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Mikhail Gelfand

Not your average academic integrity case Russian scholars who pointed out major flaws in Culture Minister's doctoral dissertation have been dropped from government posts

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Gelfand
Mikhail Gelfand
Mikhail Metsel / TASS

Russian academic institutions may attract less attention in the news media than their political counterparts, but they have seen their share of controversy in recent years nonetheless. Some of that controversy has stemmed from the fact that Russian political figures often turn to academia for cultural validation. In 2011, for example, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky received the degree of Doctor of Historical Sciences, one step higher than the equivalent of an American Ph.D. After a group of scholars pointed out a mass of basic factual and analytical errors in Medinsky’s dissertation, his work was officially reviewed. The Higher Attestation Commission (VAK), a government body that curates dissertation committees and rates already defended dissertations, voted to uphold the minister’s degree in October of 2017.

Now, the Russian government has published a new member list for the VAK that has added fuel to the flames of the Medinsky controversy. Government representatives noted that the commission’s membership has seen a turnover of 68 percent, more than the 50 percent required by law. However, several of the scholars who were not selected for a second term on the commission have made a name for themselves as active proponents of academic integrity in all cases, including those involving the advanced degrees of top politicians.

One of those scholars is Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist and the deputy director of the Institute for Information Transfer in the Russian Academy of Sciences. Gelfand is a founder of the Dissernet project, which searches for invalid citation practices in dissertations and attempts to invalidate degrees received for shady scholarship. Gelfand told Meduza that he did apply for a second term on the VAK and believes he was rejected thanks to VAK chairperson Vladimir Filippov, who also leads the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.

“I know he made this happen. […] The reason is that I made life hard for all kinds of crooks, including Mr. Medinsky himself. The VAK presidium made several decisions on my initiative that he wasn’t happy with,” Gelfand said. He noted that Vladimir Filippov himself has begun a third term on the VAK despite a two-term limit (Filippov argues that, as the commission’s chair, he is exempt from that restriction). “In a way, that’s an even more significant development than my exclusion,” Gelfand noted.

The biologist also pointed out that the VAK’s new roster left out multiple members of the commission’s previous iteration who were also active proponents of academic integrity, including the economist Alexander Muravyov and the biologist Sergey Bershitsky. In 2017, Muravyov voted for Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s degree to be invalidated. Several scholars who voted the same way have also been excluded from the VAK’s membership list.

Gelfand also spoke out in favor of stripping Medinsky of his Doctor of Sciences degree but said he was physically barred from entering the VAK hearing where the culture minister’s dissertation was discussed. He expressed disappointment at the new VAK list but said he still trusts some of the commission’s members. “There is some number of respectable people on there, but I don’t think they would go so far as to worry about fighting crooks. They likely wouldn’t delve into the matter deeply, at least,” Gelfand explained.

On May 29, Dissernet responded collectively to the VAK’s new roster by announcing that it would challenge the list in court. Andrey Zayakin, one of the organization’s co-founders, said multiple scholars on the list have already surpassed their two-term limit, Vladimir Filippov included.

Viktor Davydov and Kristina Safonova

English version by Hilah Kohen

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