Peking University, Beijing

Is China Finally Raising Its Ethical Standards?

March 25, 2009 10:30 AM
by Rachel Balik
The Chinese government has taken a step toward ending the prevalence of academic dishonesty by firing three professors caught plagiarizing.

China Is Ready to End “Long Tradition of Plagiarism”

Academic dishonesty has been ubiquitous and tacitly approved in Chinese universities, but the country has signified that it is ready for a paradigm shift. The government has terminated the employment of three notable faculty members in the field of traditional medicine after they were exposed in a plagiarism scandal.

Weeding out plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty from Chinese academia will be a difficult and lengthy task, students and professors said, because the pressure to publish there is so great. A visiting Yale professor said that some professors actually teach plagiarism; an American doctoral candidate studying in Beijing described a “wink, wink, nod, nod” attitude from professors. Furthermore, the censorship and government control there has buried many past scandals. But the international reputation of Chinese research institutions is suffering, and if the country wants to be taken seriously in a global field, changes must be implemented and upheld.

To that end, new tools are being applied to begin the uphill battle. On March 12, 2009, a new plagiarism-detecting software called Academic Misconduct Literature Check was made available to Chinese academic journals. The program will cross-check all new journal articles with a database containing 60 million previously published articles, China’s official press agency Xinhua reports.

Previously, papers were screened by other professors who were often willing to make allowances for their colleagues. In the most recent scandal, a Zhejiang University associate professor of pharmacology admitted to fabricating substantial amounts of his paper; however, one of China’s most prestigious experts had read it and agreed to be listed as a co-author. The new technology will remove ambiguity and human error from article screening.

Background: China’s ethical difficulties

International distrust of China is not limited to the field of academia. Both before and after the Chinese women won the gold medal in gymnastics at the August 2008 Beijing Olympics, many questioned whether all the team members were old enough to compete. In anticipation of the 2010 Asian Games, Chinese athletes recently underwent bone tests and it turned out that a fifth of those tested had lied about their ages. The tests were administered as part of a government program to eliminate age faking.

China has also been under fire in the past year for releasing food products containing poisonous melamine. Melamine sickened infants who drank Chinese baby formula and was also found in animal feed. In December 2008, the Chinese government put nine people on trial for allowing the contamination, in addition to six others who had already appeared in court. The company responsible for producing the formula declared bankruptcy, but the Chinese dairy industry had plans to offer compensation to victims.

Related Topic: Academic dishonesty across the globe

China may be heavily criticized for ethical failure in multiple areas, but it certainly is not the only country where academic plagiarism occurs. In fact, almost half of students at Britain’s prestigious Cambridge University admitted to cheating in a November 2008 study. Claiming that they were overworked or confused about specific rules, 49 percent confessed to plagiarizing some part of an academic paper. Notably, only 1 in 20 cheaters was caught by the university.

However, when a cheating scandal broke at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in 2007, 34 students were disciplined by the university. Experts told Bloomberg that the lessons taught in business school frequently justify pursuing success at any cost. A Rutgers professor explained that cheating students could make the claim that they were “just emulating the behavior they're seeing in the corporate world.”

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