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Ph(oney)D dissertation rows keep hitting media headlines

January 29, 2014, 18:56 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, January 29. /ITAR-TASS/. Ever more rows over faked dissertations authored by high-placed Russian officials and public figures keep hitting the headlines. The crusade against plagiarism, launched a year ago by the Ministry of Education and Science, has now spread to social network activists, who in their investigative effort have gone much further than the authorities - in defiance of the position and rank of those involved.

This time Russian presidential children’s rights commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, has found himself in the vigilantes’ focus of attention. Last year some activists of the network community called Dissernet called in question the science value of his dissertation thesis. In particular, they accused him of theft. At the request of State Duma member Dmitry Gudkov Astakhov’s dissertation was sent to the Russian State Library for examination.

State Library experts say in their conclusions, which Dissernet published several days ago, that the paper titled Legal Conflicts and Modern Ways of their Settlement (Theoretical and Legal Research), which Astakhov defended in 2006, consists of 65.97% of original text, and of 34.03% of quotes borrowed from 37 sources.

What made the self-styled campaigners against plagiarism so angry is that the Russian State Library, as represented by its director, Aleksandr Visly, has disclaimed any responsibility for its own findings. “To my recollection Mr. Gudkov did not get any results from us then,” Visly told the media.

The chief of the library’s press-service, Irina Kovalenko, later confirmed that Pavel Astakhov’s dissertation had been checked for the presence of borrowings, but the conclusion Dissernet has published had not been signed by any of the library’s experts, so it cannot be regarded as an official reply. “Any individual, let alone a legislator, may order a check only of one’s own dissertation, while probes into somebody else’s work are made upon special request from the Higher Attestation Commission or from investigative authorities,” Kovalenko said.

Dissernet activists have brought up the question of dismissing the children’s rights commissioner. In the meantime, the State Duma’s committee for the affairs of the family, women and children said that the findings were not a reason for Astakhov to be fired. “We have a law saying that if a period of more than three years has elapsed from the moment the dissertation was defended, it shall not be liable to revision. This means that from the legal standpoint Astakhov is beyond criticism. We have no objections against his paper, either. Astakhov may have no dissertation at all. It is not a mandatory requirement for holding the ombudsman’s office,” the daily Izvestia quotes one of the committee’s members, Alexei Lysakov, as saying.

The long string of faked dissertation scandals started with a probe the Education and Science Ministry held at Moscow’s Pedagogical State University (MPSU) at the end of January 2013. The commission leafed through 20 or so dissertations to have identified cases of plagiarism in all but one. A month later the presidium of the Higher Attestation Commission made a decision to strip all authors responsible for cribbing of their science degrees. In July, MPSU rector Viktor Matrosov was dismissed.

The Internet activists decided to go further to look for borrowings in the dissertations authored by politicians, legislators and high-ranking officials. Last November stolen passages were reported to have been found in dissertations defended by Deputy Education and Science Minister Alexander Klimov and the head of the education watchdog, Rosobrnadzor, Sergei Kravtsov. And last December Dissernet said that the just appointed chief of the special department for resistance to corruption, Oleg Plokhoi, too, allegedly used extracts from other people’s works for writing his own paper.

In the meantime, on Tuesday the Education and Science Ministry had come up with a proposal for examining all dissertations that have been defended since 2000. As Visly said, the ministry had declared a special contest to determine the best bidder to be appointed to conduct a massive check of dissertations. According to the current plans, a total of 30,000 dissertations will be studied. The likely costs of the effort are estimated at 300 million rubles (roughly ten million US dollars). However, the real scale of inquiries may prove far greater than originally expected.

Visly said only the Russian State Library had the resources to cope with the job. At first the library’s anti-plagiarism software will check all works for suspicious borrowings using the dissertations electronic data base. Those where borrowings contain more than 25% of the overall text will be handled by experts “manually.”

Most of those found responsible for plagiarism will sustain mostly reputational damages - the Education and Science Ministry will draw up lists of faked dissertations. By the law an official conclusion regarding the presence of stolen text in a dissertation can be issued only by the Higher Attestation Commission. According to the new rules, which took effect this year, the statute of limitations regarding such probes has been increased from three years to ten, however, dissertations defended before 2011 are not liable to consideration by the HAC.

The Russian State Library has a major experience of checking science work. Last summer the library reviewed 14,500 dissertations on history, defended since 2000. It has turned out that about 1,600 of them (10%) contained 70% percent of compilations of other texts.

Analysts at the Education and Science Ministry have supported this idea. The proposal for creating “an open list of officially recognized plagiarists is good,” the daily Novyie Izvestia quotes a member of the public council under the Education and Science Minister, Mikhail Gelfand, as saying. “In that case we would have been able to see who is a real PhD, and who is a Ph(oney)D.” The black list can become a reason enough for disbanding dissertation councils, which rubber-stamp faked works.

“It is not so much the quantity as the quality of procedures and possible results of studying the dissertations that really counts,” the daily Vedomosti says in an editorial. “It is important to ensure all suspicious works, regardless of the position and status of the author, undergo impartial scrutiny. It would be only fair, if those put on the black lists for fraud would be stripped of their science degrees and posts, including civil service jobs.”


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