26 march 2013

Dmitry Medvedev holds a meeting on improving the system of training and accreditation of science and academic research employees

Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:

Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, colleagues. We have met here at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology to discuss a subject that has become rather important today for a number of reasons, though we would have had to talk about it anyway.  

I have talked to postgraduates at various universities in our country about issues such as supporting science and academia, young people in science and academia, and  the subject that has brought us all here today – plagiarism. It is a serious issue today. There are shameful facts regarding the writing and the defence of theses in a number of specialisms. But the most unpleasant thing, in my opinion, is not even the fact that there are some cases of plagiarism, for this phenomenon has always existed, but that it has become widespread. Furthermore the reputation of some research organisations, and even the academic community as a whole, is tainted. When something bad happens, people tend to believe that it is common practice everywhere, and that there are no normal theses, which means that proper science and academia do not exist.

We here understand that this is wrong. However, and I think that you’ll agree with me, as the postgraduate students with whom I just spoke did: something needs to be done with the current state of affairs, because the amount of "borrowing" in candidate's and doctoral theses, not to mention dissertations, is radically different from what we had in the Soviet era, especially in the humanities. This does not mean, however, that there’s no plagiarism in natural sciences. They, too, have their fair share of problems, and we are aware of that as well.

The academic staff evaluation system is a complex issue, and it cannot be resolved in one meeting. However, it’s time to discuss this publicly, especially since I have had to take several organisational and personnel decisions in recent years. Once again, unfortunately, plagiarism, and dissertations and theses that are written, as they say today, on a turnkey basis, and fictitious publications have become a widespread phenomenon, but it's degrading academia in general.

Now, with regard to evaluation system’s requirements and the level of defended theses. First, about 23,000 candidate and about 3,000 doctoral dissertations are defended annually. I can’t say if that’s a lot or not enough. We'll discuss this now. I believe no one really knows the right number, although we do have current numbers that are obviously different from what we had in the Soviet period. In any case, we need to analyse them.

Let me give you another figure. From 2000 to 2011, the number of institutions, primarily universities training graduate students, increased by 13% (whether that is too much or too little is also to be determined), whereas the total number of graduate students increased by 33%. As I sat and talked with the students I told them that we now have 150,000 graduate students in Russia. They told me that in some specialties (humanities, of course) half of the students apply for postgraduate studies. Why? There are certain reasons that have nothing to do with science, such as some people want to keep their place at a student dormitory, others want to  stay in Moscow or St Petersburg; still others use it as a way to dodge the draft or resolve other personal issues. However, even these young postgraduate students admit that these people have nothing to do with academia. Nothing at all. At the same time, it is also significant that there’s a 10% drop in the number of postgraduate students at research institutes and a 6% drop at state academies. There’s one more thing that adds to this picture: the number of graduate students specialising in political science and law has doubled. That’s a fact, and I must say, not a very pleasant one. The greatest number of defended theses is not in law –  I’m talking about the number of postgraduate students who have defended their theses. The greatest number is in medical sciences, whereas in law this figure is fairly modest.

Almost every state higher education institution has at least one thesis council. Of course, this is not related to its academic achievements. There are cases when such a council does not match the educational profile of such a higher education institution. Too often, unfortunately, the approved requirements for the number of doctors on the board are ignored, which creates quality problems.

As of March 17, there were 3,300 thesis councils in Russia. Let's discuss what number of thesis councils we need based on the total number of universities and research institutions, what specialties they should focus on, and the quality of their work. Today, they are very general in nature and bear no responsibility by design. Do we need to address this or not? I would also like to hear an answer on that from the audience.

Clearly, a postgraduate studies programme and a thesis council are a major advantage for a university or a research institution, serving as a form of recognition of their academic achievements. In this case, a diploma of a candidate or a doctor of sciences must be backed by the academic authority of an institution, and vice versa the authority of a university or a research institution directly depends on the quality of dissertations. However, the quality varies a lot.

My second point is that the decision to award a degree is now made by educational and research institutions – we discussed this with the postgraduate students as well – and it comes into force after the Higher Attestation Commission makes its final conclusion and the Ministry of Education and Science issues a corresponding diploma. This is the final legal act that confirms the academic degree.

There is a proposal to transfer the right to award degrees and issue diplomas to universities and research centres and keep the Ministry of Education’s right to establish dissertation councils and exercise oversight over them so that only truly reputable academics sit on them. I would like to hear your point of view as well. We have heads of leading research and academic institutions here in the audience.

