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The real costs of plagiarism: Russian governors, plagiarized PhD theses, and infrastructure in Russian regions

Abstract

This paper investigates whether politicians who have plagiarized their PhD dissertations perform worse in running their polities than those who have not committed plagiarism. We look at the Russian regional governors and document that a substantial portion of them have plagiarized PhD theses. We find a negative association between plagiarized PhD of a governor and development of infrastructure (specifically, housing construction and spread of broadband Internet) in a region, controlling for other region-level characteristics potentially affecting infrastructural development. We argue that in the Russian context, a plagiarized PhD thesis is likely to indicate that a governor both is inclined to dishonest behavior and possesses poor managerial capabilities, which should have a particularly negative effect on the performance of their regions in terms of the development of infrastructure.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. A series of scandals connected with the discovery of plagiarism in the PhD theses of high-level officials occurred in Ukraine (Osipian 2017), Kazakhstan (https://www.interfax.ru/world/683970), the US (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/us/politics/monica-crowley-treasury-plagiarism-investigation.html), Iran (Butler 2009; Keating 2013) and Tajikistan (https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20180428053554356). The political consequences of the scandals for the accused politicians differed, however, and occasionally had no impact on their careers.

  2. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiatsaffäre_Guttenberg#Medien.

  3. https://www.wr.de/politik/muss-karl-theodor-zu-guttenberg-zuruecktreten-id4303655.html. The Gutenberg case was followed by several others in which German politicians were accused of plagiarism and had to leave their offices. At the same time, there were also cases in which politicians in Germany were accused of plagiarism but universities did not find the violation serious enough to revoke their PhD title (e.g., minister of education Franziska Giffey, who received a reprimand from the Free University of Berlin; https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bildung/franziska-giffey-ein-bisschen-plagiat-ist-erlaubt-1.4664444); they were able to successfully continue their careers.

  4. https://sites.psu.edu/magdaliapassionblog/2018/02/15/vladimir-putin/.

  5. Park (2003) and Moss et al. (2018) offer an extensive survey of the literature on determinants of plagiarism.

  6. Bendahan et al. (2015), in an experimental paper, show that honesty of leaders does not prevent them from abusing power. The “grease the wheel” corruption argument (Leff 1964) suggests that corruption could actually under certain conditions be beneficial for growth.

  7. This makes them different from university lecturers, lawyers or physicians, who can only obtain certain positions with a doctoral degree.

  8. https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2011/03/05/zachem_chinovniku_stepen.

  9. https://22century.ru/popular-science-publications/serguei-parkhomenko.

  10. http://www.chaskor.ru/article/nevidimyj_nauchnyj_front_32606.

  11. https://tv2.today/TV2Old/Professor-tgu-lchinovniki-plagiatory-vryad-li-sami-pisali-dissertatsiil.

  12. http://www.chaskor.ru/article/nevidimyj_nauchnyj_front_32606.

  13. https://www.levada.ru/2013/08/15/rossiyane-o-plagiate-i-shpargalkah/.

  14. There may be individual cases of governors genuinely fascinated by the topic they study but unaware of fundamental principles of academic work, who therefore plagiarize the thesis that they write themselves; however, these cases are likely to be exceptional.

  15. I.e., an ordinary person, analogue to “ordinary Joe” in English.

  16. https://www.dissernet.org/publications/bezopasnost_gelfand.htm.

  17. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Груздев,_Владимир_Сергеевич.

  18. Most likely, however, this text will be of very poor scientific quality.

  19. Our study looks only at textual similarities (not at similarities in ideas or arguments) to avoid arbitrariness in our assessment.

  20. The accuracy of plagiarism detection depends on the availability of electronic versions of texts the thesis was plagiarized from. For Russia, there is evidence that the main type of text donors for plagiarized dissertations are other dissertations (Abalkina 2016), for which electronic versions are typically available. It gives us high confidence that most plagiarists in our sample were identified correctly.

  21. Due to tight controls, as well as the absence of a market of dissertations for sale, one can with a certain degree of caution argue that governors who obtained their degree during the Soviet era did so through their original work. At that moment of time, they were typically relatively young, not in the public service and definitively not in high-ranking positions; many of them were engaged in a scholarly career, which enjoyed high status in the USSR, and did not expect to become public officials or governors (see Demin et al. 2019).

  22. We exclude from the analysis the Chechen Republic, due to the very poor quality of data and incompatibility of the political environment with that of the rest of Russia; the so-called autonomous okrugs (regions with lower status subordinated to other regions of Russia); and Crimea and Sevastopol after 2014. This approach is standard in research on Russian subnational regions.

  23. https://www.dissernet.org/expertise/tag/gubernator/.

  24. https://www.dissernet.org/expertise/gruzdevvs2003.htm.

  25. There have been several cases when governors, after leaving office, continued as rectors of large regional universities.

