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Summary

Similarly to how gerrit asked "Is there any research on the prevalence of academic theft?", I am wondering if there are any surveys or studies on the forms and prevalence of "systemic corruption" (definition below) in Academia. I refer in particular to corruption where people systematically ignore the rules, sometimes for "good reasons" (i.e. not for their direct benefit), but in such a way that it somehow justify others' abuses, ignoring the same rules for their own benefit.

As a member of Academia (in particular while being in Latin America), I would like to make my modest contribution to reduce the prevalence of such corruption, if only by showing the example and teaching about it to students. Are there any documentation around which can help in such an endeavor?

I list below Wikipedia's definition and some examples of such systemic corruption, along with more details about my motivation in asking such a question.


Definition of Systemic Corruption

The wikipedia page about Corruption defines various types of corruption, among which "Systemic corruption, defined as

corruption which is primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process. It can be contrasted with individual officials or agents who act corruptly within the system.


Examples of systemic corruption in academia

(disclaimer: some of those I witnessed, and some others I was suggested to perform by the hierarchy and/or secretaries):

  1. Requesting money for one item and using it for another one. If requesting travel or salary money for person A so that it can be used to pay person B because the rules prevent or complicate paying to B, it can be done for reasons that both consider "good" (e.g. sending a student to a conference) but open the door to such rules to be abused (e.g. paying someone for a job they did not do).

  2. Requesting a letter of invitation for a longer period of time than the actual visit, "to simplify things". When justifying a (paid) trip to various places/countries in the same trip, for distinct research projects, one could consider to ask a single invitation letter for the whole period rather than 3 distinct ones for the respective periods, to "simplify things" for the administration which has to decide whether to allow the trip or not, but it opens the door to people having the university to pay for their (extended) vacations.

  3. Adding colleagues as co-authors to publications "because they need it" or asking colleagues to add one as a coauthor. [A colleague was recently suggested to do so by the director of their department to compensate their lack of publications after a period of intense administrative responsibilities, arguing that "everybody does it" (which I strongly disagree with).] One can be "generous" with co-authorship as a general principle, (among other reasons, because measuring each contribution is problematic, and expecting the n co-authors of a publication to contribute exactly the same would be complicated to enforce), but it seems to be one step on the path to adding (a) co-author(s) after the article has been completely redacted as part of a "collusion deal" to increase publication numbers.

  4. Shortening classes in agreement with the students without informing the administration. It is hard to maintain attention for 1h30, so it is a common practice to take a break in the middle. I saw some instructors deciding for the class to start 30mns late (arguing that "the students are always late anyway) and teaching only for 1h, and others ending the class 30mns early. It might make sense in term of student attention, but it might also open the door to abuses.

  5. Skipping classes (in agreement with the students) without informing the administration. Some universities explicitly require professors to name an official replacement for their teaching duties during periods for which they have been allowed to travel (and check that the teaching duties of such replacement do not intersect with those of the traveling professor). When setting-up such "replacement", it seems common to request a "virtual replacement" where the replacement is just in name, and the students are "freed" of classes during the corresponding period. Such practice might seem justified for short periods of time (e.g. 1 week), but could be abused by being used for much longer periods of time, in a way detrimental to the student's learning.

  6. Self-Plagiarism: when using a similar technique in two (or more) distinct publications (for distinct problems), duplicate the technical proof with minor corrections rather than "refactoring" it into a technical lemma in the first publication, to be cited in the later ones. Failing to do so might be just blamed to bad redaction, but it can be abused in order to make a publication "more technical" and novel than it really is.

Those are just examples which come to mind or which I witnessed, I am sure that there are many others. I am curious as to how prevalent such examples are, and of resources to help (young and less young) academics to

  • convince their peers at an institution to ban/reduce/fight some of such practices, locally considered "normal" and wide-spread, with arguments that such practices are globally NOT considered that normal, and definitely not that wide-spread in academia at the world level; or at least
  • convince students and young researchers NOT to adopt the local customs, with some arguments about what is accepted and what is not accepted in other institutions (where they could land a job in the future).

Motivation for the question

I witnessed various instances (some benign, some more grave) of such "systemic corruption" in academia in Latin America, but this gives only anecdotal evidence. I discussed it with some international colleagues, which also only gives anecdotal information about their prevalence:

  1. (some) colleagues from Latin America do not consider as corruption per se (for them, "corruption" rather corresponds to what the wikipedia page refers to as "Petty Corruption" and "Systemic Corruption"); while
  2. (some) colleagues from Europe react by saying that such corruption exists in Europe too (with which I would agree although I think they do not understand the difference in prevalence) and
  3. (some) colleagues from North America condemn such corruption (but admit that some of it exist also in some "bad" places in North America).