The third point concerns the activities of the Higher Attestation Commission the State Commission, its level of transparency and that of its expert panels. The commission was established in 1934, and it has always been a fairly closed, elitist entity. The names of commission's expert panels are never disclosed. The question is whether we should make transparent the procedure of forming such panels and begin rotating both experts and members of the commission.

Fourth, I would like to say a few words about the defence procedure and the examination of theses by the Higher Attestation Commission. Things need to be discussed here as well. I spoke about this with the postgraduate students, and they believe that for a work of research – if it is not a secret work – to be accepted it has to be posted on the internet. This isn’t being done now. Posting such research on the internet will allow the academic community to have access to the latest research, participate in the examination and, of course, check in a timely manner for plagiarism. I’d like to make a reservation here: such checks cannot be applied across the board and automatically indicate plagiarism. We understand this. I have discussed this with the postgraduate students.

It turns out that if the software that is used to identify plagiarism finds the text by the same person on the internet, it classifies it as plagiarism. That is, we cannot fully trust a machine search, but this is a good first step to trigger other reviews.

Fifth. Today, some people are questioning the validity of awarded degrees and want to revoke the corresponding decision with regard to the theses that were defended three years ago or later. This is the provision adopted in 2011. There is a proposal to return to the previous ten-year period. Let's talk about it and see if we need to make any changes in existing regulations.

There’s another thing that I would like to discuss. Most modern countries have a three-tier degree system: Bachelor, Master and PhD. Of course, introducing the PhD degree in Russia will not cancel out anything that already exists – this is also something that we should discuss. This concerns a large numbers of bona fide graduates who have defended their theses in good faith and with good results.

There are some areas of applied research that are difficult to fit into the traditional grading system, such as business administration, business management, or some issues of public administration. It is no secret either that politicians, civil servants and businessmen pursue candidate's or doctoral degrees, and we know why. I have just been discussing this with postgraduate students because it was, of course, just as important in Soviet times. Now it is a quite ordinary part of a person’s career ladder. I think that is totally wrong, it doesn’t make sense. If we look at the foreign experience, you don’t have to be a researcher to be successful in business or politics. If someone conducts research before starting in business or going into politics I think that’s a plus. But if someone takes up a research while holding an important public post the attitude to such research will always be quite complicated and researchers should be aware of that. Well, everyone is free to make their own choice. But there is a certain practice in our country, though there are exceptions to every rule.

Also, it has been suggested that we establish a number of professional degrees awarded by universities, business schools and industrial and public unions such as the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. We should discuss this. Many countries are introducing such degrees. They have been awarded in Russia as well.

And the last point. Of course, any changes in certification procedures require changes in the legal framework. I’m talking about regulations concerning postgraduate and doctoral studies and educational programmes. This discussion will have no effect whatsoever unless the entire academic community changes its attitude toward this issue. Plagiarism, compilation and copyright infringement in research and violation of professional ethics have become acceptable only relatively recently. I didn’t have such an experience. And it’s a road to nowhere. There will be no science in this country if we continue this practice. That is all I wanted to say to start with.

Now I suggest listening to two more speeches. Since I outlined the general problem we can focus on particular proposals and omit the analysis. First I will pass the stage to Minister of Education and Science, then to Vladimir Filippov, Rector of the People’s Friendship University and Chairman of the Supreme Certification Commission. Afterwards, everyone else will have an opportunity to speak. Over to you please, Mr Livanov.

Dmitry Livanov (Minister of Education and Science, member of the Ministry’s Certification Commission): Mr Medvedev, colleagues. Indeed, if we look back to 1993, in 2007 there were three times as many postgraduate and doctoral theses than there were in 1993. In Political Science that number went up by a factor of ten and in Economics by a factor of five, in Social Sciences it was six. However, the number of research papers in engineering remained about the same. I would like to stress that biggest growth in this ‘tumor’ – I cannot find another term for this phenomenon – was between 1998 and 2005. Gennady Mesyats was Chairman of the Supreme Certification Commission at the time. This is not about particular people, of course, but during that time the number of degrees and academic titles underwent virtual ‘inflation’ through a grey market of thesis writing. The reputation of our academic community has suffered dramatically because people don’t trust their academic titles any more. Each of these degrees is in fact representative of our state.

There is a serious imbalance in thesis councils, some of which award 50 or more degrees a year. This means that degrees are awarded every week, without interruption. The degrees are ‘churned out’. At the same time, some 40% of the institutions with postgraduate research opportunities and thesis councils have never had their research papers published in internationally recognised academic journals. Not a single paper. Obviously, in some cases this is related to the specifics of the work but generally we need give some serious thought to this.

Around 40% of doctoral research papers are defended outside actual postgraduate studies through stand-alone doctoral applications. This is common practice among economists, teachers, lawyers and so on.

