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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Gong Renren on plagiarism and academic standards

Last January I posted about plagiarism scandals in the legal academy and the case of Zhou Yezhong. Reader Tom Kellogg has kindly permitted me to reprint here (slightly edited) his posting to another forum:

Perhaps partly as a result of the Zhou Yezhong controversy back in December, the debate over the plagiarism epidemic is getting more and more attention these days – the China Daily just ran an article in which government sources promise to impose a punishment system for professors caught cheating. A very good article that describes the pressures on academics to produce articles at a feverish pace – and thus engage in extensive plagiarism to keep up – can be found here.

The article, originally published in the 21st Century Economic Report by Prof. Gong Renren at Beijing Univ. Law School, notes that, because salaries, promotions, job titles, and other benefits are all tied to the number (not the quality, but the number) of articles placed in “key publications” each year, professors have a heavy incentive to both (a) engage in short-term, quick-payoff research whenever possible, and (b) plagiarize extensively in order to keep their output at an acceptably high level. He mentions that it is not unusual for individual academics to claim dozens of academic articles in a single year, a feat which is not generally possible without heavy reliance on plagiarism and the extensive appropriation of grad students’ work, which is also, according to Gong, rampant. Gong also makes the point that, because many of the key publications are more heavily politically censored, academics also have to engage in extensive self-censorship in order to make sure that their articles are accepted for publication.

Gong frames the article in terms of the need for officials in charge of universities to have tangible, measurable successes to show to their superiors. So when the government started dumping money into the university system in the late 1990s in its bid to create a “world-class university system,” university officials, besides engaging in massive construction projects, also heavily incentivized academic production, the result being, in Gong’s view, a Great Leap Forward-esque blind ramping up of scholarly output, with little attention to either quality of production or the downsides of the policy choices that have been made. 

Another piece worth looking at which talks more about the plagiarism problem among students can be found here.

In this piece, Prof. Yang Yusheng, an expert on American history at China University of Politics and Law, estimated that roughly 20-30% of his students engaged in some level of plagiarism on a certain assignment, despite repeated warnings that plagiarism is unacceptable and will be punished. He also says that, as his reputation for enforcing academic standards grew, his enrollments plummeted, a problem perhaps not completely unknown in the US. According to another academic Yang cites in his article, roughly 60% of law students plagiarize, and the numbers go as high as 80-90% in classes on Marxism.

On the positive side, Yang, Gong, and others are part of a growing movement within universities to set meaningful academic standards for both students and professors. It is possible that, with the China Daily article and a spate of others put out by Xinhua, the government is signaling that it is open to new ideas on how to tackle the problem.

It is perhaps worth nothing that a Google search of "china daily plagiarism" turns up many stories of the China Daily being itself accused of plagiarism. See, for example, here (ripping off the New York Times), here, or here. And readers may remember that a few years ago the Beijing Evening News picked up (without attribution) a story from none other than The Onion reporting that Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless the city built it a fancy new Capitol (Los Angeles Times report reprinted here).

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