Eighty-two cases of offspring named as co-authors

Some 82 cases of professors listing their secondary school offspring as co-authors in academic papers have been unearthed by an investigation by South Korea’s ministry of education.

The discovery has prompted referrals to ethics committees at 29 universities – including some of the country’s top institutions – where the practice stretching back 10 years was uncovered.

It could lead to disciplinary action in some cases, under Korea’s strict research misconduct laws which cover author attribution of research papers.

“Under current legislation, listing someone as an author when they did not contribute to research clearly counts as inappropriate research behaviour. We’re planning to request a review of this research by referring all 82 cases to the research ethics committees of the universities in question,” the ministry of education said in a statement on Friday 26 January.

The ministry is planning to revise its guidelines for research ethics to make it mandatory for journals to list the grade and school of an author found to be a minor.

The ministry report published on 25 January looked at author attribution in academic papers by some 70,000 academic staff at all universities that provide full four-year degrees, which includes the main research universities.

The universities named in the ministry’s report on authorship of dissertations published between February 2007 and October 2017 included eight cases at Sungkyunkwan University, seven at Yonsei University, six at Kookmin University and six at Seoul National University or SNU. The majority of the papers – 80 out of the 82 uncovered – were in the sciences and engineering.

The ministry did not reveal the names of the professors. Before releasing its report, the ministry requested the universities to submit a written explanation of the cases raised. “Naming children who have made no contribution to the study as named authors of a dissertation is a grave offence,” Education Minister Kim Sang-kon said on Friday 26 January.

Of the 82 cases that included offspring attribution, some 43 cases listed offspring as co-authors for ‘no valid reason’, according to the ministry study. The remainder were associated with programmes where secondary school students link with universities that help them write research papers.

The country’s top institution, SNU, was said by the study to have the largest number of cases of professors arbitrarily adding their offspring’s name.

Fear of admissions fraud

The practice was first exposed last year when an unnamed SNU professor was found to have listed his school-age son on 43 papers for which the professor was the main author. The professor resigned to avoid disciplinary action, according to recent reports. That incident was the catalyst for the ministry’s current investigation.

“It is obvious why the professors included the names of their children in the papers. The merit of being co-authors of research papers gives them a good advantage in seeking to enter universities through special admissions programmes,” said an editorial in last Sunday’s edition of the English language Korea Herald newspaper, adding that “what is troubling is that if the professors had been so audacious as to include the names of their children in their own research papers, they would have had no qualms doing so for the children of their relatives or others close to them”.

But the education ministry has yet to fully grasp the gravity of the situation, according to the editorial. “It is absurd that the ministry has only asked the 29 universities to carry out follow-up investigations into the cases and take due action. University authorities probing their own professors are bound not to be as strict and objective as outside investigators.”

Admissions fraud is a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, particularly the use of ‘back door’ admissions through non-examination programmes such as sports, music and other achievements.

Some universities, such as Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology or KAIST, include research papers as one of several possible criteria for special admission to the university. This could trigger a corruption investigation that might ultimately lead to some students’ admission being cancelled, the ministry said.

University admissions records for the past five years are already being trawled by police after ‘irregularities’ were found by the ministry of education relating to government certificates on physical disabilities allegedly used in admission to Korea University and the University of Seoul. Such certificates can virtually guarantee admission. Of 1,500 such places available for those with disabilities, only 800 were filled last year.