Maybe it’s the technocrat in us, but there’s something reassuring about a politician with an advanced degree. Beyond the mere credential, having a doctorate or a master’s suggests the ability to dig deep into a subject, a bent toward critical thinking, yadda yadda.
Except that often those degrees are less than meets the eye. A growing number of politicians seem to be getting caught with their diplomas down.
The latest scandal involves Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister. Historians have accused Medinsky of fraud in his 2011 dissertation on medieval Russia. The paper — the only thing Medinsky has published in the field of history (although he does hold a PhD in political science) — is “scandalous” and “a real parody,” according to one academic involved in the call to revoke the minister’s credential.
They contend that the work is riddled with errors and partly plagiarized.
The campaign is being lead by a group of Russian activists calling itself Dissernet. Its members are outraged by what they see is an epidemic of faked dissertations, cooked up through plagiarism and other unethical means and pumped out with the help of corrupt committees that rubber-stamp the bogus work — allowing undeserving “scholars” to win posts in academia and the government.
Dissernet has reportedly found at least 5,600 cases of plagiarism among Russian intellectuals, politicians, and others, according to Slate. An investigation it published earlier this year used a plagiarism-detecting software to determine that roughly one in nine members of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, plagiarized others’ work in their dissertations.
That members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle might be guilty of cooking up an academic paper shouldn’t be all that surprising. A decade ago, two researchers at the Brookings Institute concluded that Putin himself plagiarized extensively in his 1996 economics thesis.
Elsewhere in Europe, no fewer than three high-ranking officials have been caught up in plagiarism scandals involving their doctorates in recent years. In 2012, Pal Schmitt, then president of Hungary, lost his degree after Semmelweis University in Budapest concluded that nearly every page of his 215-page thesis was at least partially similar to other works. Schmitt eventually resigned in disgrace.
And in nearby Germany, universities have stripped both the secretary of defense and the education minister (!!!) of their dissertations for copying the work of other writers.
Good thing that sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Oh, wait. Two years ago, Senator John Walsh (D-Mont.) found himself having to explain to reporters why at least a quarter of his 14-page master’s thesis for the United States Army War College seemed oh-so-similar to the work of other, uncited authors. When he couldn’t, Walsh pulled out of his reelection bid.
That politicians can be a bit, ahem, too free with the words of others is hardly news. But it suggests that politicians, just like scientists, feel the pressure to publish or perish. Perhaps they should think about that the next time they come up with a system that rewards publishing over all else.