Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Fake Academic Degrees in Russia

This is a guest post by one of the members of the Russian plagiarism documentation group Dissernet

Fake Academic Degrees in Russia 

By Andrei Rostovtsev  

The practice of awarding fake academic degrees to politicians, businessmen, doctors in clinics, professors in universities, and teachers in schools, that is, to all those who wish to use their new academic titles to step onto a faster career route, is widely accepted in Russia. The academic titles are awarded throughout the country. This business is based on the production of falsified dissertations. In early 2013 a group of five scientists and journalists established a social network called “Dissernet”. The Dissernet is a volunteer-effort free association aimed at making fraud and trickery in the awarding of academic titles transparent and well-known to the public. By 2016, Dissernet activists have identified more than 5000 plagiarized and falsified dissertations. In falsified dissertations not only is the text copied, but also the numerical data in it are assigned to a different year or region (in economics, law, and sociology), or to a different disease and treatment (in medicine), see discussion below. Over 1000 cases of such dissertations are documented on the website of the Dissernet (www.dissernet.org). Statistical data collected by the Dissernet yield a number of conclusions discussed below.

First of all, there is an important difference between the ways scientific writings are plagiarized in Russia and in the Western counties. In the West, the plagiarism is often associated with an intentional incorporation of other people’s texts or ideas in one’s own scientific research. That is probably why the ‘western style’ can involve many intricate small-scale mosaic plagiarisms intentionally placed in the original text. Yet in Russia, most often Dissernet deals with authors who have never done research and might have never even seen their dissertation texts at all. Such ‘dissertations’ are usually nothing else but a mere compilation of other people’s texts glued one paragraph after another in a haphazard way, something Weber-Wulff calls “shake & paste” [1].

In extreme cases the new text is just an older dissertation with a title page changed to reflect the new candidate. Sometimes the new candidate changes the subject of his or her ‘research’ too—usually by contextually substituting some terms throughout the whole text. For example, one notorious ‘scholar’ transformed a dissertation about the confectionary industry into a dissertation about the beef-and-dairy industry by substituting ‘dark chocolate’ with ‘homegrown beef,’ ‘white chocolate’ with ‘imported beef,’ and ‘nut chocolate’ with ‘bone-in beef ’ (see http://www.dissernet.org/expertise/igoshin.htm and http://cook.livejournal.com/202638.html, in Russian). In the meantime, all the data, tables, pictures, and spelling remained unchanged. Sometimes such authors also ‘update’ the dating of the statistics they refer to, thus making their ‘research’ seem to have been done more recently.

Detection of thousands of fraudulent dissertations by the Dissernet is mainly the result of a unique technology used. In Russia, along with the dissertation a so-called avtoreferat must be made publically available before the Ph.D. defense. The avtoreferat consists of a shortened dissertation content (usually 20–30 pages) and the main research results. Importantly, the texts of the avtoreferats are indexed by public search engines (such as Google or Yandex). The dissertation itself is not usually indexed, however. But if the dissertation contains large fragments of plagiarized text, as described above, its avtoreferat would also have text coinciding with earlier works. The specific Dissernet software is able to pick up the avtoreferats one by one and takes advantage of the search engines indices to look for textual coincidences within the whole publicly available corpus of Russian digitized texts, including texts of other avtoreferats. This program runs 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Thus a few hundred thousand dissertations have been automatically checked. Furthermore, Dissernet takes advantage of the common practice of a chain-like fraudulent dissertation production. As soon as a rampant plagiarism is detected in one dissertation, it is very likely to be detected as well in other dissertations defended by the same dissertation council or with the same supervisor. This happens because the producers of fake dissertations in Russia work in a conveyor-belt mode using very limited sets of scientific texts as sources. By focusing on practically totally plagiarized texts, the Dissernet deals only with a small tip of scientific fraud in Russia. But even so, in problematic fields such as economics and law, about 3 % of dissertations contain large-scale plagiarism. In pedagogy this fraction is a bit higher, but still below 6 %.

