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How Russia is Shooting the Messenger

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Feb 19, 2014 7:00:00 AM

Those who follow international plagiarism news have likely become familiar with the work of Dissernet, a group of citizen activists in Russia who, following the pattern of similar groups in Germany, have been working to analyze dissertations by politicians and report on any instances of suspected plagiarism.

692px-Dissernet_logoAnd the group has been very active, most recently calling into question the work of the nation’s ombudsman for children’s rights, Pavel Astakhov, they have also targeted the Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin as well as dozens of governors and other officials.

However, now the Russian Education and Science Minister, Dmitry Livanov, has spoken publicly about the group saying in an interview with Kommersant, a local newspaper, that the group may be doing more harm than good.

“People not verses in this topic will get the idea that all academics are cheats and liars,” he said, “It’s a severe reputational problem for Russian science.”

Livanov went on to say that the group has a political bias, being made up at least in part of Kremlin protesters and saying that they lack the credentials to make claims about plagiarism.

But despite the criticism for Dissernet, Livanov did admit that plagiarism is a problem in the country, noting that a recent study by the Russian State Library, the official body for conducting plagiarism investigations, found that some 10 percent of recent dissertations in the subject of history were likely plagiarized.

But by both admitting that the country does have a plagiarism problem and, at the same time, criticizing citizen activists, Livanov is missing the much more serious problem. While he is correct that those without familiarity with plagiarism matters might walk away with false impressions, those false impressions are made much worse when the government refuses take allegations of plagiarism seriously.

As the article above points out, Livanov’s own deputy, Igor Fedyukin was forced to resign from his brief anti-plagiarism campaign due to what he called “immense psychological discomfort” caused by the lawmakers he was investigating.

For Russia, the real threat of plagiarism allegations isn’t that some will think all of the nation’s academics are liars or that, in at least some cases, it will turn out to be to be true. The larger issue is when it appears that the government in Russia is actively working to protect plagiarists and muffle allegations of unethical research.

This image is supported by the statute of limitations on plagiarism matters. In the country, a dissertation can only be challenged for the first three years after it was published, meaning that, for most of Russia’s politicians accused of plagiarism, there are no repercussions even if plagiarism is easily proved.

The greater danger for Russia is not that it could be seen as a place with a lot of plagiarists, but rather, that it could be seen as a safe haven for plagiarists. If plagiarists are able to escape detection, enjoy the protection of the government and the protection of an arbitrary statute of limitations, it makes the country look like a safe place to commit plagiarism, even if it truly isn’t.

Dissernet is not the cause of Russia’s plagiarism problem, a problem that Livanov acknowledges. Dissernet is the messenger and, while it may be politically motivated, attacking the messenger of a problem never does any good.

Livanov, and the rest of the nation, is better off attacking the issue directly, not those who are investigating it.