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Terence Shen's Column

The Scourge of Plagiarism in China


Some of the country’s top scholars are routinely caught cheating or stealing

Academic plagiarism is seriously dealt with in the developed world. However in China, it is a tool to gain individual benefit and has become omnipresent in society, gravely affecting the goals the country claims to be pursuing.

A disturbing number of China’s brightest scholars, including Li Lianshan, Wang Hui and Wang Mingming, a western-trained sociologist at Peking University, have been accused of plagiarism. Nor are they alone. Top executives are constantly being exposed at having faked their education credentials, or of having acquired them through diploma mills that require no study. China is the world epicenter of theft of intellectual property and copying of foreign products, with western movies often appearing on the street in China almost before they are released in the United States.

Thanks to sparkling new technological innovations such as Google and Wikipedia, students nowadays are able to access a plethora of information including books and articles just by one simple click. That has made life considerably easier for students in China. A plagiarism-screening service CrossCheck found that from 2008 to 2010, 31 percent of papers submitted to the Journal of Zhejiang University–Science, a key academic journal published by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, contained “unoriginal material” without proper quotation. It is likely that there is an even higher percentage of plagiarism for unpublished essays and homework in classes.

The question is whether it isn’t a major divergence in thinking between East and West. Professors at the Canadian university that I attended in undergraduate school constantly drilled into the class the fact that plagiarism is nothing more than theft. But C. Custer, writing about allegations of plagiarism against Wang Hui, a noted public intellectual leader in the New Left movement in China, pointed out that the overwhelming attitude was for leniency.

The hot topic today in China’s academia is the revelation of the scandal in which Li Lianshan, a former prominent professor from Xi’an Jiaotong University, copied research analysis from others. The data on the economic benefits of his work was also found rigged, as the Ministry of Science and Technology recently confirmed. Li has been stripped of a top national science award by the Ministry.

It isn’t the scandal per se that is disturbing. When six retired colleagues found out about Li Lianshan’s plagiarism and reported it to the school three years ago, nobody paid any attention. Li’s colleagues said that the university tried to persuade them to retrieve their accusations in order to “save school’s face” and “save China’s face.” The unnamed “school leader” also said to them that “it is not easy to see our school being placed among the top of the Chinese universities ranking, so please do not tarnish the school’s reputation.”

The request was refused by the six retirees when Li Lianshan agreed to share the award prize with the six colleagues to shut them up. The school continued to cover up the scandal and didn’t sack Li until a TV program reported it to the public last year.

Nor are they alone. When Wang Mingming was accused in 2002 of copying materials from a book by William A.Haviland at the University of Vermont, he received an outpouring of sympathy on the Internet and in person, with 1,200 messages being posted on an online bulletin board run by his department at Peking University, according to a story by Associated Press.,

The question is how many intellectuals are doing what Li Lianshan has done. What if his colleagues had not retired and were afraid of losing their jobs? What if they took the money and shut up? The “school leader” in this case was quoted as saying that the plagiarism driven by venality can be found everywhere in China, and it has become a sort of “normality”.

There are other forms of academic cheating. News outlets in China have often come across about female students sleeping with their professors to get a pass on their papers in order to obtain a degree.

When all the people in this country – ranging from government officials to university professors – strive to gain economic benefits unscrupulously and fanatically in every corner of society; when righteousness and rule of law have been threw into the dustbin, and when the realization of basic morality in the society has to rely on the persistence and bravery of a few citizens with a sense of justice, then the accomplishment of alleged efforts to build a harmonious society where people are able to live with dignity and integrity should be seriously put into question.

Terence Shen

Published on Asia Sentinel on Thursday, 28 April 2011

http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3158&Itemid=206

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