Late last year, Russian newspapers reported what would have qualified as a stunning piece of news almost anywhere else: The chairman of the country’s largest parliamentary body had been exposed as a plagiarist. Sergei Naryshkin, the former chief of staff in Vladimir Putin’s administration and a prominent member of his United Russia party, stood accused of receiving the Russian equivalent of a doctoral degree on the strength of a dissertation in which more than half of the pages contained material lifted from other sources.
In a satisfying twist, one of the uncredited guests in Naryshkin’s thesis—a 196-page paper titled “Foreign Investment in Russia as a Factor in Economic Development”—was an unabashedly liberal economist named Vladislav Inozemtsev. “It’s quite amusing that a prominent member of United Russia decided to turn to my article,” Inozemtsev said at the time. “It seems he found it to be of good quality.”
Of course, no one really believed that Naryshkin had read Inozemtsev’s article or that he was guilty of copying it himself. Rather, he was suspected of paying a ghostwriter to produce a thesis in his name, then bribing academic officials to secure its certification. Naryshkin probably never even read the dissertation that had earned him his degree.
In the United States, the exposure of a government official of Naryshkin’s stature as a plagiarist would likely set off a major scandal. (Imagine if Paul Ryan was found to have written an economics paper in which he had borrowed liberally from Paul Krugman.) Naryshkin’s fate hasn’t been so dire. After giving a half-hearted statement in his own defense—“I was told that some website published some information. But I trust the judgment of real scientists”—he continued doing his job as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
To be fair, nothing much had. As Naryshkin himself surely knew when the accusations against him were leveled, he is just one of more than 1,000 high-achieving, well-heeled Russians who have recently been caught plagiarizing large parts of their dissertations.
Many of the alleged fraudsters are politicians. Some are judges. Others are prosecutors, police officials, and heads of universities; one was a bureaucrat in charge of overseeing Russia’s circus industry. In the past few years alone, there have been credible allegations of dissertation plagiarism made against Russia’s minister of culture, the governor of St. Petersburg, and the head of the country’s top federal investigating authority. Just in the past month, copy-and-pasting has been discovered in the dissertations of the deputy finance minister of the Russian republic of Mordovia and a government adviser on justice who is the putative author of a thesis comparing legal principles in Russia and the West.
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.”
Dissernet is best understood as a diffuse network of anonymous activists, described by one of the group’s leaders in a recent article as being motivated by a concern that Russian science “has become a breeding ground for the development of low and shameful human vices—vanity, hypocrisy, and the will to achieve professional success through dishonest methods.” Rostovtsev estimates that there are several dozen people around the world contributing to the effort on a regular basis while he and a few other core members serve as its public face.
The organization’s informal structure—it has no physical headquarters or central bank account—is essential to its survival. Serguei Parkhomenko, a prominent liberal journalist who joined Dissernet after writing extensively about its early disclosures, explained recently that “when there is no head, there is nothing to tear off.” Still, the group’s leaders have faced occasional bursts of hostility from the powerful individuals that Dissernet targets. One of the founders was accused of tax evasion earlier this year, and just last week, Parkhomenko was called in for questioning by investigators from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
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.”
Quantifying the scale of Russia’s plagiarism problem is difficult, but based on the data it has collected so far, Dissernet estimates that improper borrowing can be found in about 4 percent of all dissertations defended in the country. That doesn’t include ghostwritten work that is plagiarism-free: According to Ararat Osipian, who completed a Ph.D. on academic corruption at Vanderbilt University and is now doing field work on the subject in Ukraine, between 20 percent and 30 percent of all dissertations that have been completed at Russian universities since the fall of the Soviet Union were purchased on the black market.
This market feeds on the Russian elite’s surprisingly intense yearning for the markers of academic status. According to Parkhomenko, Russian bureaucrats, lawmakers, doctors, and businesspeople regard advanced degrees as part of the same “package of success” as expensive jewelry, fancy cars, and giant homes. “If a person has achieved this—if he could get himself this title, it is supposed to mean he is capable of something in life,” Parkhomenko said. “It means he’s worthy of respect.”
Andrei Zayakin, another Dissernet co-founder, summed it up this way: “A Russian Donald Trump would certainly have a dissertation—maybe two or three.”
The purpose of Dissernet is not merely to discredit these individuals. Its greater mission, its leaders told me, is to restore the very concept of “reputation” in Russian society.
“We want to show that reputation matters—that it means something,” said Parkhomenko. “The fake dissertations are just part of what we call the reputational catastrophe in Russia—an anti-meritocracy in which people who have the most success and who can achieve the most influence are not those who deserve it, but those who do not present themselves as who they really are.”
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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.”
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.
Who is responsible for actually producing the text these companies supply to their clients remains something of a mystery, said Zayakin, though most likely it varies: “We have no access to the internal structure of these mills, so we don’t know who the people are who fabricate the papers,” the physicist told me. “Are they junior faculty members on the board? Are they employees at the university where the thesis board is located? Or are they employees of the front-end firm that sets it up?”
