Fake dissertation scandal taints politicians, academics

As graduate students the world over know, writing a doctoral thesis is a labour of love. It takes a great deal of time, dedication and resources to make the new and useful contribution to knowledge required of a dissertation written at this level.

This appears not to have been the case for some in Central Asia’s Tajikistan, which has been hit by a huge fake dissertation scandal that reaches all the way up to the highest echelons of government.

Russian networking community Dissernet (in Russian) has revealed that more than 25 doctoral dissertations from Tajikistan defended between 2004 and 2015 contained significant elements of plagiarism.

Plagiarism at the highest levels

Included in the blacklist are high-ranking government figures such as Davlatali Said, first deputy prime minister. Said is a close relative of the country’s longstanding president, Emomali Rahmon. More than 75% of Said’s Candidate of Science (the Soviet-era qualification now gradually being replaced by the PhD) thesis was found to contain instances of plagiarism where the text in the thesis was either almost or completely identical to text found in an earlier publication by a different author(s), Dissernet analysis shows.

On the day the story broke last week, local news agency Akhbor, one of the few independent media agencies reporting on Tajikistan, said that Said – who now uses the Tajik spelling of his surname, while Dissernet employs the Slavic suffix Saidov – had not commented on the case. However, it has since been reported that a new state programme called ‘Anti-Plagiarism’ will be launched as an official channel for checking Tajik theses.

Said is not the only so-called academic in Tajikistan to have been hit by this scandal. Dissernet has also provided evidence of plagiarism in Candidate of Science theses produced by Asadullo Rahmon, a presidential adviser (no relation to the president), Davlatsho Gulmakhmadov, head of one of the southern regions of Tajikistan, and Shohin Saidov, a professor at the country’s leading university and son of the current Tajik minister of education, Nuriddin Saidov.

These are more than just accusations: through detailed text analysis and comparison to other dissertations and publications, Dissernet is able to show exactly which lines of text are copied from other works. It is possible through their Disserpedia database to see in tabular format the extent of the plagiarism and to examine factual errors and other comments made about the dissertation.

In confirmed cases of plagiarism, Dissernet reports its evidence to the relevant degree-granting council and in some instances, this has led to action being taken. Thus, in the case of the minister’s son, Shohin Saidov, the dissertation council at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow in February 2018 recommended removing Saidov’s title of Candidate of Science, according to Dissernet.

However, such renouncements are rare: other than Shohin Saidov, only one other of the Tajiks investigated by Dissernet has had their title removed.

The response of the state-run media in Tajikistan, which maintains a tight grip over the news, has been to employ Trump-esque ‘fake news’ tactics to combat accusations of fake dissertations. This means that rather than deny the accusations, state media has attempted to shift attention by casting doubt on Dissernet itself, questioning its professionalism and lack of official links to the Russian state.

Why is Russia involved?

Until 2017, all Candidate of Science and Doctor of Science (similar to the European habilitation) theses written by Tajiks based at Tajik institutions had to be written in Russian and approved by the Russian state’s Higher Attestation Commission.

This council also approves all doctoral theses produced by candidates at almost all Russian universities – only the two leading universities, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University, have the right to examine and award their own doctoral degrees.

This is a legacy of Tajikistan's former status as a republic of the Soviet Union and of a time when its higher education system was controlled by Moscow. For a number of reasons, not least a devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997 that hindered any significant change in the education system of the newly independent country, Tajikistan chose to retain this affiliation with Russia until very recently.

Doubts started to be cast on the quality of academic work being produced in Tajikistan when in 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev commented at a forum on the development of higher education on the high number of theses coming from just two institutions, both in Tajikistan.

“I don’t want to say anything negative, but it is a fact that Tajik National University and the Tajik Academy of Education are in first and second place… There is more to do and to think about in this regard,” the prime minister is recorded as having said at the time.

Dissernet has been examining corruption in Russian higher education since 2013, and in 2016 first published its own macabre league table showing the universities and institutes where doctoral degrees were most likely to be fraudulently awarded.

It is not known whether Medvedev’s comments prompted Dissernet to shift its attention to Russia’s southern neighbour Tajikistan.

The future of Tajikistan’s academic community

Dissernet’s findings to date and the response from social media users in Tajikistan and the very few non-governmental news agencies suggest that this is only the tip of the iceberg of what is a growing scandal.

In 2017, Tajikistan established its own Higher Attestation Commission, seen as a step towards increasing the independence of the national academic community and offering greater opportunities for students to write doctoral work in the state language of Tajik rather than Russian.

However, during interviews with senior academics I conducted in Tajikistan in the summer of 2017, I heard a number of concerns raised about the future of academia in the country.

While the number of students enrolling in higher education is growing, most do not continue beyond undergraduate studies, and the pipeline of new and well-qualified academics coming into the system is small. Many current academics worry about decreasing quality in the higher education system because its expansion has not been accompanied by a growth in quality assurance and control mechanisms.

Expansion of student numbers and a series of reforms introduced by the government with little or no transition period and training for faculty members places enormous pressure on those academics who have remained within the system. It is common to hear stories about lecturers accepting payment for grades, and hardly surprising when academics are overworked, underpaid and undervalued.

Yet the value of higher education in Tajikistan remains strong, as the growth in student numbers testifies. It might also help explain why a small number of people are prepared to go to such great lengths to falsely obtain the higher level Candidate of Science qualification, which confers prestige and authority in society. A recent government decision requiring many faculty members to attain a higher degree is also placing pressure on lecturers to rapidly obtain their Candidate degree.

Regrettably, this fake dissertation scandal will do nothing to allay the concerns of those within the Tajik higher system about its diminishing quality. And under an increasingly authoritarian political regime, it is unlikely that any bold moves will be taken to prevent plagiarism and other forms of corruption that are rapidly becoming endemic to Tajikistan’s beleaguered higher education system.

Emma Sabzalieva is a PhD candidate and Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, University of Toronto, Canada. She researches the politics and history of higher education, and social change in Central Asia.

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