No sanctions here! Rouhani's plagiarism scandal sheds light on Iran's lucrative dissertation selling business
According to The Telegraph Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, may have plagiarized a part of his doctorate dissertation at Glasgow Caledonian University in the United Kingdom. Behdad Morshedi, a London-based Iranian activist, claims Rouhani lifted two passages in his 500-page thesis, without attribution, from another book. According to a spokesperson from Glasgow Caledonian University, the book is cited in the dissertation’s bibliography.
While Morshedi’s allegations appear to be politically motivated, even if they were true, Rouhani’s alleged plagiarism pales in comparison to the overlooked, though by no means insignificant, phenomenon of plagiarized dissertations in Iran. In these transactions, student-customers enters into contractual agreements with private groups, exchanging a substantial fee for a dissertation wholly written by the groups’ paid employees.
This dissertation bazaar appears to be a new development. Referring to themselves as “groups,” many of the organizations working in this sphere initially began by offering translation, tutoring, and similar services and only recently started to write masters and doctoral dissertations in their entirety for paying students.
These disseration groups shamelessly advertise their services across Tehran, particularly on Enghelab (Revolution) Street where the University of Tehran is located. Dissertation advertisements overwhelm street walls, telephone poles, and even locations where advertisements are strictly forbidden, like traffic signs. The advertisements themselves do not provide much information, usually only the word “dissertation” with an address and telephone number.
But, after probing the operations of these groups via direct calls and visits to their offices, a richer picture of the dissertation bazaar emerges.
As conversations with these groups revealed, some organizations cover a limited number of disciplines, like the humanities or business management. Others cover almost all majors offered at Iranian universities, including the humanities, social sciences, law, the arts, business administration, medicine, computer science, and engineering.
Those employed by the dissertation groups hold masters or doctorate degrees in relevant fields and can produce an academic thesis in less than two-months. They both perform the necessary research and write the dissertation itself. Editorial comments on self-written works or academic advising are normally not offered to customers.
These dissertation-drafting groups are even willing to help customers decide on dissertation topics. For an additional fee, they are more than happy to create a proposal, for which the student need only declare his or her subject of study. Once the student submits the proposal to her university’s academic committee and receives approval, the group then writes the dissertation chapter by chapter. As a final step, they provide in-person consultations to help prepare students defend their dissertations.
Prices vary according to discipline and others factors, such as the amount of research involved. Roughly, dissertation writing services range from 1,000,000 toman (approximately $350 U.S. dollars) to 2,500,000 toman (approximately $850 U.S. dollars), which amounts to a few months rent for a small apartment in one of Tehran’s wealthier neighborhoods. Students have the option to pay the entire fee up front or in periodic payments. The first payment is made after the proposal is approved, with subsequent payments submitted after each chapter’s completion. Some groups claim to guarantee their work: if a university committee does not find the dissertation to be satisfactory, the group will return the student’s money.
There are no official statistics on the number or demographic make up of students using these services. According to some Tehran residents, most student-customers come from lower-ranked, private universities with higher admittance rates and tuition fees (in Iran, students who score at the top of countrywide university entrance exam are admitted to the more prestigious public universities which do not charge tuition). These students appear to be either underqualified for advanced programs, too busy with work outside school, or both. State officials pursuing advanced degrees to complement their government posts may also be employing these services.
Unless there are pre-existing concerns with the student’s academic integrity, groups providing these services are not concerned that university committees will detect plagiarism. An employee at one of these groups, who I spoke with, dismissed the possibility that plagiarism would be detected, claiming that the dissertation bazaar would have ceased to exist a long time ago if such risks were real.
In fact, most employees appear to view their services as “consultations” rather than a form of ethically compromising academic fraud. According to one employee, his group is doing academic and scientific research and explains the final product to the student who is thus merely being consulted. Despite the moral gymnastics used to justify the ethical nature of their services, one fact is simple and clear: students may come to understand the final product, but they are certainly not creating it.
While any Iranian academic institution would reject a plagiarized dissertation, most universities do not appear to have codified rules on academic integrity. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, an executive branch organ responsible for implementing “Islamic culture” in academic and scientific areas, has created a document titled, the Disciplinary Regulations for the Islamic Republic’s Students of Higher Education, which is silent on plagiarized dissertations. There is also no legislation that criminalizes the services provided by these groups.
As the dissertation bazaar gains more attention, universities may become stricter and external institutions, like the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, may begin preventing the sale of dissertations and discipline students who purchase these services. Until then, the dissertation bazaar will likely grow.
*Navid Zarrinnal is a commentator and writer on Islam and Iranian affairs. He currently lives in central Tehran. You can follow him on Facebook.
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