I understand at least some of the mechanisms behind such corruption: the people practicing it are mostly doing so in order to get around inadequate legislation and not for direct personal benefit, a type of legislation that they cannot change on their own. While understandable, this is highly detrimental to society in various ways:

  • in some cases the amount (mental, time, money, etc.) energy wasted in multitudes getting around a single "stupid" rule by out weights by far the amount of energy which would be required to design and switch to a better rule, if only people could coordinate;
  • in all cases, having most people disobeying a rule (without abusing it) opens the door for a few individuals to abuse disobeying such a rule (each decides to which point to disobey the rule), which is later used to justify even stricter rules, which more people will try to get around of in order to simply doing their job, in an endless vicious cycle.
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    I think this question would be improved by giving concrete examples of "such corruption" in academia for an international audience. For example, if I meet my program officer from the NIH in a dark alley and pass them an envelope with 5000 USD in it so that my grant is funded, I think we can all agree that is corruption. What are some examples of more "petty corruption"?
    – Ian
    Jan 31, 2023 at 11:44
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    I was going to point out the same as @Ian, examples of such corruption that is specific to academia are needed.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Jan 31, 2023 at 11:45
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    About half of the post is an expression of personal opinion. I would recommend that you try to ask a precise well-posed question, and omit extraneous bits.
    – Alex B.
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:09
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    Bureaucracies have stupid rules all over the world. And normally they are required by forces outside the control of the faculty and staff. But bureaucracy and stupid rules do not cause corruption and may not even correlate to corruption.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:26
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    The given examples of corruption do not really match what is usually regarded as corruption. For instance, in the second example: All countries I know have rules against "jaywalking" (crossing a street outside of a pedestrian crossing and/or when the traffic light is red). At the same time, depending on the country and a place in the country, jaywalking is more prevalent or less prevalent. The common understanding is that jaywalking is not an example of corruption. (However, if local police starts to charge people with jaywalking when they do not, it becomes an example.) Jan 31, 2023 at 14:36

2 Answers 2

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I was not able to find up-to-date data on the academic corruption worldwide, the closest result would probably be Transparency.org's Global Corruption Barometer. As is typical for social studies, there are multiple caveats to the methodology; numbers may be hard to interpret: for example, Belgium has a low rate of bribery, yet the perception of corruption by institution (Table 2) is high overall and exceeding that of Bangladesh, which has a much higher bribery rate (from the 2013 report). That is to say, you are completely correct in noting that the same practice may be perceived as normal in one country and completely off-limits in another, and that would heavily affect the implications of any analysis.

To approach the systematic aspect of corruption in academia in particular, I would start with this highly cited paper (Rumyantseva, 2005), which attempts to build a taxonomy of academic corruption. It distinguishes between administrative corruption and education-specific corruption, and further divides the latter into cases falling under "academic corruption" and "corruptions in services". However, it does not discuss prevalence of these cases and generally sticks to more obvious, even blatant examples throughout the text.

This review (Denisova-Schmidt, 2018) and references therein offer a more detailed view on the prevalence of corruption cases. This includes high-profile public figures in the educational sector:

In 2016, the Ministers of Education of Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia, and Ukraine were all implicated in conflicts of interest. In addition, some or all the deputy Ministers of Education in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine, as well as some members of the cabinets in Armenia and Kazakhstan, have also been accused of having conflicts of interest.

In Russia, rampant corruption and plagiarism have prompted a formation of a vigilante group within the academic community - Dissernet. This is not to single out Russia or ex-USSR countries, although the situation is certainly problematic there. It is not a coincidence two of the authors I have cited so far have Slavic names. Many developing countries are experiencing similar growth pains, too. For an example more relevant to you, a high-level overview of this transition in Latin America (Segrera, 2010) is concerned with reasons behind these pains.

For the advice on fighting corruption, I will refer to Denisova-Schmidt again:

In order to combat this corruption, the faculty should present their assignments and expectations more clearly to the students, stipulating their educational and cultural backgrounds.

She then stresses:

Faculty members should serve as role models, however. If they also cheat, they might not be able to demand the opposite behaviour from their students.

And

General research on corruption suggests not fighting corruption in general but rather focusing on specific malpractices [...]

Coming from a somewhat similar background, I may only add to this advice one thing: do not put much effort in combating corruption where you can not provide a positive example. Pick your fights. Keep serving as a role model. But lecturing anyone on morals is not going to be particularly effective unless you can show your example works, that one does not have to offer bribes to be able to put bread on the table. As long as people keep trying, as long as they hope for a better future, there is progress. Do not demand it to be "all or nothing", because you will keep getting nothing. Offer encouragement and forgiveness.

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Certainly there is corruption but it takes at least two different forms. I can only speak for the US, however.

There is minor corruption that is probably pretty common with people cutting corners, even so minor as taking home a ream of paper for their home printer when it will be used "mostly" for work. Padding of expense accounts for travel might qualify. This might not be a managed issue as the individual occurrences are small enough that policing them is more expensive than letting it go. But, I'd expect that a few people are fired over such issues. I don't see universities (reputable universities) as corruption machines that make such things easy.

The other kind of corruption is when a university is actually founded and organized around a corrupt purpose, say the financial or political benefit of the founders. Trump University was shut down and fined over such things. A few (not all) "religious" colleges in the US have a similar reputation. Even some technical "for profit" schools have run afoul of the law. And some schools have badly abused the student loan system to their own benefit. But these sorts of things are relatively localized, and aren't representative of the higher education system in general.

One feature of higher education that some consider corrupt is the tight relationship between some university presidents and the board of trustees resulting in very high salary. But this is done in the open, generally speaking, so may not be "corrupt" in the classical sense. Undesirable, perhaps.

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    Well, you miss a few types of corruption, e.g. when a student pay a professor to pass their exam, or it pays a professor to get hired in a selection. Jan 31, 2023 at 16:38
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    @MassimoOrtolano, I've never seen that happen in US. Sad if it does anywhere.
    – Buffy
    Jan 31, 2023 at 16:46
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    It certainly happened in my country Jan 31, 2023 at 17:12
  • @Buffy: It certainly happened in Russia, Ukraine and Peru.
    – user111388
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:33
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    The recent US college admissions scandal makes a much better example of corruption than TU, which was a pure fraud. Feb 1, 2023 at 4:03

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