Friday, February 15, 2013

Questionable Russian Diplomas and Academic Dishonesty

On Thursday the Chairman of the Russian Higher Attestation Commission, Felix Shamkhalov, was arrested on charges of money laundering. This national organization oversees the awarding of advanced degrees. Felix, who allegedly stole ~1.5 billion roubles (~$50 million US) from the Russian Bank of Foreign Economic Activity (Vnesheconombank), will be held in custody until March 24th while the matter is investigated.

But this isn't the only problem the commission is facing. As of today 11 PhD diplomas have been revoked due to plagiarism. This separate investigation began in March 2012, when Andrei Andriyanov was appointed as head of the Kolmogorov School, an elite Moscow mathematical school. At the time Anderiyanov was accused of misrepresenting his qualifications. His dissertation was reviewed and several PhD requirement violations and plagiarisms were found. Since then a sample of 25 dissertations have been examined with a shockingly high 24 were found to contain either requirement violations or plagiarism.

The perils of academic dishonesty
This is obviously a huge blow to academia in Russia, and it reminds me that not only does academic dishonesty exists but it is more common than you would think. In 2011 Bengü Sezen, a former researcher at Columbia University, was found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct and at least 9 papers have been found to be falsified, fabricated, plagiarized, or unable to be replicated (3 students that worked with Sezen quit the program, frustrated that they were unable to replicate her results).

Another, more recent example is that of Hyung-In Moon. As of late December 2012, 35 of Moon's papers have been retracted. Moon would submit an article to an Elsevier journal along with the names of several possible reviewers (this is standard practice). However, the "reviewers" were just his own alternate e-mail addresses. Moon's fraud was discovered when all of the reviewers comments for one of his papers were submitted within 24 hours.

As a scientist, I feel that we are pretty vigilant for fraud within our community. We're all aware that research brings with it the pressure to publish new, exciting results. This pressure sometimes leads to plagiarism and falsified or fabricated data. Falsified data may help one researcher feel like they're getting somewhere but in the end it really hurts the community. There is a certain amount of trust necessary when you read a peer-reviewed article. If someone has already solved a problem it may not be worth your time to replicate their results. Another effect of academic dishonesty is a diminished trust in scientists by the public in general. From my perspective scientists who falsify their data are a minority, but tales of academic honesty don't make for a good headline so that's not what the public sees.

Academic dishonesty isn't a new problem (Louis Pasteur faked much of his data that "disproved" the idea of spontaneous generation), and it's not always simple to know which results are falsified. When these big stories break, though, it's important to ask ourselves: are we being vigilant enough?