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‘We traditionally turn a blind eye’ A scholar explains how mass retractions and the largest audit in the history of Russian academia will affect the country’s higher education

Source: Meduza

On January 6, the Commission Against the Falsification of Academic Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) announced the retraction of 869 articles published in 263 different journals from the Russian Science Citation Index. In the largest review of academic work in Russian history, RAN’s commission recommended unlisting 2,500 articles for plagiarism and self-plagiarism. To find out more about the audit and its consequences for Russian higher education, Meduza spoke to commission member and Dissernet co-founder Mikhail Gelfand.

Why has the commission taken up the issue of dishonest academic work right now?

The problem isn’t new. The commission simply started working actively in the winter of 2018, when it was created. You’re now seeing the results of this work. There’s nothing surprising about it. 

Regarding the classification of dishonest articles, there are three types. First, there’s work that’s republished without any special reason and without reference to the original publication. This is self-plagiarism, and it’s usually prohibited under both the rules of academic journals and international ethical standards. In Russia, we traditionally turn a blind eye to this sort of thing.

Second, there’s outright plagiarism, when you take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. And, third, there’s an interesting in-between, where the text is the same [as an existing article], but the authors listed only partly overlap. There are quite a few of these articles. It’s my hypothesis that this seems to happen when a local supervisor is named as an additional author. They'll publish an article in three different bulletins [vestniki] and everywhere they insert their rector or dean, but the core authors remain the same. 

Can you describe the work that went into reviewing these articles?

At some point within the framework of Dissernet, as a natural extension of the project itself, we developed a program for the systematic analysis of different journals’ editorial policies. In essence, this is what the ethics commission at the Association of Scientific Editors and Publishers carried out. They compared all the texts against each other. Nobody had even investigated this before and [as a result] now they’ve retracted two orders of magnitude more articles than in all previous years.

The editors at the journals where these [dubious] texts were discovered were sent letters encouraging them to look into the matter and take measures, like retracting the articles if they violated a publication’s ethical standards or rules. Some editors agreed and others refused. There were cases — just a few, under a dozen — when it turned out that there was nothing criminal at a journal or that the crime belonged to a different group of editors. Some editors have flatly denied everything, and the commission is now recommending measures to exclude them from the RINTs [Russian Science Citation Index]. 

These letters were sent out in the summer, and the fall was full of seminars for journal editors, explaining certain basic rules. For some editors, it came as a revelation that you can’t publish the same text by one author in several journals at once. There were some very ethically naive editors.

A report about the current state of affairs [in Russian academic publications] was prepared for the December meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Presidium. It included all the statistics: how many journals, how many articles, how many had already been retracted, and how many were in progress.

What’s the significance of the Russian Science Citation Index?

The RINTs is the main bibliographic database in Russia. Articles show up here and they’re used for statistics, counting citations, and all kinds of bibliometrics, which are essential in various competitions among institutes and scholars. The more references to someone’s work, the more in demand that person is believed to be. The more articles someone publishes, the more actively he’s working.

Does this affect practical things, too? Like salary increases?

It affects raises. It affects how institutes are ranked. It’s especially important for the social sciences because there are few Russian humanities journals in Scopus. This works differently in different places, but quite a lot in Russian academic life hangs on bibliometry. 

There’s also a list by the VAK [Higher Attestation Commission] comprising the journals that are considered in dissertation defenses. The current position is that you can’t be on the VAK list without being listed on the RINTs. If a journal is cut out from the RINTs, the VAK will automatically stop counting its published articles. And there’s the Scopus international database. These publications are taken into account when ranking departments and institutes in official ministerial ratings. Scopus is stricter.

Outside Russia, of course, nobody looks at the RINTs. It’s a national database, but it’s nevertheless the first, mildest filter [against dishonest academic publications].

Does RINTs data affect funding for universities?

The logic is pretty straightforward: Publications and citations listed in RINTs undoubtedly influence the rankings in different ratings, and where you are in the ratings affects subsidy allocations.

