in the article (Oct. 1, 2016 - Oct. 30, 2017)."

According to his statement, it was clearly stated in his employment contract at the time that his primary work duty was to write his doctoral thesis in cooperation with his [thesis] adviser. He also noted that he had coordinated his activities with the project's responsible party. "In so doing, I have not falsified a single document, scammed anyone or kept any secrets," he said.

Overall, Soe noted, 2016-2017 was a productive period in his life in terms of research and development activity. "Yes, I also saw the code 'VEF16005' (Postimees referred to the [OpenGovIntelligence] project) in my employment contract and on my pay stub, and I truly believed in good faith that this project is related to my doctoral thesis," he said.

"Or should all doctoral students, who are essentially low-wage-earning university students, now become experts in EU research funding as well — just in case?" he continued. "The capacity involved in becoming an expert on research funding is equal to several doctoral degrees in turn."

Work done in OGI-related field

Soe went on to detail his academic work as a part-time doctoral student between Oct. 1, 2016 - Oct. 30, 2017.

He cited that he authored eight research articles, five of which were published in the 3.1 category at peer-reviewed e-governance research conferences taking place in the field of the OGI project, and two of which were published in the 1.1 category in peer-reviewed e-governance research journals belonging to the OGI field. These articles, he noted, are publicly available in the Estonian Research Information System (ETIS). The eighth article he authored was rejected twice and ultimately went unpublished.

During the same period, he wrote, he also conducted various development activities for approximately the same number of research articles, the goal of which was to further develop e-governance as a field of OGI.

"The planning of followup activities is also often an important part of the [Horizon 2020] framework," he noted in parentheses. "And it must be stressed here that OGI is a Research and Innovation Action, the activities of which are not exclusively in research."

Even in terms of money, Soe contributed several times over of his own free time, he said.

"Even now, if someone found me such a doctoral student, I would hire them as soon as possible and truly I would pay them enough that they could focus on their primary work, i.e. they wouldn't even have to know where this money was coming from, and I would do everything I could to ensure that the payment of their wages was done correctly in accounting and legal terms as well," Soe concluded. "But it is completely malicious to associate me with any kind of fraud."

Paper: Soe should be familiar with how Horizon 2020 works

After Soe's public post began to gain increased attention and media coverage, Postimees decided to respond to his remarks (link in Estonian), published together with the text of his statement.

The paper noted that it had not once referred to Soe as a scam artist, but rather stated that he had received over €13,000 in wages from OGI project funding despite not being connected to the latter project, indicating that over a thousand hours of work was falsified in records — a claim confirmed by three separate sources at the Ragnar Nurkse Department.

The paper also has access to a copy of the project contract confirming that working in a related field is not sufficient grounds for receiving research funding from the European Commission's Horizon 2020 fund, as well as a copy of a list of publications related to the OGI project also sent to the Commission in which Soe's name is not once mentioned.

Despite claims that the OGI project was connected to the doctoral thesis he defended soon after allegedly participating in the former, the thesis itself contained no references to that specific project, the daily highlighted; three separate sources also confirmed that he did not participate in any OGI-related meetings or conference calls and likewise is not listed as an author in any OGI-related publications.

"Let it be noted that according to ETIS data, Soe is (or at least was) Estonia's representative on the European Union's H2020 ICT Committee, and thus one would presume that he is well-acquainted with the rules and operation of the H2020 program," Postimees concluded.

Press council upholds Soe's complaint

The Press Council (Pressinõukogu) on January 6 upheld Soe's complaint about Postimees.

The council found that in areas directly concern the applicant, i.e. Soe, that Postimees violated section 1.4 of the Code of Press Ethics, which requires a publication to ensure that inaccurate, distorted or misleading information does not appear, according to the Association of Media Enterprises (EALL). The Press Council found that information published by Postimees on Ralf-Martin Soe and his contracted work at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute was not factually accurate


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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