Crackdown on listing children as co-authors of research

When it first emerged that the daughter of South Korea's former justice minister Cho Kuk was named as first author on a research paper published in a prestigious journal of pathology at a time when she was still a high school student, it sparked widespread public anger.

After the public and academic uproar over the unfairness inherent in allowing school-age children to put their name to academic publications, aided and abetted by professors, South Korea’s ministry of education released the results of an investigation into the use of children as authors of research publications at 15 top universities, comprising Seoul National University (SNU), Yonsei University and 13 others.

The government inspection team discovered 12 cases of misconduct at the 15 universities, in which professors’ children or other underage relatives are listed as co-authors of academic research papers, despite having no role in the research, the ministry of education said on 17 October.

The ministry underlined cases where admissions have been cancelled after it was revealed that the citations had been used in applications for admissions to other universities by the children.

At SNU, six professors had listed their school-age children as co-authors on 11 papers. None of the professors’ children were found to have contributed to the research on which the papers were based, according to the university’s own internal audit communicated to the ministry inspection team.

One veterinary professor of SNU was accused of allowing his son to be listed as a co-author of a research paper used in the son’s admission to Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, east of Seoul. The ministry said it had asked Kangwon National University to nullify the son’s admission and would ask the public prosecution service to open a criminal investigation into the case.

Seven professors from other universities were found to have children listed as co-authors of research papers while they were still at high school, the ministry said, adding that the status of co-authorship was used in admissions applications to local and foreign universities.

The ministry said if a student who was a minor when listed as an author of a research paper then goes to an overseas university, the ministry would ensure the results of the investigation are provided to the foreign university.

In one case unearthed earlier this year, a professor at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University made her own students write her daughter’s thesis, which was later published in an academic journal under the child’s name. It was then used to gain admission to SNU’s dental school.

Chonbuk National University, which was included in the investigation, but with results released in July, said police had charged three professors at the university who had named their school-age children as co-authors of papers and used them for admissions, with one professor already jailed in May.

Disciplinary action

South Korea has strict research misconduct laws which cover the attribution of authorship of research papers. Listing a person who did not contribute to research as an author amounts to research misconduct.

The professors involved are currently facing disciplinary action which could lead to dismissal or restrictions to their participation in national research projects.

Some could face criminal charges if public research funds are involved.

The ministry said that, overall, 115 papers were identified, in addition to those already found in previous investigations into a number of universities during May-September.

The total number of research papers found to be co-authored by minors published since 2007 amounts to 794 papers in this and previous audits of some 85 universities in total – far higher than previously thought.

The ministry noted it is still verifying another 245 cases. So there is still a possibility of other cases emerging, officials said. Sources said the results were released early due to huge public interest in the Cho Kuk saga.

Cho resigned this month after just 35 days in office, amid a whirl of allegations including his daughter’s preferential university admissions. The government inspection team released its findings just days after Cho’s resignation,

Almost a dozen universities were raided by prosecutors to seize admissions documents and other records to verify whether or not Cho’s daughter, Cho Min, had used the journal record for the purposes of gaining admissions. The paper was eventually retracted by the journal, citing irregularities with authorship. Cho Min’s affiliation did not state that she was a high school student.

While audits into children being named as authors on research papers have been conducted before, the latest investigations look further at whether such papers were used to gain admissions to top universities or competitive courses – a difficult task as many universities only keep admissions documents for four years.

Bill tabled

Amid the Cho row, lawmakers this week tabled a bill in the National Assembly to review the university admissions of lawmakers’ children.

The bill proposes the creation of a 13-member special investigation committee appointed by the National Assembly speaker to include professors, prosecutors, judges, education specialists and other high-ranking officials.

“Lawmakers’ children should be the first to be investigated and we could consider submitting a separate bill together with other political parties if we were to add other high-ranking officials” to the investigation, said Park Chan-dae, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party, who submitted the bill.

“The independent special investigation committee aims to address the allegations, create an ideal university admissions system and promote transparency and fairness of the system to restore public trust,” Park was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as saying.

The education ministry said it had instructed universities to ensure research author information is included in research management systems by the end of the year and said it would push for legislation to increase current jail terms for disciplinary infractions.

An editorial in the Korea Times this week said universities urgently needed to create a “self-verification system that can filter out academic papers written to help professors boost their children’s chances in university admissions”.

“Given the gruelling competition to enter top universities in Korea, the issue of illegitimate authorship should not be at the mercy of professors’ conscience,” the paper said.