In an unprecedented crackdown on academic misconduct, as many as 179 university professors from some 110 universities in South Korea were indicted on Monday after an extensive criminal investigation into a huge copyright scam.
The professors have been charged with republishing existing textbooks written by others under their own names by modifying the covers with the alleged connivance of the publishing companies.
According to the Prosecutors’ Office which conducted an extensive criminal investigation, this is the first time university professors have faced criminal charges for copyright violations using ‘cover-swapping’ tricks. It is also the first time so many professors have been indicted in a single investigation.
The unprecedented scale of violations has severely shaken the academic community and could have wider repercussions on public trust in academia, validity of research, and the global ranking of South Korean universities.
Some 74 professors were indicted without detention and 105 were summarily indicted or subject to fines without a formal hearing, according to the documents issued on 14 December by the fifth criminal department of Uijeongbu District Prosecutors’ Office.
Some 82 fake authors and 23 authors who cooperated in the process were summarily indicted with fines ranging from KRW3 million (US$2,540) to KRW10 million (US$8,500). This will seriously affect their academic careers – universities have policies against rehiring professors who have been fined 3 million won or more. Most of those indicted will also be subjected to disciplinary measures by the universities.
“As this is the first time that cover-swapping has been exposed and as the (education) ministry declared its intention to take stern action against copyright violations, universities will be unable to overlook the professors' offences. Universities should consider this a chance to reinforce research ethics,” said a professor from one private university.
According to the investigation by the prosecution, the main motivation of the indicted professors was to exaggerate research performance before an assessment for university reappointment.
On Tuesday 15 December the Ministry of Education declared it will demand strong action by the universities. Once the ministry receives the list of indicted professors it will call for cancellation of research achievements, disciplinary measures and exclusions from rehiring, ministry officials said.
Such ‘cover-swapping’ can be treated as scientific misconduct, according to the government’s ‘Guideline to establish research ethics’ revised in November, the ministry said.
If the indicted professors receive prison sentences in the court trials expected to begin in January, they will go into ipso facto retirement.
Under Korea’s copyright protection laws, copyright infringement cases can result in a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment and up to 50 million won in fines.
The Prosecutors’ Office announced it will hand the list of indicted professors to their respective universities. They also plan to expand their investigations by setting a special team dealing specifically with illegal activities related to research.
According to the prosecution documents, some 56 professors who submitted the titles of the cover-swapped books as part of their publishing record under their research achievements have been indicted without detention for copyright violations and for obstruction of business or justice.
Some 13 others who published more than two books as fake authors, four who had submitted the titles under their publishing record but withdrew the submission after the investigation, and one who had published a book as a fake author and also allowed others to do the same with his own book, were indicted without detention for copyright violations.
The indictments of three professors currently on overseas training programmes were deferred, while another 32 professors who had been summoned by the prosecution were not indicted.
Five executives and staff from four publishing companies were indicted without detention for copyright violations. One of the companies republished 23 books for five years using ‘cover-swapping' tricks.
Some 38 books from four publishing companies were exposed as ‘cover-swapped’. They were all science and engineering texts.
According to prosecutors, these books are published only in limited numbers and are exclusively sold in university bookstores, unlike major humanities or social studies textbooks, which can easily be found in general book stores.
According to reports, publishers know students will buy books by their own professors so issuing the same books under the name of other professors increases their sales. The original authors are believed to have complied in order to improve their relationship with their publishers and secure publishing deals for hard to publish future science and engineering texts.
“Original authors connived in the crime in order to make contracts with publishing companies and get more royalties by selling more books. Fake authors have done it to get more research achievements. And companies could sell unpopular major books in stock,” the Prosecutors’ Office said.
“The companies also had intentions to threaten the professors who were involved in the crime so that they would not publish books with other companies. This is why the incident took place," the prosecution added.
According to the Prosecutors’ Office, ‘cover-swapping’ has been known within the publishing industry since the 1980s, but such crimes had not been exposed until now, protected by the intertwined interests of original authors, fake authors and publishing companies.
In November, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned 211 professors and five executives and staff from the companies for investigation. The investigation found that 182 professors, including eight former professors, at 110 universities – 44 public universities and 138 private universities – were involved in the scam.
The Prosecutors’ Office has said it will discuss measures to intensify research ethics regulations with the Ministry of Education.
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