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Turning the Tide on Fake PhDs in Russia

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Jul 1, 2016 2:15:39 PM

Back in January, we took a look at the issue of fake PhDs in Russia and the struggle that was faced by academics in the country trying to address the problem.

The news was not good. An anti-plagiarism group named Dissernet had exposed over 3,500 falsified theses, over five per day since it began work, and the new cases were still coming. Thesis plagiarism, it seemed, was just too well-entrenched into the Russian political process and it would be honest academics and students in the country who would pay the biggest price.
However, a recent article on Slate turned the focus back onto the problem of fake Russian PhDs. While it reiterated many of the dire statistics from earlier, it also shared new data that seemed to indicate, even without the public backlash against the plagiarism, that the efforts of Dissernet have been having an impact in the country.

To understand the impact of Dissernet, one first has to look at the reasons Russia has such a large-scale problem with fake PhDs.

First off, Russia, as a nation, places great value on PhDs in general. Many of the country’s most lucrative and most powerful positions are inaccessible without a doctorate. Politicians, doctors, lawyers and academics alike need PhDs to further their careers.

However, according to the Slate article, the higher education system in Russia works differently than in the United States. A PhD candidate doesn’t need to sit through a large amount of coursework so long as they can convince a “dissertation board” to approve their thesis.

With several thousand of these boards across the country, some have become corrupt and openly accept bribes in order to approve theses. As such, some would-be academics simply acquire a dissertation off the black market, bribe a thesis board to approve it and receive a PhD without even having read the dissertation they supposedly wrote.

And the problem is endemic in the country, with Ararat Osipian, one of the country’s top researchers on academic corruption, estimating that between 20 and 30 percent of all dissertations accepted in Russian universities since the fall of the Soviet Union were purchased on the black market.

To that end, Dissernet has been working to try and stem the tide, exposing thousands of fake dissertations. However, their work has not been met with the same public outcry that similar allegations have been met with in other nations, such as Germany. Instead, despite media coverage, there have been few resignations and nearly no response from the general public.

However, the work of Dissernet does seem to be having an impact. According to Osipian, the number of dissertations defended in Russia jumped sharply after the fall of the Soviet Union rising from 15,000 in 1993 to 30,000 in 2005. The United States and Canada, for example, saw almost no increase between those years.

But since the launch of Dissernet in early 2013, the number of dissertations defended dropped sharply, from 30,000 in 2012 to 16,500 in 2014, nearly cutting the number in half in just a few years.

While it’s likely that many factors contribute to this steep drop, the fact is that, thanks to Dissernet, buying a black market dissertation now carries a great deal of risk. Even without public outcry or regular consequences, the fear of being exposed is enough to dissuade many.

Still, as local journalist and Dissernet contributor Serguei Parkhomenko said in the Slate article, the greatest challenge ahead is getting the public to truly care. Parkhomenko said that the issue is that reputation has come to have little value in the country, especially in academics.

However, the first step in restoring reputation is reducing the percentage of PhDs that were unjustly awarded. As more and more degrees are awarded to deserving academics, the value of the degree rises and that, in turn, attaches more meaning to the title.

In short, the value of reputation isn’t restored by just exposing those acting unethically, but by encouraging others to do the right thing. Dissernet, even without the public outcry and scandals, is having a real impact and, while it may be years before it’s felt, could have a strong role in shaping Russia’s academic future.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.