  26. In some cases, universities may even approach governors and convince them that they actually need a doctoral degree.

  27. In the early 1990s, multiple pseudoscientific organizations emerged in Russia, granting PhDs that were not recognized by the government or by any university or higher education institution. In some cases, these organizations offered an opportunity to complete the PhD training within three to six months (http://www.rg.ru/Anons/arc_2002/0322/1.shtm). From the legal standpoint, the activity of these organizations contradicts Russian law, and their “PhDs” are not allowed to be called PhDs in Russia, yet these pseudoscientific organizations granted tens of thousands of PhD certificates.

  28. https://www.dissernet.org/publications/ohotniki-lichnogo.htm.

  29. The direction of the effect is unclear, however: businessperson governors could have less experience in public service, which would reduce their monitoring abilities, but at the same time they could have experience in implementing more efficient instruments to monitor and incentivize the private sector.

  30. Observations for which the absolute DFBETA values (for at least one of the variables included in the regression) exceed 2 divided by the square root of the observations and the DFFITS values exceed 2 divided by the square root of the independent variable including the constant divided by the number of observations count as outliers.

  31. We have reasons to claim that in Russia, plagiarism primarily originates from ghostwriters working for the politician doing a bad job. In other countries, where ghostwriting is less widespread, it could mean that politicians themselves plagiarize to “cut corners” and obtain their degree at a faster pace without doing so much work. This is not necessarily correlated with poor managerial skills.

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Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank Judith Heckenthaler for assistance in data collection. The authors appreciate the helpful comments of an anonymous referee, of Benita Combet and Mikhail Gelfand, as well as of participants of the workshop of the LMU Munich in February 2020, EACES-HSE workshop and University of Gothenburg seminar in June 2020. Alexander Libman gratefully acknowledges financial support for this project from the Basic Research Program of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

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Correspondence to Anna Abalkina.

Appendices

Appendix 1: PhDs in Russia

In Russia, as in many other post-Soviet countries, there are two levels of PhDs. The first one, candidate of sciences (roughly equivalent to the international PhD), is granted after three to 5 years of work, typically to scholars starting their career. The second one, doctor of sciences, is granted to accomplished researchers and is often required to occupy higher positions in the academic hierarchy. It is therefore roughly equivalent to the German habilitation (or, possibly, higher doctorates in the UK).

The system to obtain a degree is heavily regulated. Degrees are conferred by universities and research institutes on behalf of the government, which sets clear criteria for dissertations, and are ultimately approved by the state. A special institution—the Highest Attestation Commission (VAK)—is responsible for checking the quality of dissertations.

The defense of a candidate of sciences dissertation functions as follows. An aspiring Cand. Sc. degree holder has to prepare a manuscript of the dissertation (the key findings must also be published in academic journals—most researchers do so in Russian outlets—and presented at scholarly conferences prior to the defense). In addition to the dissertation itself, the researcher has to write a summary of approximately 24 pages (avtoreferat) containing the main results of the dissertation. Both documents are submitted to a so-called scientific council. Scientific councils consist of 15–25 members and are created at universities and institutes (but a certain proportion of their members must work outside the organization where the council is established); the members of the council are appointed by the VAK and have to hold sufficient qualifications to assess the quality of a dissertation.

A committee of the scientific council examines the dissertation and allows the defense. Then, two “opponents” are appointed: external scholars who have to read the dissertation and prepare critical reviews of it. In addition, the researcher has to present the dissertation in another organization (the so-called supervising organization), which also prepares a referee report on it. Finally, the summaries (avtoreferaty) are sent to various other institutions, as well as to a number of governmental establishments (including the presidential administration and the Russian State Library). The researcher has to ask several external researchers to read the avtoreferat and to submit the written review to the dissertation council.

After all of these steps, the defense is scheduled. The researcher has to present the main findings, respond to the comments of the opponents and of other members of the scientific council (who are not required to read the dissertation itself—typically, they read only the avtoreferat). After this, the scientific council casts a secret ballot, and if a qualified majority approves of granting the degree, the thesis is passed along to the VAK. There, it is again reviewed by a body of experts, and only then is the researcher granted the degree. After the defense, the researcher must send the dissertation to a number of institutions (again including the Russian State Library).

The procedure for defending the Dr. Sc. degree is similar except the requirements are more rigid (thus, three opponents have to review the dissertation; the VAK checks is with greater scrutiny, etc.).

This formalized procedure was created to ensure the quality of dissertations, but in modern Russia, it is highly prone to corruption. Ghostwriting firms are often supported by their “own” scientific councils, which approve any theses submitted there. The VAK regularly implements new measures to ensure the integrity of the defense (e.g., the requirement to videotape the entire procedure), but there is substantial evidence that its own officials and experts are often involved in networks producing fake dissertations (especially in social sciences and humanities).

Appendix 2

See Table 4.

Table 4 Summary statistics

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Abalkina, A., Libman, A. The real costs of plagiarism: Russian governors, plagiarized PhD theses, and infrastructure in Russian regions. Scientometrics 125, 2793–2820 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-020-03716-x

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Keywords

  • Plagiarism
  • Dissertations
  • Governors
  • Infrastructure
  • Incompetence
  • Dishonesty
  • PhD theses