Monday, May 23, 2016

Fake dissertations: Russian edition

Years ago, I recall reading about endemic academic cheating in the Post-Soviet world---students routinely paid for grades, corruption partly incentivized by low teacher salaries. This Slate piece updates us on new forms of academic corruption and perhaps entrepreneurship: plagiarized dissertations.
In all these cases, the alleged fraud was exposed by members of a volunteer organization that calls itself “Dissernet”—the “website” Naryshkin referred to so dismissively. Started in early 2013 by a handful of scientists and journalists, the group has undertaken the task of identifying and publicly shaming government functionaries, academic administrators, and members of Russia’s so-called elite who allegedly hold advanced degrees they did not earn through legitimate means. Using software that looks for sections of text that resemble previously published work, Dissernet has, to date, identified roughly 5,600 suspected plagiarists and published damning reports on about 1,300 of them. In an exposé posted earlier this year, Dissernet showed that 1 in 9 members of the Russian State Duma—the parliamentary body that Naryshkin presides over—had received their diplomas using dissertations that contained large portions of other people’s work and that had, most likely, been purchased from ghostwriters.
Andrei Rostovtsev, a physicist who co-founded Dissernet and developed its plagiarism-detection software, explained to me how the group catches its quarry. “Currently we’re doing doctors,” he said. “The machine is constantly working, and it chooses suspicious cases. So, we see from the state library that roughly 100,000 doctors have defended theses in the last 15 years. The machine chooses a paper from this digital bank, analyzes it for overlaps, and if there are too many matches, it flags it for us. Then our volunteers examine it by hand. And this process is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Some splendid examples:
Some of the intellectual theft Dissernet has identified is comic in its brazenness and absurdity. Duma member Igor Igoshin allegedly earned his economics degree by turning someone else’s paper on the Russian chocolate industry into a thesis on meat; the dissertation replaced every mention of “chocolate” with “beef,” “dark chocolate” with “home-grown beef,” and “white chocolate” with “imported beef.” All numbers, charts, and analysis were preserved in their original form. More recently, Dissernet revealed that an oncologist named Yuri Tsarapkin had handed in a medical article about breast cancer that was adapted—data and all—from someone else’s paper on stomach cancer. That paper, which was presented as a study of human subjects, turned out to have been plagiarized from yet another source: a study of cancer in dogs and rats.
While academic fraud exists all over the world, the pervasiveness of the deception in Russia is unparalleled, as is the extent to which it is tolerated. As MIT historian Loren Graham points out, even Vladimir Putin has been accused, in a 2006 investigation by the Brookings Institution, of plagiarizing parts of his Ph.D. thesis in economics. It has not had much effect on the Russian president’s career. “The fact that that had no resonance—doesn’t that sort of tell you what’s going on?” said Graham, who specializes in the history of Russian science. “If Putin can get away with it, it’s a blessing for others to do the same thing.”
Why so much fraud?
The prevalence of academic fraud in Russia is fueled in part by the structure of the country’s higher education system. Unlike their American counterparts, would-be academics in Russia can receive doctoral degrees without doing any substantial coursework, as long as they convince a “dissertation board” to approve their theses. These dissertation boards exist inside universities, where they are organized by discipline and staffed by faculty members; there are several thousand of them throughout the country. “If it’s a big university, they might have 10 of these boards, each one devoted to a different academic field—one for European history, one for Russian history, one for philology, one for French language, one for philosophy, and so on,” said Parkhomenko.
Over the past 25 years many of these boards have become corrupt, with faculty members and academic advisers taking bribes in exchange for rubber-stamping obviously shoddy, or stolen, work, according to Osipian, who is not a member of Dissernet. “Everyone wants to get his cut,” he said. “You bought a dissertation, fine, but you still have to pay the people on the board to let this dissertation go through. At these universities, everyone needs money—they are all overworked and underpaid.”
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Corrupt dissertation boards, according to Zayakin, are the “core” of the supply chain for academic fraud, and some of them “have effectively become places where fake degrees are manufactured.” But what really makes the system hum is the thriving marketplace of dissertation-writing firms, which often masquerade as mere academic consultancies, that broker deals for buyers. For the most part, these firms do their business out in the open and are easy to find by looking up “dissertation for order” on Google or the Russian search engine Yandex. One representative outfit sports a user-friendly website featuring a picture of a smart-looking man in glasses and offering dissertations for the bargain price of 100,000 rubles (about $1,500). Your order can be ready in as little as 30 days. Customer reviews promise excellent outcomes: “Oleg” reports that the dissertation he received from the company was “perfectly done” and was approved by every expert who examined it. “I couldn’t have done it this well myself,” he avows.
 Underemployed Ph.D's worldwide can (and let's be real---some already have) seize the opportunity to monetize their expertise in the fake academic writing market. Not only can you write a dissertation for a customer, you can write fake journal articles to stuff into the citations of the fake dissertation. Hell, you can start a line of fake journals to publish the fake articles for citation in the fake dissertations. And you can scale up---once you have developed a good template or two, you can use it for multiple dissertations, just changing key terms along the way. With your network of fellow underemployed Ph.D's, you can franchise the operation, and with some of you still teaching, you can market your product (everything from dissertations to plain old term papers) to your students.
 

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