Prominent cases of plagiarism by students and previously respected academics have tainted China’s image. Why is the phenomenon so rampant? What are plagiarism’s underlying causes, and is there a way to solve the problem?
In July 2010, Centenary College in New Jersey shut down its satellite business schools in both China and Taiwan after uncovering widespread plagiarism among its students there. Following an investigation conducted by a law firm and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the school decided to withhold degrees from all 400 of its students enrolled in its Asia M.B.A. programs in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei.
School officials declined to discuss to the media the details of the cheating uncovered in the investigation or why they decided to withhold degrees for all 400 Chinese-speaking students in the three locations.
While this event is shocking, it is only one of the many significant examples of plagiarism in China that have occurred in recent years.
Stephen Stearns, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, witnessed this phenomenon firsthand while teaching at Peking University in 2007. He caught a number of his Chinese students plagiarizing their essays.
“From that sample, I estimate that at least half the students at Beida plagiarize,” explains Stearns. “From my experience of 30 years as a professor in the United States, Switzerland, and China, it appears that plagiarism is much, much more common in China than in the U.S. or Europe.”
Jing Li, Assistant Director of the Asia Pacific Rim International Study Experience at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, admits that she witnessed plagiarism when she was a college student in China. She recalls that students would cut entire articles out of academic journals to make it more difficult to catch their copying.
“It was very common among our students, because if this article was cut and you couldn’t find it, you would find some other article,” Li explains. “At the time, we didn’t know the concept of plagiarism – but looking back now, I realize it was an instance of plagiarism.”
The concept of plagiarism – called “piao qie” (剽窃) in Chinese – does exist in China, but as Li’s experience suggests, it isn’t systematically defined or vigorously condemned in academia. This is in contrast to the U.S., where rules against plagiarism are typically directly addressed in the education system and are often included in course syllabi. In addition, many high school and college classes will require students to submit their essays to plagiarism-watchdog sites such as Turnitin.com before actually turning them in to their teachers, and students are also typically taught also how to properly cite their sources when writing academic papers.
“It was not really taught, and no one really mentioned it to us,” Li adds in regards to proper research citation. “Our teachers, our professors, they never said anything – and looking back, I was thinking, where did the lectures come from? Was it the professor’s original work, or did he cite anybody? Nobody knows. And I remember I discussed this with my classmates because we were asked for our opinion and to look for articles, and then we were confused – all the articles were like, you copy me, [I] copy you, and then you integrate. We didn’t know how to do research, even though we were encouraged to do independent thinking.”
The prevalence of cheating by students on high stakes exams is also a large problem. The Epoch Times reported on a case in Northeast China’s Jilin Province that illustrates how high-tech cheating methods have gained popularity in recent years throughout China. Cheating equipment was sold to students in the town of Songyuan for 5,000 yuan ($US747) and the transfer of exam answers was sold for 16,000-40,000 yuan (US$2,391-$5,978). Even more startling is that exam candidates would receive phone calls to their homes marketing the “exam devices,” similar to telemarketing calls in the U.S.
This phenomenon has led to a need for raised security measures during exams in China. During the June 2010 national college entrance exam, students were greeted with metal detectors and surveillance cameras at exam venues, and troops were mobilized to ensure the secure distribution of exams to some 6,800 exam locations throughout the country.
However, students are not the only ones that are being dishonest. In fact, the problem is prevalent among university graduate students and faculty.
Fang Shi-min, creator of the New Threads website which documents scientific fraud in China, has uncovered data fabrication, duplicate publications, and fake resumes on top of plagiarism among the works of respected academics.
“Honesty is not only unacknowledged, but often regarded as stupidity,” comments Fang, who also recognizes the lack of integrity in China’s youth on his website, which is banned in China and blocked by the government. “The scientific spirit can still be found in those older and retired generation Chinese scientists, but has largely been lost in the younger and more active generation.”
In addition, in a September 2010 study conducted by Zhang Yuehong, 692 of 2,233 of papers submitted to the Journal of Zhejiang University–Science turned out to have included plagiarized material – an overwhelming 31 percent of submissions. The publication, which was designated as a key academic journal by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, was the first in China to sign up for a plagiarism-screening service called CrossCheck.
The competitive environment of higher education is particularly conducive for plagiarism. Doctoral students and professors are heavily evaluated on the quantity of articles they can publish. This academic evaluation system puts such a strong emphasis on publishing that it inevitably exerts pressure to produce, especially for those who wish to advance professionally.
“China wants to have world-class universities – and for this higher education system to advance quickly, there is a tendency to try to evaluate the performance of both the professors and the students in [terms of] quantity instead of quality,” Li says. This pressure to perform could easily lead to plagiarism and opting to find the easier way out.
However, it’s important to note that this pressure has also long been a feature of U.S. academia. Why is plagiarism such a popular phenomenon within China’s education system as well as in other areas of Chinese society?
The history of China’s education system helps to explain why plagiarism is perceived and handled differently in China.
“The purpose of education from the very beginning was to prepare government officials instead of seeking the truth, instead of to create knowledge,” explains Li. “Pursuing knowledge is not really emphasized in the long history of China. What’s emphasized is building character, rote memorizing, to be obedient and loyal to the government.”
