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A Swift Transition from Fake PhD Theses to Scientific Research of Global Importance - Is It Possible?

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Over the last few years, some globally known people have been accused of plagiarism. A few notable plagiarism cases have been also registered in Russia, which has led to doubts in validity of PhD theses and degrees issued to famous politicians, university leaders, and heads of scientific institutions. Today, when readers from all over the world - Russian ones included - become increasingly interested in the projects revealing numerous cases of plagiarism in scientific research, new questions arise: what can be done to prevent questioning the quality of awarded degrees and what should Russian universities and research institutes do to handle the issue and facilitate introduction of new scientific developments into production?

According to Ekaterina Zaugolnikova, an expert of the working group at the Presidential National Council for Professional Qualifications of the Russian Federation, ”It has been talked a lot about the primary purpose of universities, which is to increase the number of scientists as well their competitiveness on the global stage. Russian scientists were able to stand the competition, back in the Soviet era. However, the recent trend has been disappointingly backward. From 2012 to 2018, the amount of issued PhD and Doctoral degrees had more than halved”.

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What can it be attributed to? Some of the notable problems in the educational sector may include the following: university graduates are not financially motivated to pursue postgraduate studies, Candidates and Doctors of Science lack practical experience, also the potential of PhD supervisors is more than questionable. Among the world's top universities, the standard practice is to turn students into scientists by giving them opportunities for professional growth within the educational institution. This is a number one priority. However, being a thesis supervisor in Russia usually does not lead to anything but the additional burden. It is only now that universities finally realise that a good supervisor needs to have passed qualification tests, must have reasonable amount of cited publications and relevant industrial experience, and should maintain scientific authority.

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Scientific falsification - including plagiarism and manipulation of research materials - is another issue that has been brought into focus lately. Violation of ethical norms and scientific misconduct are something of which both ordinary people and well-known figures have been accused. Moreover, the cases of fabrication in research occur too frequently. Hence, another question comes into focus: what is the reliability of the expertise conducted using software applications, considering that computer programmes often mistake self-citing for plagiarism?

As of now, there are four scientific organisations and nineteen universities in Russia that have been granted the right to award scientific degrees independently. They can also establish their own thesis boards and endow them with powers. One of the institutions to whom the right was vested is Saint-Petersburg Mining University.

The decision to give this right to scientific and educational organisations was made in 2017 when it became clear that the old framework was no longer working. According to Ekaterina Zaugolnikova, the committees that oversee awarding of advanced academic degrees are being increasingly reduced, most of the professors are soon to enter the retirement phase of their lives and they can no longer meet the requirements in publication activities. As an outcome, in different regions of the country Dissertation Councils of the Higher Attestation Commission ended up getting closed.

To discuss the new legal and regulatory framework of certifying scientific workers, university leaders and heads of research institutes gathered at the Mining University. Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of the University, put forward a proposal for establishing professional communities, which would examine PhD and doctoral theses. These communities would only consist of the experts who are professionals in the area researched in a particular thesis.

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As Prof. Litvinenko explains, ”In most of the developed world, universities now unite in professional communities - medical, economic, pedagogical and others. In Russia, there are 20 to 25 communities in the higher education system at the most.We also have to switch to the system that has been already applied in the Western countries, when experts gather in a temporary council for the particular thesis defence. It is not essential to fill up councils with narrowly focused specialists, not for each university at least. Two or three research fields is more than enough for one university, but there should be some really experienced researchers. Having done so, the issue of filling up dissertation councils with specialists will be solved and structural quality will be ensured”.

Once professional communities are in charge of granting scientific degrees, the overall quality of thesis papers will increase and it will eventually help building the trust in the framework. In the mineral resources sector, a possible solution would be to authorise the International Competence Centre for Mining-Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO to conduct attestation of experts for the councils. Among the Centre’s tasks are developing the new training system that would ensure continuous growth of engineering qualification and unifying engineering training programmes in universities from all over the world.

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The Mining University is also the first higher educational institution in Russia to have implemented the Presidential Decree that requires reshaping the mission of postgraduate studies and developing an efficient motivation system aimed at training and retention of young scientists. As of now, post-graduate students of the Mining University may expect a salary of up to 55-60 thousand roubles a month (approx. 880-960$). Those specialists who manage to successfully defend their thesis and decide to continue working at the Mining University will be paid a sign-on bonus equalling 500,000 roubles (around 8000USD). While being trained, new researchers are obliged to complete an international internship, in order to learn more about the European Higher Education System and existing scientific schools. Post-graduates are also given an opportunity to work with the biggest companies in the industry. Therefore, within the framework of the thesis, they do not make solutions for obsolete or non-existent issues, but solve real industrial tasks for such companies as Severstal, Apatit, Metrostroy, Russian Copper Company and others.