Academic fraud in China: Replicating success
from The Economist Print Edition
Widespread academic fraud may hamper a drive for innovation
Jul 22nd 2010 | beijing
CHINA’S president, Hu Jintao, speaks often and forcefully of the need to foster innovation. He makes a strong case: sustaining economic growth and competitiveness requires China to get beyond mere labour-driven manufacturing and into the knowledge-based business of discoveries, inventions and other advances.
Yet doing so will be hard, not least because of the country’s well-earned reputation for pervasive academic and scientific misconduct. Scholars, both Chinese and Western, say that fraud remains rampant and misconduct ranges from falsified data to fibs about degrees, cheating on tests and extensive plagiarism.
The most notable recent case centres on Tang Jun, a celebrity executive, a self-made man and author of a popular book,“My Success Can Be Replicated”. He was recently accused of falsely claiming that he had a doctorate from the prestigious California Institute of Technology. He responded that his publisher had erred and in fact his degree is from another, much less swanky, California school.
Other cases involve accusations of plagiarism against well-known Chinese scholars which have provoked the authorities to talk of investigations. A Western scholar recounts how a social-science project was jeopardised recently when data collection was contracted out to a Chinese company—its researchers simply filled out the survey forms themselves.
Such lapses of integrity are not unique to China, but poor peer-review mechanisms, misguided incentives and a lack of checks on academic behaviour all allow fraud to be more common. China may be susceptible, suggests Dr Cong Cao, a specialist on the sociology of science in China at the State University of New York, because academics expect to advance according to the number, not the quality, of their published works. Thus reward can come without academic rigour. Nor do senior scientists, who are rarely punished for fraud, set a decent example to their juniors.
The implications of widespread academic misconduct could be great. Dr Denis Fred Simon of Penn State University argues that growing evidence of fraud “calls into question the overall credibility of the scientific enterprise in China—and unfortunately feeds negatively into the related concerns about the safety of Chinese products and the integrity of information coming out of China.”
In practical terms foreign scientists may be deterred from China, as they worry about getting caught up in scandals. Early this year, after it was found that 70 papers on crystal structures submitted to an international journal by Chinese scientists had been fabricated, the Lancet medical journal called on China’s government to “assume stronger leadership in scientific integrity”. The measures taken so far, it suggested, had failed to get to the root of why some Chinese scientists lie.
Another direct cost may be felt by Chinese students looking for college places abroad. Admissions officials are suspicious of near-perfect scores on standardised tests and glowing recommendations from professors, which are common to many applications from China. The risk is that genuinely qualified students are turned away because of general suspicion about fraud. But at least China’s growing academic integration with the outside world may help. As more academics earn degrees abroad and go back to posts in China, informal networks are created that help outsiders check on the quality of applicants. That is a small innovation, but perhaps one that will benefit China.