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The spread of plagiarism

Russian Academy of Sciences uncovers widespread misconduct, leading to the retraction of 869 articles

Sergei Mikhailichenko / Sopa Images / Lightrocket / Getty Images

A misconduct investigation that scrutinized thousands of Russian scientific journals has led to the mass retraction of 869 articles. Most of the cases were related to plagiarism. The large-scale retraction was the result of work by the Commission for Counteracting the Falsification of Scientific Research, formed by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and composed of researchers with experience investigating fraud. “This is the largest retraction in Russian scientific history,” Andrei Zayakin, a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow and the commission’s scientific secretary, told The Washington Post. “Up until two years ago, there were occasional instances, but they never even reached a dozen.”

The commission used software that detects repetition in texts to scan thousands of Russian periodicals. Suspicious articles were manually checked one by one, and many were found to contain plagiarism or duplicate publication of the same content in different journals, a trick used to inflate a researcher’s scientific output. Curiously, the authors of the duplicate articles were not always the same, leading investigators to suspect that researchers paid to be named as coauthors of papers originally published by other people, a practice known as “obscure authorship.”

According to Zayakin, plagiarism is also common in theses and other academic works. In May 2018, Dissernet, a network created to remove fraudulent articles from Russian journals, concluded that 7,251 Russian students graduated after presenting plagiarized papers. The majority were in the fields of law, education, and economics, but there were even 529 medical graduates. Andrei Zayakin is one of the cofounders of the Dissernet network. He mentions a number of absurd examples, such as that of a young Siberian researcher who copied sections from a thesis defended in 2015 by researcher Svetlana Mikhailova, from the East Siberia State University of Technology and Management. The plagiarist used excerpts from the thesis in six academic articles that he published with various coauthors—including the dean of a university.

The 869 retracted articles represent only a fraction of the problematic papers identified by the commission. In fact, the investigators requested the retraction of 2,528 articles published in 541 journals after gathering evidence of plagiarism, duplication, and questionable authorship. Of this total, 390 journals have responded to the request. Only 263 agreed to retract all of the suspicious articles, while others agreed to retract some but not all of them. There were also publications that gave legitimate reasons for not removing papers. Eight journals refused to evaluate the request—the commission has already asked that five of them be excluded from the Russian Science Citation Index, a database of the country’s scientific literature. Publishing in journals indexed in this database is often a requirement for promotions or research funding, so the aim is that excluding these journals will put off new authors.

The commission already had some idea of what it would uncover. According to a report published in the journal Science in January, there are more than 6,000 journals in Russia—mostly written in Russian—which are very popular with the country’s academics. A study conducted last year found that Russians publish scientific articles in domestic journals more frequently than researchers from other countries, such as Germany, Indonesia, and Poland. Such publications do not always follow internationally recognized integrity practices. In 2018, Dissernet identified about 4,000 cases of plagiarism and questionable authorship among 150,000 articles in roughly 1,500 journals.

Another survey from 2019 showed how common it is for Russian researchers to publish their work in two different journals at the same time to inflate their academic output. Software detection company Autoplagiat analyzed 4.3 million scientific papers written in Russian and found that 70,000 had been published at least twice—there were cases where the same article was republished as many as 17 times.

The problem is not new and the reasons behind it are complex, but the government’s recent effort to increase the country’s scientific productivity may have made things worse. In 2018, the Russian Minister of Science and Higher Education, Mikhail Kotyukov, proposed an initiative to double the number of articles published by Russian scientists, and universities started offering funding and promotions to the most productive. “You have got this Potemkin village where universities try to report as many papers as possible, but nobody really reads those papers,” Anna Kuleshova, ethics council chairwoman at the Russian Association of Scientific Editors and Publishers, told the Washington Post. A Potemkin village is a reference to the fake village built to impress the Russian empress Catherine the Great during her trip to Crimea in 1787.

The commission had already caused a stir in September, during elections for new RAS members. The commission released a list of 56 candidates with a history of plagiarism and fraud, expressly recommending that they should not be appointed. With 200 positions available, few of the listed names were elected.

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