On this site, we’ve talked a great deal about the epidemic of plagiarism in Russia and elsewhere in the region. Of particular note has been the political plagiarism scandals as various politicians in the country have been accused of plagiarizing significant portions of their PhD dissertations, which they then used to obtain higher positions within the government.
However, there’s always been one element of that story missing: What becomes of those politicians that cheat on their dissertations and go on to hold political power?
A new study aims to shed some light on exactly that question (paywalled). According to a report from the Times Higher Education (paywalled), researchers Anna Abalkina and Alexander Libman, both from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, have looked at governors that were found to have plagiarized their dissertations and compared their performance against governors of similar regions that did not.
The results are probably not surprising with the plagiarizing governors performing worse on average and failing to develop their regions as quickly as their counterparts. According to one of the paper’s co-authors, this is because “Plagiarism is a prediction of corrupt behavior and incompetence.”
While the results are hardly a shock, it’s the first time researchers have looked at the performance of such politicians and it highlights why it is important to take issues of plagiarism seriously. That said, it does come with some caveats that need to be understood before reading too much into the results.
The Background and the Study
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, politicians in the country began to seek ways to retain power amidst a rapidly-changing political climate. One of the more common tools that was used was obtaining a PhD. According to the authors of the study, a PhD in Russia has become a “status symbol” and a means to either obtain a more prominent role or maintain the one that you have.
However, many of those that sought the status symbol opted not to do so ethically. Instead, they either turned to diploma mill services that promised them quick and easy PhDs, turned to ghostwriters that would write their dissertation for them or simply copy and pasted their way to a paper and trust that, if detected, their professors would not care.
As a result, many who wanted a PhD but didn’t actually wish to put in the work still managed to obtain them. So much so that, according to the researchers, approximately half of the governors they looked at had known plagiarized dissertations.
To find such instances of plagiarism, the researchers looked through Dissernet, a crowd-sourced Russian wiki that works to fight plagiarism within the country. The service has published thousands of reports and identified many times that the number of plagiarists. Many of those caught are Russian political figures.
The researchers then simply looked at the governors that were known to have plagiarized their dissertations and compared them to those that did not. They used metrics such as housing construction and the proliferation of broadband internet to find objective measurements of performance.
To that end, they found that governors that plagiarized their PhDs fared worse than their non-plagiarizing colleagues. Their incompetency and lack of ethics was actively harming the people that live under their jurisdiction.
This, in truth, isn’t much of a surprise. We’ve long understood that plagiarism is a warning sign for poor ethical behavior. Those that willingly engage in plagiarism may well engage in other misdeeds. We’ve seen this in journalism with Benny Johnson, Ruth Shalit and Jonah Lehrer where plagiarism was simply a warning sign for other unethical acts.
The findings should shock no one. However, it’s important to take these results with a pinch of salt as there are some pretty significant limitations to consider.
Limitations and Considerations
As interesting as the study is, it’s important to put it in some context. Basically, it only looks at governors from one country. Specifically, it looked at governors from Russia who, on average, defended their PhDs in their early forties, far later than most students.
This means that we do not know how these findings apply to other regions of the world. We also don’t know how they apply to someone that is accused of plagiarism much earlier in life. It’s very possible that younger students may be caught plagiarizing but go on to reform and become both ethical and competent. We simply don’t know one way or another from this study.
It’s important to put this into focus and not draw conclusions outside of what data is presented.
Another issue is that we do not know for certain the non-plagiairizng governors aren’t also plagiarists. They may simply be better plagiarists that were able to avoid detection. This may speak to their competency in a very bizarre way, but it doesn’t speak to their ethics. As such, we can’t be certain how much of this is about the skill of not getting caught plagiarizing versus the ethics of plagiarism itself.
Finally, though the researchers sought objective standards to compare the governors on, obviously the performance of a politician is a very difficult thing to quantify. Not only do non-quantifiable factors play a huge role in perception, there are countless other variables that could impact how well a politician achieves certain goals.
So, while this study is an important milestone, it’s important to keep it in perspective. It’s important work but, like most academic research, should be paired with other research to gain a more clear picture of the relationship between politics and plagiarism.
In the end, as limited as the study is in some ways, the results are more than logical. Anyone unethical enough to plagiarize a dissertation and incompetent or lazy enough to do it in a way that gets them caught would seemingly perform worse as a political leader.
To that end, this study is a warning: Citizens and governments ignore plagiarism at their own peril. This is especially true for plagiarism later in one’s career and on major academic, professional or personal achievements.
Clearly, more research is needed but this study should give people a moment’s pause when faced with a plagiarizing politician, especially those that plagiarized more recently.
Plagiarism is a warning sign of other issues. Journalists have known this for years and it’s now becoming better known in the political arena.