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China targets an academic culture of cut-and-paste

After a scandal highlighting rampant plagiarism, the government tries to rein it in – and a new generation of teachers trained abroad could help.

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Academic morals are simply Chinese society's morals writ small, argues Hu Xindou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "Corruption and fraud are very common in China and academic corruption and fraud just reflect the social situation," he says.

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The fact that many Chinese academic journals will publish anything without peer review, if editors are paid enough, is common knowledge, Professor Hu adds.

Whatever the causes of academic misconduct, the effects on the international reputation of Chinese research are terrible, says Fang. For example, he says, "some American scientists refuse to review any manuscripts submitted by Chinese researchers because they don't know if the data can be trusted."

Stearns says that he and his colleagues at Yale "do not believe letters of recommendation from Chinese professors, for we know that many of them are written by the students themselves," and merely signed by their teachers.

Cracking down on plagiarism

But moves are afoot to try to salvage Chinese academic honor. Last week, for example, college professors at 200 universities were offered free trials of a new antiplagiarism software that more than 1,000 Chinese science journals have been using since December.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education published a circular last week urging universities to crack down on academic misconduct and to report all the cases they uncover. The ministry recommended punishments ranging from warnings to legal action, and suggested that research funds should be withdrawn from plagiarists and academic awards revoked.

The ministry will check at the end of this year on how well these recommendations have been implemented, the circular warned.

"These measures are intended to build up a long-term prevention mechanism to keep the academic field clean," said Xu Mei, an Education Ministry spokeswoman, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Fang is dubious about the value of such efforts. The Ministry of Science and Technology set up an Office of Scientific Research Integrity two years ago, he points out, but it has not handled a single case.

Professor Li, the Chinese traditional medicine expert at Zhejiang University, was using Science Ministry funding for his research, but the ministry has taken no action against him.

A new generation of academics

Stearns, however, sees hope not only in his Chinese students ("when I gave them a chance to clean up their act, almost all of them did," he wrote in his e-mail), but also in a new generation of academics.

"There is a recently arrived group of excellent scholars of international caliber and international standards who returned to China because they saw its promise, and who are greatly improving academic standards," he wrote.

One such returnee is Rao Yi, who taught at Northwestern University in Chicago before becoming dean of the College of Life Sciences at Peking University just as Stearns began teaching there.

"We will regain our long-held tradition of honesty and trust," Professor Rao pledged in a letter to Stearns in the wake of the scandal he had started, promising to fire anyone who violated "basic rules of integrity."

"It will be a small step," he added, "but I hope that it will be the beginning of more changes that many of us are working on."