New academic integrity rules for DPP election candidates

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has agreed new rules on academic integrity for all its candidates for the 2024 presidential and legislative elections after accusations of academic plagiarism dogged a number of candidates fielded in the 2022 local elections, in which the party performed badly. The measure is intended to restore public trust in party nominees after last year’s scandals.

Under the new measures approved by the party this week, all DPP members standing for election will have to list all their degrees and sign an “academic ethics statement” declaring that they did not engage in plagiarism, falsification or ghostwriting when writing their theses, DPP Secretary-General Hsu Li-ming said.

The declaration covers “other fraud, violations of academic ethics or copyright violations” that damage the reputation of the party, and establishes a dispute handling mechanism that allows a party review team made up of academics and experts to “conduct verification with universities or relevant agencies in order to demonstrate public trust”.

However, the academic integrity declaration will not bar candidates from elections. They will still be able to compete in primaries ahead of the January 2024 elections even if they fail the thesis standards set by their alma mater if plagiarism checks are carried out. The degree in question will simply not be included in their personal information filed with the Central Election Commission, according to the decision passed at a meeting of the DPP Central Executive Committee on 8 February.

Politicians like to tout their scholarly credentials, particularly degrees from elite institutions in their election campaign materials and on billboards, as it gives them more authority and public respect.

All of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents have had degrees from National Taiwan University (NTU), Taiwan’s top university, and all but one of the democratically elected presidents have had PhDs from various institutions.

The November elections were particularly affected by a spate of thesis plagiarism scandals, which the DPP wants to avoid in the upcoming national elections. In many cases political rivals or amateur sleuths carry out investigations into candidates’ academic records, obtaining the theses from academic databases and running automated plagiarism checks.

Distraction from policy debate

Party officials said it was important to steer the debate away from candidates’ credentials in the run up to the 2024 election and focus on important party policies, particularly against the backdrop of rising military threats from Beijing and geopolitical realignments in the region.

The DPP is calling on other political parties to work together on academic ethics. “The DPP was not the only political party with members facing questions regarding the originality of their theses and the acquisition of their academic degrees, but the DPP, as the ruling party, is willing to set an example by being the first political party to propose a solution…,” DPP Chairman Lai Ching-te was quoted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency as saying.

Lai told media on Wednesday that in the case of any discrepancy between the outcome of the internal party review committee and academic ethics committees of individual colleges and universities, the party had no way of judging the strictness of individual university ethics boards, but the aim was to “face voters with integrity” and so what was important was that voters had accurate information when deciding who to support.

Embarrassing plagiarism allegations

The DPP suffered huge embarrassment during local elections held in November last year when Chen Wen-Tsan, then DPP mayor of Taoyuan – a politically high-profile position – had his masters degree revoked by NTU for plagiarism in his masters dissertation.

Lin Chih-chien, former DPP mayor of Hsinchu, had his two masters theses – one from NTU and the other from Chung Hua University – separately revoked for plagiarism and had to drop out of the mayoral election to be replaced by another DPP candidate. Lin’s NTU masters degree was obtained when he was already mayor of Hsinchu.

Su Hung-dah, dean of the NTU College of Social Sciences and chair of the NTU academic ethics committee, said after an investigation last August that the committee had found through a computer analysis of the text that Lin’s thesis was more than 40% similar to one written by graduate student Yu Cheng-huang.

“The structure of the two theses is the same and there is a high degree of overlap in their focus,” Su said at the time, recommending revocation.

While Lin continues to protest his innocence, claiming the NTU committee did not accept the evidence in his favour that he had submitted. His case in particular is considered by political commentators in Taiwan to have contributed to the DPP rout in the 2022 local elections, suffering heavy losses to the nationalist Kuomintang party.

The thesis advisor for both Cheng and Lin was DPP National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong, an adjunct professor at the NTU Graduate Institute of National Development. Chen is currently under academic ethics investigation by the university.

Other revocations

In early December, DPP legislator Tsai Shih-ying’s doctoral degree was revoked by National Taipei University for plagiarism in his dissertation following a review by the university’s academic ethics committee. He lost to the opposition in the November mayoral election for the port city of Keelung. Three Keelung and Taipei City councillor candidates from the rival New Power Party had reported Tsai to the university for plagiarism of his dissertation.

Thesis plagiarism allegations were made against at least another six candidates in last year’s election; these were not confined to DPP party members. Takming University of Science and Technology in October last year revoked the masters degree of Tsai Pi-ru, a legislator for the Taiwan People’s Party, after a review by its research ethics committee.

Universities have also suffered from some of the fallout from the political plagiarism scandals for not having carried out more thorough checks when theses were submitted, though some note that plagiarism-detecting software did not exist in the case of older theses.

In the spotlight over some of the cases, NTU in October brought in a new rule for all postgraduate students to sign a declaration that their thesis conforms with ethical standards and is original, and to provide the results of plagiarism detection software on the document before they can graduate.

The declaration – which makes more formal NTU’s approach in the case of Lin’s degree revocation – states that there is no fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or ghostwriting involved in the production of the thesis, and that the graduating student shall accept any and all legal liability if the statement is found to be false.