Plagiarism detection app vs Russia's elites: 1-2 fake PhDs discovered every day

Dissernet, a leaderless collective of Russian scientists and journalists scrapes the doctoral dissertations of Russian elites — who have been attaining advanced degrees at an unprecedented rate — runs them through plagiarism detection software to flag probable frauds for human review, and publishes the names of officials who've been caught cheating, one or two every day.

The fake dissertations are hilariously bad. Igor Igoshin, a member of the Duma, got his degree in economics for a thesis on the market for meat, which began life as someone else's research on chocolate markets; Igoshin's dissertation just search/replaces instances of "chocolate" with "beef" ("dark chocolate" becomes "home grown beef" and "white chocolate" becomes "imported beef"). Yuri Tsarapkin received his oncology degree for a thesis on breast cancer that started out at someone else's thesis on stomach cancer, with "stomach" search/replaced by "breast."

But getting a fake degree has real advantages: in the professions, advanced degrees allow practitioners to charge more for their services. Politicians with advanced degrees can rotate out of politics into senior positions as university administrators.

Dissernet participants have been singled out for retaliation, of course. One founder has been charged with tax evasion; and a journalist involved with the project has been questioned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But the organization — amorphous and leaderless, without offices or funding — has thus far been largely immune to state attacks.

The supply side of the diploma mills is shrouded in mystery. Slick salespeople from the dissertation-for-hire industry make cold calls on successful business-people with this pitch: "It's time you became a doctor of economics. It'll be good for your business." The growth of Dissernet has dented their business, because the buyers are increasingly wary of buying plagiarized goods that will be exposed, humiliating them (if only briefly) on the public stage.

The most straightforward reason that advanced degrees are in such high demand in Russia is that they can bring tangible—that is, monetary—benefits to those who acquire them. In some sectors of the economy, only those with doctorates can be promoted to the highest ranks; in others, including medicine, an advanced degree allows a practitioner to charge more for his services. In politics, the incentives are particularly perverse: Not only do Ph.D.s allow officials who have lost their hold on power to get highly paid jobs as the heads of universities ("where the unlucky or the failed or the stupid can land," said Zayakin), they also make it easier to profit from other forms of corruption. "Teaching work is one of the few legal spheres of work that active politicians are allowed to do," said Parkhomenko. "A politician isn't allowed to do business. But he can be a professor, and he can write books. That's a great way to launder money. Where did you get this money? Well, I gave lectures. I did consulting. I'm a respected person; I have this income from my scientific teaching work."

But the value that Russia's elites place on academic status is not entirely economic. Osipian argues that the country's past and the proud tradition of scholarly excellence it established during the Soviet era is key to understanding today's demand for Ph.D.s. "In the Soviet Union, there was enormous prestige around math and science—physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology—because there was real research being done, and the people doing it were honest and honorable," he said. That prestige has survived, even as funding for academic work has declined under Putin and many scientists have left for jobs abroad. For those who can afford it, an advanced degree is still a tool for social advancement. According to Gregory Simons, a senior researcher at the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies in Sweden and the co-author of a recent article on corruption in Russian higher education, the explosion in academic fraud in Russia has been fueled by the combination of actual scholars and scientists being underpaid and of socially ambitious professionals having disposable income to spend on status symbols.

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[Leon Neyfakh/Slate]

(via Beyond the Beyond)

(Image: Working meeting with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin

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