As Li alludes to, China’s culture of mimicry is another possible source of plagiarism. For the civil service examination that functioned from 1000 to 1900, potential government officials were chosen based on their ability to memorize and regurgitate quotes and passages in their essays. Confucius, the preeminent philosopher who has influenced the Chinese mindset and way of thinking for centuries, always argued that he wasn’t creating anything, but merely transmitting the insights of sages from earlier days.
Peter Friedman, an associate at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld LLP and former Yale-China Teaching Fellow at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, witnessed plagiarism among his students and sought to explore some of the deeper issues behind it. In his essay – “Plagiarism and China’s Economic Development,” which was a finalist in the East Asia Forum’s Emerging Scholars competition – he approached the causes of plagiarism and lack of academic integrity in the Chinese higher education system from a different framework.
One of the potential causes behind plagiarism that Friedman identifies is the difference between the individual and the community in China.
“There is definitely this sort of tension between the individual and the community; I saw that, whether in my classroom or even outside,” Friedman says, referring to his experience teaching in Guangzhou. “There are definitely people with individual traits; it’s not that everyone dresses and acts the same. But in terms of ideas, there’s this hesitancy to come across as distinct from everyone else. And once again, there are many reasons for that. Part if it just community – don’t rock the boat.”
Friedman further linked that idea directly to the problematical concept in China of intellectual property rights.
“Stamping out plagiarism means you are elevating out individual ideas; you’re saying your ideas have value and they should be protected,” explains Friedman. “That goes against the grain of the entire societal construct in China and what the government is protecting.”
On the flip side, an understanding of how China’s current emphasis on economic development pervades all aspects of society may just be the most important thing to grasp that explains why plagiarism occurs.
As Li notes, academics see businesspeople looking to cut corners to improve their returns, “So [they also] take shortcuts, to gain quick benefits, and for plagiarizing – it’s like everyone is doing it more or less, just to a different extent.”
Stephen Chen, a Patent Agent at Davis, Wright, Tremaine LLP and intellectual property expert, also supports the idea that economic factors play a large role in plagiarism. As an example, he points to China’s reverse-engineering practices prior to the economic reform era.
“‘Copying’ things through reverse-engineering technologies was a good way to ‘innovate’ with limited resources because scientists and researchers simply didn’t have a lot of the tools to push the boundaries of technology,” Chen explains.
In addition to these economical factors, Chen also pointed out that the institutional barriers that are in place might also encourage plagiarism.
“Most importantly, the fact that the central government funded almost all education and research basically meant that ideas were pushed under their direction and the lack of private enterprise didn’t give a lot of reason to think ‘outside of the box’ because a person couldn’t ‘own’ the commercial benefits of their idea,” Chen says. “[This] historical and economic context suggests little reason to teach thinking and innovation, but copying and complying with directions.”
Similar to Friedman, Chen also sees ties between plagiarism and intellectual property rights, referring to a specific case back in 2002 where the Educational Testing Service (ETS) sued New Oriental, China’s largest educational testing company, for infringing their copyrights in test questions and test preparation material.
Says Chen, “ETS won that lawsuit in China, but it does make that connection very strong when you stop to think that — the academic test materials students are preparing with, are themselves the product of copyright infringement — what message does that send to students about intellectual property and academic integrity?”
With a myriad of complex factors such as the community versus the individual, intellectual property rights, economic and institutional factors, and a strict academic evaluation system all exerting their influences on plagiarism, the task of trying to solve the problem seems daunting.
What’s certain for China is that it needs to implement a much more standardized sanction system against plagiarism if it truly wishes to stamp out the problem. Currently, plagiarism is often dealt with on a case-by-case basis where there is no clear consequence given. Authority also manifests itself here, where well-connected professors are hardly given a slap on the wrist and can often escape punishment altogether.
“Without this standardized sanction, clear definition or centralized unit for evaluating cases of plagiarism, if you were caught plagiarizing – it doesn’t teach people to learn from plagiarizing,” says Li. “People’s first response would be that these people were political victims and no one could protect you.”
Fang shares a similar view. “I believe the Chinese government should set up a national agency, similar to the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S., to investigate scientific misconducts,” he suggests.
“It will take continued effort for many years to correct it,” adds Yale’s Stearns. “Do not be discouraged. There are many honorable people of good will in Chinese universities. Begin by changing things you can affect in your immediate environment.”
Recent events illustrate that China is beginning to recognize the importance of stamping out academic fraud. In a high profile case last month, Professor Li Liansheng of Xi’an Jiaotong University was stripped of a top national science prize he won in 2005 by the Ministry of Science and Technology due to plagiarizing the work of others. Although the ministry didn’t take action until three years after colleagues first pointed out Li’s suspicious activity, his university fired him in 2010.
In addition, top Chinese universities now expect scholars to publish in foreign journals as well, which indicates not only an expectation that they have higher standards of excellence, but also a lower tolerance for intellectual theft.
China has a long way to go before plagiarism can be curbed. The problem is essentially an after-effect of much larger, deeply embedded factors that each require careful insight and attention before the larger issue can begin to unravel. Plagiarism will not disappear overnight. What needs to occur now is the streamlining of a more standardized system, more open discussion, inquiry and hopefully the beginnings of understanding – only then can one begin to work towards getting to the heart of the issue.
Jasmine Ako is studying Business Administration and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. She’s been an editor at US-China Today and is currently studying in Beijing.