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.

Three professors at a leading Chinese university – including one of the country's top experts in traditional medicine – have lost their jobs in a new plagiarism scandal. And the government finally seems to have been jolted into tackling the academic dishonesty that plagues many faculties here.

Experts are not holding their breath, though. In a culture where knockoffs are normal, from sportswear to DVDs, it will not be easy to expunge deep-rooted academic habits, they warn. But some say hope may lie with a new generation of internationally trained teachers.

The latest fraud to rock Chinese academia centers on He Haibo, an associate professor of pharmacology at the prestigious Zhejiang University. He now admits to copying or making up material he submitted in eight papers to international journals and has been fired, along with the head of his research institute.

The affair has drawn particular attention because a world-renowned expert in traditional Chinese medicine, Li Lianda, lent his name as coauthor to one of the fraudulent papers. His tenure will not be renewed when his contract expires soon, the president of Zhejiang University has said.

"This biggest-ever academic scandal is for sure a wakeup call that the Chinese universities are facing a crisis of credibility," editorialized the state-run "China Daily."

Academic fraud is not new in China; scandals have broken sporadically over the past decade, but most cases never come to light, says Fang Shimin, founder of a website for academics.

University leaders "simply ignore the accusation or try to cover it up ... to protect the fame and gain of the university," Mr. Fang said in an e-mail.

Sparking debate

Plagiarism and sheer invention have flourished in Chinese academic circles, adds Stephen Stearns, a Yale University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who taught two classes at Peking University in 2007, because "at least until recently, the rewards were great and the punishment was trivial. It paid off."

Professor Stearns sparked a firestorm of debate here when his admonition to his Chinese students about their plagiarism was published on the Internet.

"There is a long tradition of plagiarism in Chinese universities," Stearns wrote in an e-mail last week. "Some Chinese professors actually teach their students to plagiarize."

Fang, who closely follows cases of what he calls "academic corruption," puts its prevalence down to a nexus of rampant capitalism, which has commercialized Chinese education; a lack of freedom of speech, which keeps the lid on scandals; and the tradition of saving face.

Others suggest that universities' policy of promoting teachers according to the quantity, rather than the quality, of their published output plays a role.

"Chinese academics are under pressure to publish," says Jeremiah Jenne, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, who is currently studying in Beijing. "In the worst cases that means slapdash cut and paste jobs on other people's work.

"There is a lot of wink-wink, nod-nod amongst professors," Mr. Jenne adds. "So a lot of people take short cuts and get away with it."

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.

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."

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