Scandals Envelop Two Russian Science Officials

The recent departure of two senior Russian research officials is putting a spotlight on ethical issues. Earlier this month, Andrei Andriyanov resigned as head of the Kolmogorov Special Educational and Scientific Center (SESC) of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), a special high school for budding scientists, after an investigation concluded that he had included fake references in his doctoral thesis. Meanwhile, Russian law enforcement officials have leveled unrelated fraud charges against the head of the government commission that approved Andriyanov's degree, calling renewed attention to allegations that the body was involved in a larger scheme to approve falsified dissertations.

SESC was founded in 1988 to train especially gifted teenagers in a broad range of disciplines, including chemistry, economics, and biology. Andriyanov started his scientific career studying chemistry at SESC and then at MSU. He became an activist in MSU's proadministration and progovernment student association, which later became part of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Popular Front political movement. Andriyanov eventually wrote a doctoral thesis on student movements in Moscow between 1991 and 2008, and he defended it in 2011 at Moscow State Pedagogical University.

In 2012, MSU Rector Viktor Sadovnichy appointed Andriyanov to lead SESC, prompting protests from the school's alumni. A graduates club of former SESC students appealed to Russia's Higher Attestation Commission (HAC), which approves all advanced degrees, claiming that Andriyanov's thesis included references to nonexistent works. HAC appointed Igor Fedyukin, Russia's deputy minister of science and education, to lead a special panel to investigate the claims. Late last year, MSU's Sadovnichy said that it was up to the panel "to find out if there were violations [of the regulations]. [The thesis] was written and defended outside the university and the university has nothing to do with it. The only thing I know is that Andriyanov has written more than 20 works on the student movement in 10 years. He is a professional."

Earlier this year, the panel issued a report that concluded that Andriyanov's thesis did contain false references and that it was just one example of a broader scheme to produce and gain approval for forged dissertations. The panel examined 25 theses completed at Moscow State Pedagogical University in recent years, including Andriyanov's, and found that 24 contained fake references. "Not only do these guys refer to nonexistent publications, there are multiple references to the same pages for different articles," says biologist Mikhail Gelfand, a member of the panel, which also identified 80 other academic works that seemed suspicious. "The scandal caused a storm of letters about forged theses including Andriyanov's work," Gelfand says.

The Fedyukin panel recommended that Andriyanov be stripped of his degree. He disputed the allegations, but resigned from his post on 4 February, and last week HAC stripped him of his degree (along with 10 other Ph.D.s in whose works it had found fraud).

HAC needs to introduce greater transparency in its evaluation and approval of theses and scientific degrees, Gelfand says, as well as in its appeals process. He suggests that the HAC charter include "a simple and strict rule stating that all appeals are open and HAC must give well-founded answers to every point." HAC's current practice in appeals, he adds, is to investigate and then reply: "No reason was found to retract the dissertation."

HAC is also confronting a criminal scandal with the 7 February arrest of its leader, Felix Shamkhalov, on charges of financial fraud. A corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the economics section since 2003, Shamkhalov was appointed head of the HAC Academic Council in 2007. He became HAC chair in August 2012.

Shamkhalov soon faced allegations that he was allowing HAC to approve falsified theses and confirm scientific degrees for people with no connection to research. In August 2012, a deputy in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, sent an official request to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to investigate Shamkhalov's activities, but no formal charges were filed.

Now, however, Shamkhalov faces fraud charges relating to a loan of about $180 million that Vnesheconombank provided for the construction of housing. Officials allege that the houses were never built, the development company went bankrupt, and the money was never repaid.

Despite the problems at HAC, Gelfand does not think the role of approving degrees should be transferred to another body, such as the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It is not that simple," he says. "If this function is given to the academy, there would be little change, if any. Remember that Shamkhalov is an academy member, elected by his peers, so he could easily head a [degree-awarding] commission there as well. The main point is to achieve transparency in the appeal process. The whole situation that is developing now, when researchers' appeals based on new facts are being considered, is a good example of what must happen always in such a case."