Russian Cows Benefit From Acupuncture

Russian academic authorities have to reconsider questions of what constitutes scholarship.

December 17, 2017

Russia gave the world many things: Sputnik, the first man in space, the most powerful explosion of a hydrogen bomb, an endless flow of oil and gas, and, most recently, cow acupuncture. The Highest Attestation Commission in Moscow awarded a doctorate in biology to veterinarian Dmitry Kapralov for his dissertation entitled “Morpho-functional characteristic of biologically active points in diagnostics and therapy of acute catarrhal afterbirth endometritis in cows in experiment.” The dissertation was defended far away from Moscow, in Primor’e State Agricultural University in the Far East. The author suggests inserting needles into specific points. And why not? If humans can benefit from acupuncture, so can cows.

Not everyone believes in the miracles of modern science. Some scholars remain pessimistic about the expected benefits of acupuncture, at least when it comes to cows. One may call them “old school” if they insist on evidence-based science, rigorous research, experimental design, randomized controlled trials, data collection, methodologies, etc. Only 12 committee members voted in favor of accepting the dissertation while the other nine voted against awarding the doctorate. And the nine were not the only non-believers. Mikhail Gelfand, himself a doctor of bioinformatics who, unlike most other Russian scholars, publishes in the west, was very skeptical about the discovery as well. In fact, some scholar activists were so skeptical that they publicly called cow acupuncture a sham, alleging fake science and putting the merits of the dissertation into doubt after it had been defended and accepted. Furthermore, by doing so, they challenged the highest authority of Russian science, the Highest Attestation Commission, that confirms doctorates.

But the situation is much more complicated. First, cow acupuncture is not necessarily a Russian invention, nor it is necessarily a sham. Studies on similar topics have been reported before, although this does not say anything about the quality of this particular dissertation. The split between the members of the Highest Attestation Commission voting for and against as well as the negative reaction of active members of the scholarly community point to a much larger division that exists in Russian academia. Russian academic authorities have to reconsider questions of what constitutes scholarship. What is science? Where is the line that delineates credible research from sham? Not answering these questions for a long time may present existential threats to the very notion of Russian science.

Modern Russia is a country of limitless opportunities, including when it comes to doctorates. If one cannot earn a doctorate in a usual way, one can simply buy one. My study of the dissertations-for-sale market, conducted in 2009, discovered 169 firms that openly advertise their ghost-writing services. Those who lack money and experience, resort to plagiarizing the research of others and do it en masse. Dissernet, a community of volunteering scholars, has discovered thousands of plagiarized dissertations defended by high-ranking public figures, politicians, civil servants, and academics. Scholars have been very persistent in pursuing plagiarized dissertations and chastising their “would be” authors—so much so that a few years ago Mikhail Gelfand and his colleagues from Dissernet discovered an identical plagiarized dissertation, where chocolate was replaced with beef. This was the only word that a PhD seeker introduced to a dissertation already written and defended in Russia by someone else. To complicate the search, “dark chocolate” and “nut chocolate” were replaced with “imported beef” and “bone-in beef,” respectively. The beef-for-chocolate swap appears to be an equivalent replacement, given the prices on Russian consumer market. And that “beef” dissertation was successfully defended too. What remains unknown is whether that beef came from cows that benefited from acupuncture.

While Russian PhDs continue to multiply at a rapid pace, the increased recognition of their scholarly achievements from places outside of Russia is rather bleak. During its entire post-Soviet period starting in 1991, Russia managed to gain only two Nobel prizes, in 2000 and 2003, both in physics. And even those were given for things discovered in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was alive and well. Russia needs more Nobel prizes. It is equally obvious that cow acupuncture—although arguably meriting a doctorate—is unlikely to bring Russia a Nobel Prize. Perhaps an Ig Nobel Prize instead. Every year, in a gala ceremony in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, genuine Nobel laureates hand prizes to winners—no cash attached. Ig Nobel Prizes were handed out for such achievements as the discovery of a female penis and a male vagina in a cave insect; the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat; studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats and for conducting similar tests with human males; and, not accidentally, sham acupuncture needles. One may suggest that the Russian Highest Attestation Commission should nominate cow acupuncture without delay. The time is short, as Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded in September and the selection procedure takes a while.


Ararat L. Osipian holds a Ph.D. in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. He conducts fieldwork on education corruption in the post-socialist space.

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Ararat L. Osipian

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