China vs America – Quality, plagiarism and propaganda

As with other countries, academe in China is a mixed bag. There are essentially five ‘bands’ of universities from rank one downwards, and I visit the top one – mostly ranks one and two. I have also met some of the 1,000 talent scholars who have been brought here from Western universities, and they are nearly all impressive.

I sit on evaluation panels for masters and doctoral defences in my field of entomology. The universities have all-day sessions where eight to 12 students defend in a row – China has to deal with large numbers of students and limited faculty – and I see a range in quality.

Masters level is usually based on the professor's research grant and does not require creativity, so the procedure can be very ‘cookbook’, as is also the case in the United States. But their best students easily match the best students in the West.

Incidentally, China's Education Ministry requires that one member of this panel of judges be from outside the university, so there is a closet industry of Chinese professors flying all over the country at this time of year to serve on defence panels.

I also serve as an English production editor for Entomotaxonomia, a journal that used to be in Chinese and is now in English, and am on the board of the journal of the Kansas Entomologcial Society, a similar Western publication – and the quality of submissions is identical.

Different views on plagiarism

There are problems with some articles submitted to each journal, although the problem understanding plagiarism is greater in papers from China, India, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The Chinese ministry also requires universities to use computer plagiarism check programmes on every masters thesis and doctoral dissertation. The universities pass this burden on to students by requiring them to take their draft to the library and run the check before submitting it; then every paper is clean when the university checks it.

However, this causes students to define plagiarism as whatever the computer programme catches and that means, say, 10 words in a row. So the definition of plagiarism becomes exceeding this threshold number.

I encounter this often. Although professors who were trained as graduate students in Western countries fully understand the correct reasons for not plagiarising, the young students have a different history.

One of the tasks I perform in China is to proofread and correct science paper drafts being submitted for journal publication. The science is often excellent but the wording may be ‘Chinglish’ – a common term they use. Therefore I was alarmed when I read one manuscript that began: “Please note the sections in red are plagiarised.”

After further discussion with the research student, I discovered that these words were taken from her earlier lab write-ups and were all her original words. But, because plagiarism is defined in China to include use of words from prior work, many students across China have come to understand this as plagiarism too.

In Western journals, we do not consider this plagiarism – although it is sometimes called ‘self-plagiarism’ – and journals detect many authors repeating the same wording in their methods section.

Teachers must tell their students if they cannot submit work they have done before in another class. And if the same full research is published in two journals, it is ‘double publication’ and a definite no-no. But this was not stealing words or ideas from others without attribution.

An American student would never have said what the Chinese student above wrote, and this shows a difference in culture. To understand people’s attitudes today, you have to understand where they are coming from; their history leading to this moment. In doing so, you gain a new appreciation for your own history.

Lack of critical thinking

Throughout Asia, from India through China to Japan, large classrooms of students (often 60 or more) sit in front of a teacher. The teacher is master and they are apprentices assigned to learn what is in the textbook and what is said by the teacher.

Recitation – “everyone repeat after me in unison” – is the widespread method of teaching. And being able to repeat back the exact words on tests is rewarded; that is what being a good K-12 student in Asia has been about.

Contrast that with the US classroom that has the luxury of fewer than 30 students per class. The good teacher asks students to read items A and B, then put it all together in their own words and even argue the points. But our students are cautioned to never claim the original items as their own.

This contrast between memorisation and applied thinking is the contrast between our two past educational cultures. It is the reason why the US has hundreds of Nobel prizes in science and China has none – yet. They know they have to change their system away from memorisation. Meanwhile, though, the US is stupidly continuing the No Child Left Behind, teach-to-the test memorisation system and destroying critical thinking.

Propaganda versus public relations

Before we feel unjustly superior about plagiarism, I will translate another p-word that is commonly posted on some doors in schools, industries and government offices in China: ‘propaganda’.

To Westerners, this word has nothing but bad connotations: false information commanded by oppressive governments. Why in the world would any office translate its function as ‘propaganda’?

Here, China has the upper hand. The West uses the term ‘public relations’. The product of their offices is no different from all our promotional materials that are produced to convince customers they must have this worthless product or that some diploma mill’s online course is just as good as a bona fide class with a real professor.

When our public health departments try to convince citizens to get annual flu shots, China sees that as ‘propaganda’ that is good. I consider the fraudulent claims by storefront ‘schools’ in America – that spend more money on propaganda than on their faculty – to be far more harmful than any ‘propaganda’ I see in China.

In America, there are good institutions and bad institutions. And there are schools that promote themselves and schools that do not. The good and bad institutions that promote themselves will survive. The good and bad schools that do not promote themselves will go under. So we cannot avoid ‘propaganda’ either.

If we limit ‘propaganda’ to only the disinformation used in political and commercial society, then our recent elections and our daily bombardment by media and online make the United States the propaganda capital of the world. America is awash with it.

But because of the same-word, different-meaning confusion represented by my ‘plagiarising’ student, we do not realise it.

* Dr John Richard Schrock teaches at Emporia State University in Kansas. He visits China each year to assist universities with assessments, research papers and publications.

* Click here to read the latest edition of the Kansas School Naturalist, on “Integrity in Scientific Research and Writing”.