What happens now as a result of these exclusions? Will some dissertations be retracted?

This is where it gets interesting because the legal consequences aren’t obvious if certain articles were completed on grants and then it turns out that these articles have been retracted. It’s as if some articles were reviewed for whatever public purpose [for example, to evaluate a university’s activities] and it turned out that these articles don’t actually exist, and it’s all just the same article being republished multiple times. Or someone defended a dissertation on certain articles, but it turns out that these articles are fake and now they’ve been retracted and they don’t exist anymore. So let’s see. Grab the popcorn. It’ll all be unfolding before our very eyes.

Do you know which retracted articles were completed on grants?

To find out, you’d need to look at the reports [by the organizations that account for spending], but they aren’t always published. 

What will happen to the dissertations defended using retracted articles?

This is a very interesting legal conflict and it needs special attention. There’s no precedent here. I don’t know what happens next, but I know what should have happened: loss of the degree.

Your colleague Anna Kuleshova told the journal Science that the probe has already caused a “conflict.” Can you explain what she meant?

Anya knows better. This is her project to a greater extent. There were all kinds of public attacks on the commission and various commission members. If you step on a snake, you can expect to get bit. For example, there’s Sergey Sergeevich Ippolitov [the vice-rector of the Moscow State Institute of Culture], a publisher of academic journals who himself has some strange publications. He first wrote a letter [of complaint against the commission] to academy’s Presidium, then to the General Attorney’s Office, and then he wrote an article in [the newspaper] Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

You can find a response to his letter from the commission’s chairman, academician [Viktor] Vasilyev, on the commission’s website. The response was sent to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, but they never published it. This [articles being retracted from academic journals] also coincides with a previous scandal involving elections at the academy. It’s hard to tell apart who’s offended by what.

There were other waves of publications that were probably connected to reports about candidates for the academy. Generally speaking, the commission managed to offend quite a few people in less than a year of work. 

I heard from your colleagues that the commission now finds itself under some pressure, and it might even be dissolved.

If a small group of active people suddenly appears and starts offending lots of people, there’s naturally going to be a desire to push this group somewhere to the side. The commission recalled more than 800 articles and prevented several dozen people from being elected to the academy (the commission’s previous report was about doctoral candidates). These people have clearly started pressing buttons, working levers, and pulling on strings. There’s nothing surprising in this.

Let’s see what the academy’s leadership does now. So far, what I’ve seen has been pretty good. Everyone said the commission is doing major and important work. As of now, there haven’t been any negative consequences [for the commission]. There are rumors that they’ll remove this person or that person or withdraw this or that limit, but we’ll see.

What’s your role on the commission?

I deal more with other projects. Right now, we’re working on a liaison protocol for the commission and the VAK. If they don’t kick me out of the Commission [Against the Falsification of Academic Research], I plan to get pretty actively involved here.

I was a member of the VAK Presidium for several years and I missed my colleagues very much. They removed me from the VAK [in May 2019]. I hope to see them there again. [If they adopt new regulations], commission members will have the right to participate in the review of cases falling within the commission’s remit: dissertations with falsified data that cite bogus publications. Accordingly, commission members will be able to ask questions and express their own points of view.

Will the number of academic publications fall after this mass recall of articles?

Since 2014 [a year after Dissernet launched], there have only been a handful of blatantly copied dissertations. Everyone realized that you’ve got to stop doing that. With articles, we’ll see. I think a lot of journals simply didn’t think before that they needed to watch out for this, although ideally authors caught fan-mailing articles should be blacklisted from further publications because it’s a terrible ethical violation. There was just no tradition here, but one will appear now, God willing.

Generally speaking, recalling articles is perfectly normal in international practice. If a mistake or something unethical turns up, the article is retracted. This simply hasn’t been accepted in Russia.

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Interview by Anastasia Yakoreva

Translation by Kevin Rothrock