In 2007, administrators at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University announced that three professors would be reprimanded and dismissed for plagiarism. The decision was hailed by observers as a step toward finally cleaning up China’s famously corruptible academic research sector. "[That] this came from Fudan University, one of the top institutes of higher education in China, is definitely a huge plus," wrote Eddie Cheng on the (firewalled) China Scientific & Academic Integrity Watch website.
The move is a step forward, but a small one. The reason Fudan’s announcement was news was not because Chinese professors had been found to be corrupt, but rather because something had actually been done about it.
A previous survey by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) in 2006 revealed that some 60% of Chinese professors admitted to plagiarizing work, paying for article placement, or claiming credit for fictional articles. In response, 120 Chinese researchers wrote an open letter to the ministry begging for more attention to be paid to the problem lest Chinese academia be completely discredited.
Unfortunately, the protest has not stemmed the steady flow of stories of high-profile Chinese academics cutting corners. In August of last year, Zhou Zude, president of Wuhan University of Technology and a candidate for an academician post at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was accused of submitting a thesis to a national conference that he had copied verbatim (including the graphs) from a paper by Chilean scientist Roberto Cardenas.
Pay to play
A study conducted by the same university estimated that Chinese PhD students and their professors bought US$146 million of plagiarized or ghost-written dissertations and research papers over the last three years. "Some in the circle of academics have lost the sense of shame," the state-owned China Daily editorialized, but also called for an end to the salary and promotion incentive systems that require professors to publish."Professors will write papers if they find it necessary, and there is no need to push them in such a stupid manner," the newspaper said.
Still, pressure to publish is unlikely to diminish. Professors’ credibility inside and outside the classroom depends on successful submissions to respected international journals. In addition, the number of publications a given school’s faculty base manages to put in such journals is a criterion for MBA school rankings. Most Chinese MBA students are particularly sensitive to rankings when deciding where to go to school.
Furthermore, the argument that Chinese professors plagiarize because they are required to publish isn’t a robust one. "I don’t think the problem is the incentive system," said Patrick Moreton, managing director of the Washington-Fudan EMBA program in Shanghai. "There are strong incentives to publish in the West also, so it’s not that the incentives here are unusually strong."
The golden ratio
Chinese professors, like professors everywhere, need to balance their twin responsibilities as teachers and as researchers. In China, however, the teaching load results in unpleasant compromises. Public investment in higher education recovered rapidly in the reform and opening period, but it was focused on facilities. Schools were forced to depend on tuition to cover expenses and grow, and this meant opening the doors to a flood of new students.
Between 1993 and 2003, the official student-faculty ratio increased from seven students per faculty member to 21. Considering that this includes undergraduate programs, this statistic is not so bad compared with developed countries. However, it includes teachers who do not have PhDs and, like other government statistics, is likely doctored.
Chinese universities have been struggling to pay more researchers for a long time. In the mid- to late 1990s, the central government launched two separate initiatives to develop top schools specifically targeting research capability. Known as Project 211 and Project 985, the two initiatives collectively plowed US$2.2 billion into a select group of higher education institutions in the first six years. In 2008, the government announced plans to plow another US$1.3 billion into project 211. But the exact form those funds took is unclear, and only 6% of China’s 1,700 licensed universities are included in the project.
All of this funding, when combined with unspecified amounts dedicated to higher education in the US$586 billion stimulus package, has managed to reduce the official ratio to slightly more than 17 students per professor in 2009.
Money is not the whole answer, though. Chen Jin, the famous academic fraud who tried to pass off a foreign microchip as his own invention, was apparently the darling of MST and received millions of dollars in research funding. His dishonesty was not, therefore, the product of too much time teaching and not enough time spent in the lab.
Even so, some business educators in China are relatively optimistic and caution against using too broad a brush. The country may not produce as much quality research per capita as Western programs, but that doesn’t mean it is inert.
"Chinese scholars around the globe, and also in China itself, are among the world’s leading scholars, and do produce ‘cutting edge’ research," said Rolf D. Cremer, dean of China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). From his own program, Cremer touted finance professor Chang Chun, accounting professor Ding Yuan and marketing professor Chiang Jeongwen as "outstanding thought leaders in their respective fields [who] publish in top international journals regularly."
The fact that the bulk of the international journals are published in English is also a distorting factor. As Cremer points out, cutting edge research must be seen in the context of the actual challenges presented by Chinese society.
Language and social barriers make the process more complex in both directions. Western researchers must frequently rely on translators to conduct interviews and collect data; Chinese who cannot write well in English are similarly handicapped when it comes to submitting work to foreign journals. China likely produces more quality research than it gets credit for.
Of course, it is easier to give credit where it is possible to sort the wheat from the plagiarized chaff, and this is what has led to calls for a widespread crackdown on academic malfeasance.
For his part, Moreton of Washington-Fudan doesn’t support such an approach. "Here in China, you have some very senior faculty who came through a system that was disconnected from the rest of the world," he said. "They may be very smart, but their training does not prepare them to review new work with the same rigor as their international peers." If it is true that 60% of them cheat, Moreton added, what can China do about it without undermining the the higher education sector? Firing every guilty teacher will more than double already high student-faculty ratio.
Assuming that the fundamental issues will not resolve themselves quickly, what can China do? Some say internal institutional reform is preferable to hamfisted government regulation.
Farokh Langdana, director of Rutgers’ EMBA program here, says the onus is on administrators to make sure quality standards are upheld at their individual schools. "Program directors in global MBA programs must also be gatekeepers," he said.
This is easy to say, but to be good gatekeepers, Chinese deans must be sufficiently versed enough in the field literature that they can recognize plagiarism when they see it. Due to the relative lack of global experience and English skills among Chinese administrators, it is far too easy for professors to present a plagiarized, translated work as their own.
There is also an institutional issue among the journals themselves, who should act as referees, not passive transmitters of poor or plagiarized work. Moreton believes that the journals should pay more attention to their own brands. "The first journal that is willing to catch people and call them on it is going to come through with a reputation for integrity, and will be able to capitalize on that reputation," he said.