The problem is not, of course, confined to plagiarised theses. More alarming is that more often than not even honestly written theses offer no real creativity – the text may be original, but does not contribute to the academic world.

The organisation of the network of thesis councils does not reflect the real academic potential of these institutions. Overall, the system is not transparent, and in a number of organisations it functions not to evaluate a post-graduate's competence, but for the self-perpetuation of established feudal academic or pseudo-academic clans. And the worst of it is that the organisations and researchers are not interested in improving the quality of theses since they are not responsible for this.

What measures are we proposing for next year? The top priority is to bring the network of thesis councils in line with the actual distribution of academic potential across the country. Thesis councils and post-graduate courses should exist only where there is real academic research

This summer we’ll make an assessment of the actual level of all the thesis councils in this country. Based on that assessment, the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) will decide how best to optimise of the network. The cuts in the number of thesis councils will be drastic and thorough, especially in some disciplines. Initially we will specify, but in fact re-establish the requirements for the academic standards of both thesis council members and of the research organisations in which the councils are set up. We have already created task groups in the main areas of study, which include representatives of the leading universities and research centres. The heads of these groups are taking part in today’s meeting – they are Yevgeny Kablov, Valery Kozlov, Alexander Chubaryan, Sergei Lukyanov, and Viktor Bolotov. Sergei Shakhrai is ill, but he …

Dmitry Medvedev: Sends everyone his regards.

Dmitry Livanov: … will be responsible for law.

Second. It is necessary to define reputational and disciplinarian responsibility of both organisations and academics for the attestable quality of research and teaching staff. We propose introducing the ‘soft’ disqualification (through informing or recommendation) of researchers who have returned unsatisfactory results during qualification. If a thesis council regularly approves plagiaries, it must not only be closed down –naturally – but its members, heads and opponents can no longer hold these positions. We are now considering a responsibility mechanism for the heads of the organisations which produce a lot of plagiaries. With regard to institute presidents, tough administrative decisions must be taken, up to and including dismissal.

Third. It is fundamentally important to make the review of appeals and criticisms more public, and regulate the process in a more clear and transparent way. Currently, a doubtful thesis is sent back for a review to the same council that approved it. No procedure for examining the criticisms has been organized, and as a result the thesis council, as a rule, responds that everything is all right, and this closes the matter. We deem it advisable to increase the appeal term to 10 years.  I want, however, to specially note that dishonesty in academia has no time limitation. There is a time limitation for procedural violations, but when the matter concerns unethical conduct, it must have no time limit. Open publication of the full texts of theses is undoubtedly obligatory; it is an important transparency measure.

Fourth. We are also proposing improvements to the formation and function of the Higher Attestation Commission itself. I am refering to transparent rules for establishing VAK expert panels. Candidates for these panels should be nominated openly and their nominations posted on the VAK website for public discussion.

Proceeding from these guidelines, we are going to rotate the expert panels as early as this autumn, and make subsequent rotations regular. The Higher Attestation Commission must also be renewed regularly, as well as the expert panels and managements. Combining VAK expert panel membership with a position on a thesis council must be banned. We also proposed to establish transparent requirements for the scientific background of Higher Attestation Commission expert council members.

Fifth. We are proposing improvements to the defence procedure itself, with special committees to be set up within thesis councils and staffed with specialists on the theme concerned. They must closely study the thesis and then attest to its quality with their signatures. It is also necessary to include leading international researchers in our thesis councils and invite them to head the opponents.

Unquestionably, it is essential to discuss the vocational scholarships you mentioned Mr Medvedev. This fits into the overall package of measures to increase the role of professional communities, including the assessment of educational programmes, public-professional accreditation of educational institutions and so on.

As regards attestation, we are proposing expanding the autonomy of our colleges, universities and research centres in relation to post-graduate training, thesis defence, degree conferring, and scholarship awarding, while naturally preserving the role of the Higher Attestation Commission as a body entitled to award academic degrees and evaluate the performance of thesis councils.

If these proposals are endorsed, we will submit the necessary draft regulatory acts by August 1.

Dmitry Medvedev: Still, what do we do with the suggestion that the universities themselves award, for example, PhD degrees?

Dmitry Livanov: We believe this right can be given to our leading institutes on a pilot basis. I know St Petersburg University has already taken this decision; we just need to give an official approval to the trial.

Dmitry Medvedev: The question here is who is authorized to issue degrees. But this experiment has no legal leg to stand on, does it? Do we need to make any decisions here?

Dmitry Livanov: Yes, it is necessary to amend the regulatory framework.

Dmitry Medvedev: Good.