The long battle against academic corruption

In contemporary Chinese discourse, research misconduct differs a lot from academic corruption. It refers to a lack of integrity and-or internationally standardised norms in conducting research. It became a big issue when China reopened its doors to the world and urgently needed to communicate with the international scholarly community, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

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During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some Chinese researchers called for international standards. China’s wide marketisation of its public services and higher education around the turn of the century led to rampant corrupt practices in many sectors of society. Discussions then focused on violations of academic integrity for private interest. The 2000s began to witness new shifts from criticism to (re)construction.

Academic corruption in contrast means the abuse of positions in higher education for personal gain, often financial. The term was first used in an article in the Shanghai-based Social Sciences Weekly on 26 June 1997. Academic corruption has been particularly rife over the past decade or so as Chinese society has entered a phase of unprecedented materialism and lack of social trust.

PR prioritised over quality

One direct cause of corrupt academic practices is the way research funds are administered, with an over-emphasis on winning projects and little attention paid to quality. A high proportion of research funding is spent on 'public relations' and the packaging of research.

High-profile researchers help each other to secure funding. It is not rare for top scientists and-or internationally renowned members of the Chinese diaspora in collusion with their affiliated institutions to form teams to obtain a large amount of funding from government through fraud and deception. Due to the shared interest between such researchers and their institutions, Chinese universities usually try to cover up or at least trivialise incidents when misconduct is exposed.

Once a project is approved, Chinese researchers concentrate their time and energy on how to spend the funds, trying to put as much of them as possible into their own pockets. Little is spent on actual research, which is usually left to their assistants and postgraduate students.

China’s research administration is short-sighted and projects run on short cycles. The longest would normally be less than five years. Completing a project means publishing monographs and journal articles. There is no room for incompletion. Researchers have to find a way to complete their projects. Once a culture of dishonesty is created, all stakeholders are involved. No one wants to reveal it. Most of the cases that have come to light did so due to internal conflicts among different stakeholders.

Inaction from government?

The Ministry of Education is always aware of academic wrongdoing. It has thus been accused of inaction over such behaviour. In fact, as early as in 2001, it released the 10th Five-Year Plan for Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Regular Higher Education Institutions in order to enhance academic ethics. For the first time, it required that researchers follow (international) academic norms. In 2002, it issued Advice on Improving Academic Morality.

Answering the ministry’s call, a number of universities, together with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, developed their own code of research ethics. Leading journals frequently held symposia and published special issues on academic norms. Influential newspapers gave columns over to such discussions.

In 2004, after years of consultation and revision, the first plenary session of the Humanities and Social Sciences Committee under the Ministry of Education approved Academic Norms of Research in Philosophy and Social Sciences in Higher Education Institutions.

In the science and technology fields, there have been fewer issues of norms and standards. Yet, misconduct has been equally serious.

Starting in 1998, the National Natural Science Foundation of China or NSFC established an oversight committee on research misconduct. In 2003, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the NSFC jointly issued Decisions on Improving the Evaluation of Science and Technology.

In 2005, the NSFC issued Approaches to Dealing with Research Misconduct in the Work Supported by the NSFC. The Ministry of Science and Technology promulgated a similar policy in 2006 within its own jurisdiction. In 2007, the ministries of science and technology and of education, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, NSFC and the China Association for Science and Technology established a joint meeting system for building scientific research integrity.

Also in 2007, the Ministry of Science and Technology set up a panel on research integrity and the China Association for Science and Technology released Codes of Research Ethics for Scientists and Engineers. The latest policy, Regulation on the Prevention and Punishment of Academic Irregularities, has just been released by the Education Ministry in July this year and takes effect from September.

Corruption continues

Great efforts have also been made by institutions. Major universities publish their regulations on research integrity. They are required to create academic integrity records for research staff members. Academic honesty has to be emphasised as an important criterion in the evaluation of staff.

Many institutions have borrowed techniques such as Turnitin, CrossCheck, eTBLAST, PSDS, and AMLC. Wuhan University developed its own system called ROST to detect plagiarism.

Despite such policy measures, instances of corruption are still coming to light, sparking widespread concerns about the development of Chinese academia, with allegations of attempts to game the peer-review system on an industrial scale and mass retraction of Chinese papers from international journals.

If this situation continues, the global reputation of China’s universities and research will be affected. International partners will lose interest in collaborating with Chinese institutions and even stop using research from China.

Indeed, one prestigious Australian university has alerted their staff members of the possible consequences of their collaboration with China. In the long run, China’s ambitious bid for an innovation-driven nation will be severely damaged.

To ensure the healthy development of academia, there have to be fundamental changes to China’s academic incentive system. A better, comprehensive evaluation system is badly needed. The only method of judging researchers is through the number of publications they have in ranked journals. This focuses on one metric above all others, leading some to chase after numbers while ignoring academic integrity.

However, the reasons for academic corruption are many. With deep roots in Chinese cultural traditions and a fertile soil that nourishes corruption, China’s battle against research misconduct is doomed to be arduous.

Rui Yang is professor and associate dean of cross-border/international engagement in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong. E-mail: