Tue, Jul 26, 2016 - Page 9 News List

By Russian plagiarism standards, Melania Trump’s line-stealing pales

A study published in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta found that out of 450 lawmakers, about 200 claimed advanced degrees and at least 49 had been accused of plagiarism, including the speaker

By Neil MacFarquhar  /  NY Times News Service, MOSCOW

Illustration: Yusha

By Russian standards, the few lines that Melania Trump used from Michelle Obama for her speech at the Republican National Convention this week would barely tip the plagiarism scale.

A parade of government ministers, lawmakers, senior judges, medical doctors, academics and others in Russia hold advanced degrees seemingly based on purloined work.

In one notorious example, a lawmaker appeared to have copied a lengthy study of the chocolate industry verbatim — except he replaced the word “chocolate” with “beef” — to earn a doctorate in economics.

“There would have been no scandal here at all,” said Andrei Rostovtsev, a founder of Dissernet, a grassroots coalition of academics and others trying to fight what they consider a plagiarism epidemic washing across Russia.

“If she had stolen the whole speech, that would be a case for Dissernet,” said Rostovtsev, 56, a physicist.

Blatant plagiarism — sometimes involving more than 100 pages — is not uncommon among those holding sweat-free doctoral degrees. Anyone caught rarely faces consequences: The vast majority of plagiarists keep their degrees and certainly their jobs. Few express contrition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, never responded to accusations from overseas about plagiarizing material for his 1996 doctorate in economics.

“Our project is proof of the general state of the Russian establishment,” said Andrei Zayakin, another Dissernet founder, also a physicist, who is running for parliament. “Anyone found violating any ethical, professional or legal norms will not be held responsible if that person is part of the establishment.”

The most famous cases have involved half a dozen federal ministers or agency heads, including Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. Dissernet research suggested that at least 90 out of 134 pages in his thesis on Russian foreign policy for a doctorate in political science contained borrowed material.

Medinsky was dismissive in a 2014 interview on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, saying that experts had found no plagiarism in his work. His defenders accused liberals of seeking to smear his reputation because of his critical view of the West.

“I think that the whole fuss around theses is disgusting,” Medinsky said. “It is usually people incapable of writing anything longer than 140 characters on Twitter who dabble and poke around in this, but they persistently look for a speck in their brother’s eye.”

The fairly strict, centralized control over degrees in the Soviet system fell apart, like much else, in the 1990s. A doctoral degree — common for lawmakers, much like law degrees are for members of the US Congress — suddenly ranked with an imported car and a summer house in Italy as a must-have accessory for the newly rich.

“Your friends can buy you a doctoral degree for your birthday,” said Ararat Osipian, an academic based in Ukraine who focused on academic corruption in the former Soviet Union for his doctorate from Vanderbilt University. Good friends, that is: The going rate for a fake degree online starts at about US$1,400.

A study published in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta found that out of 450 lawmakers, about 200 claimed advanced degrees and at least 49 had been accused of plagiarism, including the speaker. (He denied it.)

Dissernet started work in 2013 after a political appointee with a limited academic record was tapped to lead a prestigious mathematics school. Academics began poring over his history dissertation line by line, which inspired Rostovtsev to write software to automate the process.

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