Plagued by Plagiarism

An endemic problem in Chinese higher education is, ironically, fueled by pressure to raise standards





Fang Shi-min, a molecular biologist, freelance writer, and self-appointed plagiarism buster, was poring over the online curriculum vitae of the new assistant dean of Tsinghua University's medical school last year after receiving an anonymous tip that the document included false information. He became suspicious when he noticed that one of the research papers it listed was about the molecular biology of HIV — a subject not related to the dean's specialty, which was surgery. Mr. Fang did a bit of research and discovered that the paper had actually been written by a Chinese scientist in the United States with the same family name and first initial as Liu Hui, the new assistant dean.

Mr. Fang posted his discovery — and his doubts about Mr. Liu's work experience — on his popular Web site, New Threads, which is dedicated to exposing academic corruption in China. Several months later, the university quietly dismissed Mr. Liu.

The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile cases of academic corruption that have embarrassed universities around China — a trend that experts say is hurting the quality of higher education and threatening much-needed reforms of the nation's ailing university system.

Cheating is not new to China, but critics of the way the government is trying to modernize the country's higher-education system say these efforts are only exacerbating the problem.

The gravity of the issue was highlighted in March, when more than 100 top scholars signed an open letter urging the government to fight academic corruption. Their plea was widely reported in the Chinese news media. That same month, China Newsweek,a prominent magazine (not related to the American newsweekly), ran a 12-page cover story, "The Abnormal Corruption of Higher Education," in which it described dozens of cases of plagiarism, Web sites advertising manuscripts for sale, and scholars paying journals to publish substandard papers.

Now, after years of relative neglect, government officials and university administrators show signs that they are ready to deal with the problem.

A few weeks before the scholars released their open letter, Ren Yuling, a senior official of the State Council, China's cabinet, described to a group of prominent political delegates a recent government survey of 180 Ph.D. holders, in which 60 percent said they had paid to have their work published in academic journals. A similar percentage admitted having copied the work of other scholars. Mr. Ren told the group that endemic academic corruption was eroding public trust in academe.

Also in March, the Ministry of Education announced that it was establishing a committee to monitor academic corruption and to set up guidelines for the punishment of offenders. Soon after that, the Ministry of Science and Technology said it would create a database to keep a permanent record of violations.

Exposing Corruption

In the absence of government monitoring of plagiarism, online watchdogs have filled the void. Academic Criticism, one of the first Chinese-language Web sites dedicated to exposing and fighting corruption, is filled with postings by Chinese scholars concerned that rampant cheating undermines the development of academic and scientific research in their country. Many other scholars, including graduate students, have turned plagiarism-spotting into a hobby.

Mr. Fang, who uses the pen name Fang Zhouzi, is one of the better-known spotters among them. He says universities often drag their feet or take no action until someone has been exposed. The biologist, who was trained at Michigan State University, says his Web site carries daily reports of scientific misconduct, many of which are provided by leading scholars. He asserts that he has uncovered close to 500 cases of "scientific misconduct" over the past four years, but that most of them have been ignored by both the universities and the government. His Web site,, is blocked within China by the government, but mirror sites can be accessed there.

Liu Hui's dismissal from Tsinghua was "an exception," declares Mr. Fang, who says sources inside the university told him that administrators had been reluctant to take action after the assistant dean's plagiarism became known and did so only after colleagues had put pressure on them. Mr. Liu was fired four months after Mr. Fang first publicized the accusations on his Web site. By contrast, Mr. Fang says, an associate professor in Tsinghua's biology department listed seven nonexistent papers on his vita. He was not punished, says Mr. Fang, and was later promoted to full professor.

"Even when a case is exposed, the university will usually try to cover it up — particularly when the accused is a big shot — to protect the fame and gain of the university," says Mr. Fang. "Members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are very powerful. They can bring a lot of funding for their universities, and therefore it's in the university's interest to protect them." Mr. Fang says his Web site has exposed about 20 members of the academy for plagiarism or misconduct. "None of them have been officially investigated or punished," he says.

He is pleased that the government has finally acknowledged that something needs to be done, and that the news media are more willing than before to report such cases. But he is not confident of success. Academic corruption is both a social and political problem, Mr. Fang notes, which means that China must undertake radical reforms in order to eliminate it. A democratic government, independent scientific and educational institutions, and a free press are all necessary, he says, to foster a climate of intellectual honesty.

