Retractions mark ‘significant moment’ for Russian science

Unprecedented recall of papers from Russian journals must also spark broader debate on academic culture, say research integrity scholars

January 13, 2020
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The retraction of more than 800 journal papers is a “significant moment” for Russian academia that may spark a wider debate on how plagiarism has been “normalised”, experts have said.

Details of the retractions were released on 7 January by a commission appointed by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) to investigate reports that plagiarism and self-plagiarism were rampant in the country’s academy.

The commission included several prominent campaigners in the fight against research fraud, such as Andrew Zayakin, co-founder of Dissernet, a website that has spent years exposing misconduct by Russian academics, politicians and public figures. In March 2018, the site identified more than 4,000 cases of plagiarism and questionable authorship among 150,000 papers in some 1,500 journals.

Another anti-plagiarism site, Antiplagiat, claimed last September that 70,000 papers in Russian journals had been published at least twice and a few had been published as many as 17 times.

The commission has asked 541 journals to retract a total of 2,528 papers, according to a report in Science magazine, which said that 390 journals have so far responded to the inquiry, with 263 agreeing to retract all suspicious papers. Others agreed to retract some but not all of the highlighted papers, or gave reasons why the papers should not be pulled, Science reported. Last year, almost 1,500 journal papers were retracted globally, according to the Retraction Watch website.

Commission member Anna Kuleshova told Science that she hoped the investigation would “help us to get rid of garbage publications” and “draw attention to issues related to the management of science”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Kasia Kaczmarska, lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, who has written extensively on research ethics in Russia, said the report was a “significant moment” that might lead to a “broader debate” about academic standards.

“To result in long-term change, the causes [of declining standards] need to be addressed as well as the outcomes,” said Dr Kaczmarska, who noted that the “primary challenge lies in the fact that plagiarism has become normalised and is linked to high expectations with regard to the number of articles a scholar is expected to produce and publish”.

“The inflation of academic degrees, plagiarism and the pay-to-publish system are among the most salient challenges to scholarly practice in contemporary Russia,” Dr Kaczmarska said.

She added that she hoped the commission’s report would “spark a broader debate, because so far plagiarism and other markers of declining academic standards have mostly been brushed under the carpet”.

“Only a handful of individuals and organisations have been actively engaged in critiquing and challenging not plagiarism alone but the entire edifice of pseudoscience,” explained Dr Kaczmarska.

Some experts have suggested that a more fundamental shift towards international English-language journals is required to raise standards because many of Russia’s 6,000 domestic journals have drawn criticism for their publication practices.

A shift towards international publications has been under way for some time, but it is “not without its problems”, Dr Kaczmarska said.

“Publishing in English requires a serious investment of time and resources, which underfunded academia and individual scholars may not always be able to afford,” she observed, adding that “such publications do not reach as broad an audience in Russia as Russian language publications do”.

“There is also a backlash against those publishing outside Russia [who are seen] as insufficiently patriotic,” she added.

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Reader's comments (1)

Reports of science fraud must be field-specific otherwise all sciences will suffer a loss of credibility due to the behavior of a few bad actors. Unfortunately the media seldom take the trouble to make distinctions among the sciences clear so the public is left with the notion that all sciences suffer the problem to the same degree, when in fact the major offenders are to be found in the newer life and social sciences with many fewer in the so-called "hard" sciences where objective laboratory instrumentation is widely employed.