MOSCOW — Eight years ago, President Vladimir Putin decreed that Russia must become a leading scientific power. That meant at least five top-100 Russian universities by 2020, and a dramatic increase in the number of global citations of Russian scientific papers.

Now a group at the center of Putin’s aspirations, the Russian Academy of Sciences, has dropped a bombshell into the plans. A commission set up by the academy has led to the retraction of at least 869 Russian scientific articles, mainly for plagiarism.

“This is the largest retraction in Russian scientific history. Never before have hundreds of papers been retracted,” said Andrei Zayakin, scientific secretary of the RAS Commission for Countering the Falsification of Scientific Research. “Before two years ago, there might have been single cases, but not even dozens.”

What went wrong? Many scientists blame Putin’s 2012 order, which provided greater funding but also led to pressure on scientists to churn out multiple papers a year regardless of quality, amid heavy teaching loads.

Critics also contend that Russia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education fueled the problem. In 2018, Science and Higher Education Minister Mikhail Kotyukov said Russia had to double its publication of research articles. Universities offered contracts and promotions to those who published more papers and sidelined those who failed to.

“You have got this Potemkin village where universities try to report as many papers as possible, but nobody really reads those papers,” said Anna Kuleshova, ethics council chairwoman at the Russian Association of Scientific Editors and Publishers, the country’s largest scientific publishing organization.

The problem goes much deeper, according to scientists working to rescue Russia’s declining international research reputation. Dozens of university rectors have defended or supervised dubious degrees and papers involving plagiarism and falsified data, they claim.

A statute of limitations makes it impossible to rescind degrees awarded before 2010.

The RAS Commission last year called for the retraction of 2,528 research articles in 541 Russian journals that were either plagiarized, duplicates of other articles or involved unclear authorship. By Jan. 6, 263 journals had agreed to retract 869 papers. The commission expects that further retractions will be made in coming months.

Many of the examples involved Russian scientists plagiarizing from other scientific articles while others involved the same scientists publishing more than one paper with substantially the same data. In other cases, a new name may be added to the same research.

Zayakin, a physician, said “publication mills” sprang up as a result of pressure on researchers to publish or lose either their jobs or funding.

“One important driver was the formal approach of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to university faculty staff who were supposed to publish a certain number of scientific papers regardless of quality,” he said.

He and others formed a group, Dissernet, in 2013, to fight fake science and plagiarism in academic articles and degrees, and the sale of authorships and degrees for profit.

“Doctoral theses were being bought and sold for many years,” Zayakin said.

In 2018, Dissernet used anti-plagiarism technology and found that 7,251 Russian degrees had been awarded for plagiarized or dubious work in the previous four years, including 529 medical degrees. Most were in economics, teaching and law.

Another advocate for change, Mikhail Gelfand, professor of bioinformatics and genetics at Moscow State University, said Russian funding and university rankings were based on the number of papers published, so that money and jobs flowed to the unscrupulous and ill-qualified: “Some people are forced to publish, despite the fact they have no time for meaningful research or funding. The teaching load in Russian universities is huge.”

Dissernet has campaigned to revoke plagiarized and faked degrees with limited success. From December 2013 to December 2019, 368 degrees were revoked.

Last year, it examined the heads of 676 Russian higher education institutions and found that 112 had committed violations of academic ethics, including 61 whose degrees involved plagiarism.

Vladimir Filippov, chairman of the Higher Attestation Commission, which coordinates and validates the awards of degrees, said in a 2017 interview with the government-backed newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the number awarded had halved between 2012 and 2017, from around 24,000 to fewer than 13,000.

“The main reasons for the decline are stricter requirements toward papers and the improvement of reputation, responsibility and transparency at all stages of attestation,” he said. Zayakin said the drop showed how many flawed degrees were being issued in the past.

In an article last year, he cited the case of a young scientist from Buryatia in Siberia, who plagiarized a thesis by Svetlana Mikhailova of the East Siberia State University of Technology and Management in 2015.

According to Zayakin, the Siberian student used Mikhailova’s work in six research papers that he published under his name, with six co-authors, including the head of a university — a finding upheld in 2018 by the Supreme Court of Buryatia.

Kuleshova said plagiarism was so rife that it had become normal, and that many people hold dubious academic qualifications.

“Before, they were on sale in the Metro. Anyone could buy one on any corner. Now it’s become a bit more difficult. It’s become more expensive, so you can get them, but they will cost about 100,000 rubles,” she said, around $1,600. “There are many professions where this has become the norm. There are so many pseudo experts who are not real experts.”

In 2016, Dissernet reported that 1 in 9 members of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, had dubious degrees. A year earlier it exposed the Duma’s then-chairman, Sergei Naryshkin, now the director of foreign intelligence, for plagiarizing more than half of the pages in his economics doctorate.

Naryshkin just shrugged off the accusations and never lost his degree.

Putin’s goal of ensuring that Russia is among the top five countries for research and development in science and technology has so far been frustrated. In 2018 he complained that 40 percent of the academic subjects failed to produce a single research paper worthy of citation.

Kuleshova has an explanation: “The basics of science and scientific interest have been lost. In its place we just have a desire to retain funding, so those who are ready to go for any manipulation are the ones who rule the situation.”