History of Cheating

Scholarship in China, like that in many other countries, has a long history of cheating. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) scholars taking the rigorous imperial exam, to win coveted positions in the civil service, resorted to all sorts of tricks, including smuggling in miniature books and cheat sheets the size of a fingernail. At Beijing's old Imperial Academy, an exhibit on cheating once displayed the undershirt of one cheater covered in Chinese characters.

In 1964, Chairman Mao Zedong actually endorsed cheating during a speech in which he criticized the staid education system and its emphasis on exams. "At examinations whispering into each other's ears and taking other people's places ought to be allowed. If your answer is good and I copy it, then mine should be counted as good," he declared.

In recent years, Chinese students have resorted to the use of qiangshou, or "hired guns," to take many exams. Their services can be retained for just about any test in China, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language, the International English Language Testing System, and the Graduate Record Examination. One now-defunct Web site offered three options: a hired gun for 2,000 yuan (currently about $250), answers in advance for 4,000 yuan, or answers provided during the test for 1,200 yuan via a wireless device described as an imported "satellite receiver" no bigger than a thumbnail.

Chinese schools have not traditionally taught students to avoid plagiarism. High-school students, who spend much of their time memorizing, are not required to produce papers that require research. And once in college, they get little or no training in how to write a research paper.

Some professors even encourage students to engage in a sort of benign form of plagiarism. "Our teacher told us to copy," says a recent graduate of the Beijing University of Applied Technology, whose senior thesis contained some word-for-word plagiarism. "She said we don't know enough to express our own ideas."

Many academics worry that the government's recent push to create dozens of world-class universities is fueling a plagiarism epidemic. In China both graduate students and professors are required to publish several papers each year in what are known as "key journals." Critics of the government's reforms note that decisions about faculty members' salaries, promotions, and benefits are tied to publication in these journals rather than to the papers' actual content, a reality that leads to fast and dirty research. Some academics publish as many as a dozen papers a year.

In its article on academic corruption, China Newsweek noted that increasing pressure to publish has spawned an academic black market, in which professors pay to have their papers published in counterfeit journals. According to the magazine's calculations, China's recognized journals are capable of publishing 300,000 articles annually, while this year the country's academics are expected to produce some 530,000 papers.

In a newspaper opinion piece, one academic wrote that the unrealistic expectations were reminiscent of China's Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, when Chairman Mao called for a sharp rise in industrial production. The effort, which instead resulted in shoddy output, was a disaster.

"You can't have a campaign to increase the number of papers so a person can keep his position," says Tang Anguo, head of the Institute of Higher Education at East China Normal University, in Shanghai. "If you do this, the pressure on scholars will be too strong."

"Pressure can sometimes make you a better person," notes Mr. Tang. "But if there's too much, it can also break you."


Yang Jie, dean, School of Life Science and Technology, Tongji University. Demoted in April as director of the school for falsifying details on his résumé, but kept on as a professor.

Liu Hui, assistant dean of the medical school, Tsinghua University. Was fired in March after it was discovered that he had taken credit for an academic paper he had not written and had lied on his résumé about working at New York University Medical Center.

Shen Luwei, associate professor of Chinese, Tianjin Foreign Studies University. Fired in January for plagiarizing 10 articles in a book.

Hu Xingrong, journalism professor, Shantou University. Resigned in 2005 after being found to have plagiarized an article he had published in a Hong Kong journal.

Zhou Yezhong, law professor, Wuhan University. Accused in 2005 of copying the work of another scholar, Wang Tiancheng, without attribution. Mr. Wang's lawsuit against him is pending. The university has not taken any action.

Qiu Xiaoqing, professor of biomedicine, Sichuan University. Accused in 2005 by an anticorruption Web site of publishing fake research in the November 2003 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology. The university is investigating.

Huang Zongying, English professor, Peking University. Fired in 2004 for plagiarizing two-thirds of a book on T.S. Eliot by a British scholar.

Wang Mingming, anthropology professor, Peking University. In 2002 a doctoral student accused him of plagiarizing parts of William A. Haviland's book Cultural Anthropology. The university subsequently removed Mr. Wang from most of his academic posts.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney