New academic misconduct laws may not be adequate to curb cheating

New laws to clamp down on academic cheating at China’s universities could come into effect later this year as the rampant problems of plagiarism, falsification, lying about credentials and research papers and other misconduct continue unabated in higher education.

But some experts say the measure will not be adequate to curb cheating, and others dismissed the release in March of the regulations for public consultation as a government ploy to placate a restive public that something is being done about misconduct. The consultation ends on 16 August.

Under the draft regulation to “effectively prevent and curb academic misconduct” in higher education, students and doctoral candidates will be disqualified if they are found to have committed plagiarism or fraud.

Degrees that have already been awarded will be revoked if misconduct is found to have occurred, and transgressors could face a ban on obtaining other degrees for three years.

The Ministry of Education released the draft law after China’s universities failed to crack down on plagiarism, despite being deemed responsible by the ministry for investigating and dealing with cheating.

The government is also concerned that the proliferation of cases is affecting the global reputation of China’s universities and research.

Shortly before the draft was released Yan Xijun, a deputy of the National People’s Congress, was quoted in official media as saying that “academic misconduct seriously impacts on the social credibility of scientific research and provides a hotbed for corruption.

“Academic cheating has widened from academic papers to the high-tech fields, which not only involves young students but also senior experts,” said Yan.

Problem of compliance

Yan said: “Although lots of measures have been carried out to enhance academic ethics, it is still [too] weak to curb academic dishonesty. Laws and regulations are needed to standardise academic fraud and a public supervision system is needed as well as an investigation department.”

However, Cao Xinglong, an assistant associate professor in the school of law at City College of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, said: “These so-called new laws are really not new. Similar laws have appeared in many regulations of the [Education] Ministry, but the ministry had little intention of carrying them out.”

Rather than issuing new laws, the government needed to ensure compliance, Cao told University World News. Instead, academia largely polices itself and the law plays little or no role.

Even top universities have been reluctant to act, although plagiarism and falsified data are clearly a problem, according to professors who have spoken out in recent years.

Punishments set out

The latest draft regulations set out punishments to be meted out, but do not define what constitutes plagiarism or fraud. For example, the State Council (roughly equivalent to cabinet) or provincial academic degree committees can revoke universities’ rights to grant degrees if multiple academic fraud cases are found.

Supervising professors of students who commit fraud can be suspended or removed from their posts.

The new regulations said institutions must “supervise original experiment data” and set up an independent investigation body to identify fraudulent activity, although not all powers will be in the university’s hands. “The legitimate rights of those suspected of academic wrongdoing should be protected,” according to the draft.

Xiong Bingqi, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, was quoted in Chinese media as saying administrative punishment was not enough to root out rampant plagiarism and other misconduct. “To standardise academic norms is more important,” Xiong said.

New areas of fraud emerging

For example, there are areas that can be hard to pin down. Last month an international journal, Experimental Parasitology, retracted an article by He Guangzhi of Guiyang College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The alarm was raised only because the email addresses provided for supposed peer reviewers appeared to be false.

The publisher, Elsevier, said in a retraction notice that it had launched a “full investigation” of the author and his published and ‘in review’ papers. “From this the extent of the fraud was determined.”

Moreover, more instances are coming to light where researchers or doctoral students in China have simply ‘lifted’ laboratory findings and published them as their own, before those who actually did the work could do so, according to other retraction notices issued this year by international journals.

Other high-profile cases have been revealed by Fang Shimin, an outspoken campaigner against academic misconduct, who highlights cases on the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo under his pseudonym Fang Zhouzi.

Fang has noted that a minuscule number of cases of academic corruption result in any kind of punishment, and most of these involve students rather than academics.

High-profile dismissals

In one highly publicised case, Xiamen University dismissed Fu Jin, a professor in its medical college who claimed to have a pharmacology degree from Columbia University but was found to have forged the qualification.

In another recent case Jun Lu, an assistant professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, was fired after he attempted to pass off as his own several articles in top English-language journals as well as postdoctoral experience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by an academic of the same name now at Yale University, the Shanghai Daily and the Beijing Times reported at the end of July.

But such sackings are unusual. And the two cases were revealed by Fang through his dogged investigations, rather than through university or ministry investigations.

The timing of the new regulations may be significant. Cao said that with a politically charged atmosphere in the country at present, “common people in China realise that academic misconduct is a part of the corruption of political activities – many academics are politically appointed”.

He added that the timing of the regulations was an attempt by the ministry to show that academic misconduct was a problem for universities to tackle rather than to do with government inaction or ‘government delinquency’.

Government-led anti-corruption campaigns are common at times of public dissatisfaction against the authorities, often as a way of appeasing the public and assuring them that problems are being dealt with, China experts said.