Such large-scale dissertation fraud in Russia is a result of corruption that has paralyzed the whole system of awarding academic degrees: from dissertation councils established by the leading universities, where the PhDs are awarded, through the Higher Attestation Commission—the agency which coordinates and validates the awarding of academic degrees—and finally, what is also very important, to editorial boards of scientific journals, where scientific papers of the prospective doctoral candidates have to be published prior the defense. It is obvious that if no real research is done, then no relevant scientific papers could be published by such research. Clear affiliations of Russian scientific journals with the fake dissertation industry run by universities (more exactly, certain dissertation councils) have also been traced by the Dissernet. Those three cornerstones (dissertation councils, the Higher Attestation Commission, and journal editorial boards) are the necessary working parts of the mechanism running the conveyor belts of the academic fraud in Russia. Very often the same persons serve in these three cornerstone bodies at the same time.
Figure 1. Statistics on false dissertations broken down by scientific fields. (Dissernet data)
Figure 1 shows statistics of fraudulent candidate (Ph.D.) degrees awarded in different scientific fields based on the present Dissernet data (n=5215). As one can see, the most problematic areas are economics, pedagogy, and law. These same areas are the most problematic ones in the everyday (non-academic) life of Russians as well. In my view, this correlation is not accidental. The academic community naturally erects a barrier in the way of fake sciences and mythifications, which could otherwise define a climate for the life of whole society. In the areas, where the academic community is strong enough to resist the fraudulent practice of awarding fake academic degrees, the entire non-academic society is not driven by the false ideas. In addition, according to SCOPUS, the proportion of fake dissertations in each scientific field is inversely proportional to Russia’s international input in these disciplines [2].

Figure 2. Geographic location of the major universities producing fake dissertations.
Relative contributions into the total productivity for Moscow
and St.-Petersburg are given in percentages.
Figure 2 presents the geographic locations of universities that award the fake degrees according the present Dissernet statistics. Obviously, Moscow and Saint Petersburg play the most important role as they are among the largest cities. Other cities and towns fall behind. The scale of falsifications in the Caucasus region is relatively large but on the whole, their share in national statistics isn’t that high. This means the phenomenon of scientific fraud in Russia is not a marginal one. It is not localized somewhere on the outskirts of the country. Today it plays a role of an institution that is well integrated into the contemporary Russian state. Why do we qualify this phenomenon as institutional rather than a subject to free market?

Several recent laws and decrees protect owners of falsified academic degrees. The most important one (see http://www.rg.ru/2013/10/01/stepen-site-dok.html and http://www.saveras.ru/archives/6450) makes it impossible to strip a person of an academic degree if its defense took place before 2011. The authorities are quite reluctant to revoke the fake academic degrees, even if the defense has happened after 2011. The reactions from those accused of plagiarism by Dissernet varies from ignoring it, through calling it nonsense and accusations that it is politically motivated, to accusing Dissernet members of unprofessionalism and arguing that only appropriate dissertation councils have the right to assess the quality of dissertations (E. Denisova-Schmidt, personal communication). This point of view is broadly supported by state-owned mass media. Still, as of today, the Dissernet has managed to convince dissertation councils to revoke about one hundred fake academic degrees.

Last but not least, Dissernet investigations are relevant not only for an assessment of the Russian fraudulent academic world. Most importantly, the Dissernet provides a unique view on the deterioration of some institution’s reputations in Russia. In order to illustrate this point, several reference groups may be considered: members of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS), directors of Moscow’s primary and secondary schools, chancellors of Russian universities, regional governors, and members of the State Duma. Members of each group are selected if they have been awarded an academic degree during the last 15 years. Dissernet did not detect any falsified dissertation by the RAS members. Of 141 dissertations defended by directors of Moscow’s primary and secondary schools, 23 satisfied the Dissernet criteria for largely plagiarized texts. This amounts to 16 %—a rate which is more than three times higher than the probability of finding large-scale plagiarism in a random pedagogical dissertation.

Figure 3. Breakdown of fake dissertations by occupation: a reputation crisis.
This implies a silent mechanism at work selecting and supporting those who are prone to falsifications. The next group is chancellors of Russian universities, which has shown an even higher fraction of 21 %. Of that, one third of such universities are in Moscow. The proportion of politicians representing regional governors and members of the State Duma is even higher, reaching 41 % for the latter. In short, Dissernet performs a sort of a litmus test, identifying those dissertations prone to fraud and trickery, depending on the circumstances, and demonstrates the reputation crisis in Russia. This is illustrated in Figure 3. Why are the authorities, which are charged with larger responsibilities, subject to this stronger negative selection? This question will have to be answered by sociologists rather than Dissernet.

Despite aggressive state politics directed at the Dissernet, this public initiative has gained a good reputation and respect in Russian society in general, as evidenced by several awards and the fact that the name itself has become a meme.

[1] Weber-Wulff, D. (2014). False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism. Heidelberg, Berlin: Springer. 
[2] Rostovtsev, A. (2015). Some Observations on the Subject of Dissertation Fraud in Russia. HERB: Higher Education in Russia and Beyond, 3(5), 17–18. Available at https://herb.hse.ru/data/2015/09/22/1075563638/HERB_05_view.pdf

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