China's universities are failing to crack down on plagiarism despite an unprecedented education ministry circular sent to them a year ago making them responsible for investigating and dealing with rampant cheating.
A number of high-profile cases have only come to light thanks to outspoken campaigners such as Fang Shimin* with his popular literary New Threads website written under his pseudonym Fang Zhouzi and used to highlight academic fraud.
Rather than being rooted out by the universities themselves, individuals report cases of plagiarism to online forums or the New Threads blog, which are then rigorously followed up and checked by Fang, a US-educated biochemist.
But of more than 900 cases of academic corruption highlighted by Fang in recent years, just 20 have resulted in punishment by universities. Most involve students rather than academics, Fang said.
The majority of plagiarism and fraud cases recently exposed have been in the sciences. But readers of a Chinese cultural magazine Granite Studio have been avidly following a major literary plagiarism case where Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin accused Professor Wang Hui at the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing of stealing from other works without citation.
Academics say that what is interesting about this case is that the spat was brought into the open by Wang Binbin himself, rather than being by bloggers and other whistleblowers on the internet.
According to the Nandu Times, a daily newspaper which broke the story, actual instances of criticising someone by name are rarely seen.
The accusation relate to Wang Hui's dissertation on the classic Chinese literary giant Lu Xun, published while he was a doctoral student at Nanjing University in 1985 and later published as a book. This indicates that the decades-old dispute is being allowed into the open by the authorities to test how far to allow plagiarism accusations to be aired without jeopardising a university's reputation.
The Wang Binbin vs Wang Hui dispute is seen as a test case, in part because it does not relate to high-profile scientific research that has the potential to undermine China's international standing.
Even so, in an indication of the sensitive nature of plagiarism accusations against academics, Nandu Times reporters found that some posts on the dispute in internet forums had been deleted and replaced with a message that was clearly intended to mislead: "Academic circles have already clarified this issue," unofficial translations from the newspaper widely circulating on the internet state.
Another unusual aspect of the Wang vs Wang case is that other academics have openly weighed in to side with one or other of the two academics involved.
Zhao Zhinghua, a professor at a state-run think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as claiming that Wang Binbin's examples of supposed plagiarism were "quotations with non-standard citations".
"That is a problem of technique, not a moral question of plagiarism," Zhao said.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently told the Nandu Times that it "often encounters cases of plagiarism".
The academic plagiarism problem was attributed to the lack of consensus in China over 'academic standards', or what constituted plagiarism. Some academics even argued that adopting Western standards would "limit academic freedom", the newspaper said.
Another problem is that academics lack the formal and rigorous peer review process in place in Western institutions, the Times said.
After a spate of sackings a few years ago, there appeared to be little stomach for action against academic plagiarism by university authorities in recent years.
But in March this year, Li Liansheng from Xi'an Jiaotong University was sacked after six of his colleagues repeatedly posted letters to the university and on the internet highlighting that the area in which Li had published was not within his area of expertise of energy studies.
Using their real names, the six professors exposed some 30 examples of Li plagiarising the works of others. At first they were rebuked by the university and it was more than two years after their first complaint that Li was finally sacked.
Universities rarely enforce the rules, according to academics in China. Fang said the country has never taken plagiarism seriously. Even when academics were implicated, many institutions turned a blind eye, rather than lose a high-profile researcher who could bring in international funding.
Concerned about China's international reputation in science in particular, it was only after complaints by the British-based medical journal The Lancet about faked scientific results and complaints by other Western academics, that the education ministry issued its first circular to universities to deal with academic plagiarism, including taking legal action and sacking perpetrators.
The circular issued in March last year ordered universities to set up workshops for faculty and students to "improve their awareness of academic discipline".
"These measures are intended to build up a long-term prevention mechanism to keep the academic field 'clean'," said Xu Mei, a ministry spokeswoman, said at the time.
Three years ago, the Ministry for Science and Technology established an Office of Scientific Research Integrity yet not a single case has been investigated, according to Fang. He believes the rules drawn up by the ministries are unlikely to be enforced.
* The 'China Scientific and Academic Integrity Watch blog closely follows the work of Fang.
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