What’s certain is that the firms providing these services tend to be aggressive and entrepreneurial, seeking out potential clients in sectors of the economy where advanced degrees are common. “This industry is set up like any other industry—they don’t wait for clients to come to them, they go out and find them,” said Parkhomenko. “If there’s a person who is the owner of a clothing store, or a chain of stores, at some point he’ll get a visit from a respectable-looking gentleman who comes to his office, and says, ‘It’s time you became a doctor of economics. It’ll be good for your business.’ And he makes the pitch—he has his own marketing materials, he lays out all the options, the different prices, the discounts. It’s no different from an insurance salesman.”
The companies typically offer a range of services, said Osipian, with the median price for a made-to-order paper somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 and more elaborate packages—which can include a book-length monograph and the creation of an entire bibliography of fake journal articles—running closer to $25,000 or more. “If you’re buying the top-of-the-line services, they will themselves make a deal with the right dissertation council,” said Parkhomenko. “Ideally, you can just pay the money and forget about it, and then they’ll bring you your diploma at home.”
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It didn’t used to be this way. Though it wasn’t unheard of to find Communist Party bosses with ill-gotten diplomas in the Soviet era, academic fraud was not perpetrated as brazenly, or at such an enormous scale, until the 1990s. According to Osipian, the number of dissertations defended in Russia each year jumped from about 15,000 in 1993 to 30,000 in 2005.
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.
“The business developed because the system was made highly bureaucratic … and at the same time the status and pay for academics decreased significantly,” Simons said in an email. “The push and pull factors come together, especially as these new classes—lawyers, politicians and businessmen—were among the new winners in the emerging Russia, accumulating massive wealth in record time but also needing some kind of sense or perception of legitimacy.”
It makes sense that these newly minted strivers would grasp for an old-fashioned marker of accomplishment. At the same time, if everyone who can afford a Ph.D. knows the degrees are manufactured, why do they retain their value? As Loren Graham, the MIT historian, put it, “It’s kind of strange to think about these people who don’t much care that an advanced degree is falsified while at the same time believing that it adds prestige. It seems contradictory. But I’m afraid that’s how it is.”
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The Russian government and its educational institutions have not been entirely indifferent to the country’s plague of academic fraud. In 2012, when it was discovered that the head of a prestigious mathematics academy in Moscow, Andrei Andrianov, had faked multiple publications—and later printed up copies of nonexistent academic journals to try to prove his innocence—the Russian Ministry of Education and Science formed a commission to study the problem. Ultimately, the government disbanded the dissertation board at the Moscow State Pedagogical University that had approved Andrianov’s degree, shut down or “froze” some 800 others around the country, and implemented anti-corruption reforms within the central government agency responsible for certifying dissertations.
Those reforms have probably made it marginally harder to buy degrees, and according to the historian who led the commission, Igor Fedyukin, the state deserves credit for its efforts. But it is the activity of Dissernet, which gets regular attention in the Russian press and publishes dossiers on one or two plagiarists a day, that has pushed the issue of academic fraud into the public consciousness. “There’s a difference between an open secret and an exposed secret,” said biologist Mikhail Gelfand, another of Dissernet’s founders. “It’s one thing to say that it’s common knowledge that everyone fools around with women. It’s another to show a specific person doing so in a photograph.”
Though only a handful of officials have resigned or been fired over Dissernet’s allegations, the organization’s founders believe their work is making a difference. If nothing else, they say, Russia’s ambitious pseudo-scholars now know that the dissertations being offered to them on the black market are likely to be plagiarized and that buying them carries a certain amount of risk. Perhaps for this reason, said Zayakin, the number of dissertations being defended each year has dropped to where it was in the early ’90s, from approximately 30,000 in 2012 to 16,500 in 2014.
Scaring members of the Russian elite into being less corrupt is undoubtedly a victory. But, as Parkhomenko concedes, it is not the same as making regular people care about academic fraud or convincing them to stop thinking of it as a normal part of life. That is the ultimate goal of Dissernet, he said: “to get people to start caring.”
“A lot of people are ‘exposed’ in Russia,” Parkhomenko said, noting that Sergei Naryshkin has comfortably held onto his position in parliament and within his political party. “The Russian public says, ‘So what? So he stole. Everyone steals. In the end, why would someone be a boss, if he is not stealing?’ So reputation means nothing. The threat—we will ruin your reputation, we will tell everyone you stole—does not produce any effect.’”
If this is true—if the Russian people’s fatalism about corruption really runs so deep—how will Dissernet ever achieve its goal of “restoring the value of reputation”?
“Gradually, gradually,” said Parkhomenko. “Sometimes we do get a reaction—sometimes quite a loud and fervent one. And sometimes we are able to attach this label to people. Everyone knows, for example, that the minister of culture in Russia is a person with two stolen dissertations. It is written in Wikipedia. It comes up as the first result in Google. This is very important, to attach this label to someone, so that it drags behind him. Sooner or later it will mean something.”