Corruption as a fruit of insanity

Leon Neyfakh writes about Dissernet, a network of Russian scientists and other activists busily exposing phony academic dissertations and degrees awarded to corrupt politicians. It’s good to see some familiar names on the side of light.

People doing serious academic work in any field have a good idea of the value of other people’s work in the field. Those fake degrees cannot fool anybody except the general non-academic public. Contrary to the subtitle, self-respecting doctors and lawyers neither want nor need them.

But how are they possible at all? After all, it’s not enough to manufacture a dissertation; one has to successfully defend it before some academic body. You only understand the utter absurdity of it all when you try to reconstruct the whole process.

Let’s say an aspiring United Russia operative wants a PhD or, better yet, a second-level doctorate. He hires a firm to deal with the matter. The firm hires people to write a dissertation. It’s usually in the social sciences, where even honestly produced dissertations tend to be prima facie BS. The hired guns, however, don’t feel like producing an imitation of an honestly idiotic thesis. They cut and paste – sometimes from another cut-and-paste job – until they have fulfiled all the formal requirements: the opus has an introduction and a conclusion, a brief thesis and a discussion of its consequences, a review of the literature and a section on empirical evidence, and so on.

The PhD broker finds two or three reviewers, called “opponents” in Russia, and gets them to sign positive evaluations of the “work.” Several “articles” may be published on behalf of the aspirant in “scientific” “journals.” Most importantly, the firm selects a suitable dissertation committee to rubber-stamp the work. Finally, in an apotheosis of the broker’s efforts, it stages a live defense before the committee and gets the academic regulator in Moscow to rubber-stamp the degree so awarded.

It’s a triumph of procedure over substance, akin to the recent political trials, following the procedure prescribed by the law but nevertheless meaningless and even absurd. When Naryshkin – the Duma speaker no less – said, “I trust the judgment of real scientists,” he made it clear that the “real” scientists were those who had the power to strip him of his doctorate – that is, members of the relevant (quasi-)governmental body.

To end this nightmare, eventually the state will have to pull out of the degrees business altogether. Leave it to the universities.

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