Ghostwriting, plagiarizing or faking results is so common in Chinese academia that some experts say the practice could undermine China’s effort to be a leader in science. In one state-sponsored study a third of the 6,000 scientists at top institution surveyed admitted to committing “plagiarism, falsification or fabrications.” In another study of 32,000 scientists in the summer of 2010 by the China Association for Science and Technology, more than 55 percent said they knew someone guilty of academic fraud. [Source: Gillian Wong, AP, April 2010]

An article in the Economist reported that what is considered serious misconduct in the West — cheating on exams, fabricating, research data, ghostwriting or plagiarism — are routine practices and seldom punished. Prof. Rao Yi, a dean at Peking University, told AP, “Academic fraud, misconduct and ethical violations are very common in China... It’s a big problem.”

An editorial published in 2010 in The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a research superpower by 2020.

Fake Universities in China

In 2016, The Guardian reported: “China has named and shamed 30 “fake universities”, warning millions of students to steer clear of the bogus institutions as they prepare to enter higher education. The fraudulent universities are spread across 12 Chinese provinces, including Beijing and Shanghai, the country’s official news agency, Xinhua, reported. The institutions are part of a wider racket in which fraudsters trick prospective students into sending tuition fees to companies posing as legitimate higher education providers. [Source: Tom Philips, The Guardian, June 28, 2016]

“But the deception does not always stop there: there have been reports of Chinese students spending years at fake bricks and mortar colleges only to discover on the eve of graduation that they have been duped into studying for worthless degrees. China’s fake universities often have strikingly similar names to bona fide schools. Among the 30 institutions denounced this week are the Beijing Xinghua University, the Beijing Foreign Affairs Studies College, the Sichuan Vocational University of Technology and the Beijing Great Wall Research and Studies Institute.

“The problem has become so serious that a special website was set up in 2013 to track the phenomenon. Xia Xue, who runs that website, told Xinhua: “It is easy to see through the trick when they fake the names of well-known universities, but it is more difficult to identify if lesser-known institutions are faked.” In 2015, Xia’s group denounced 118 fake universities. “The exposed schools have used deceptive names and official websites that are similar to real, well-known universities,” the China Daily newspaper reported at the time.

Some of the fake institutions reportedly pillaged photographs and information about courses and departments from the websites of genuine universities. But those enrolled at fake universities are not always innocent victims. In some cases students who fare badly in China’s notoriously stressful answer to A-levels –the gaokao – have looked to the illegal institutions as a way of securing an easy, if phoney, diploma.

Plagiarism in China

A study by Wuhan University professor Shen Yan showed that nearly 1 billion yuan was spent in ghostwritten academic papers in 2009, a five-fold increase from 2007. The study also found that 70 percent of the papers purchased were plagiarized. The trend not only hurts the reputation of Chinese scientists and makes academics suspicious of their work, it also makes non-Chinese scientists reluctant to collaborate with Chinese scientist on research projects.

It is common practice for Chinese university professors, students, researchers and government officers to hire ghostwriters to write their research papers for them. One such ghostwriter who charges $45 a paper for his services told AP, “My opinion is that writing papers for someone else is not wrong, There will always be a time one needs help from others. Even our great leader Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping needed help writing.” [Source: Gillian Wong, AP, April 2010]

In early 2009, Internet users revealed that the deputy principal at Anhui Agricultural University committed plagiarism in at least 20 papers,. He was removed from his post but allowed to keep teaching. In June 2009, a principal at a traditional Chinese medicine university was accused of plagiarizing 40 percent of his doctoral thesis from another paper. In March 2010, the China Youth Daily reported that a 1997 medical paper had been plagiarized by at least 25 people from 16 organizations over the past decade.

Plagiarism by University Presidents in China

Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times, “Recently, quite a few university presidents have been accused of plagiarism. But few of them were penalized or apologized. Huang Qing, the vice head of Southwest Jiaotong University, was arguably the most severely punished scholar - the university in July revoked his PhD after he was found to have plagiarized certain bits of his doctorate dissertation, which was passed nine years ago. In defense, Huang said “only 7 percent” of his dissertation was copied and that his opponents were trying to bring him down by making a fuss over a small issue.”

“More recently, Zhou Zude, president of the Wuhan University of Technology, was accused of plagiarizing an article of which he is the first author and his student Xie Ming the second. The university cleared Zhou of any wrongdoing, and said Xie wrote the article and Zhou had no idea his name was on it. As for Xie, he was not allowed to obtain his PhD that year.”

Cracking Down on Plagiarism in China

“Rampant plagiarism in the academic field has prompted the authorities to use software to detect it.” Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times: “Nearly 400 colleges are using the software, developed by the elite Tsinghua University, to check the theses of their students. But the students have been quick to find counter-measures., the Chinese version of eBay, provides anti-detection services for plagiarizers. A salesperson on Taobao claimed an article which was half plagiarized passed the software's detectors with his help.” [Source: Stephen Wong Asia Times, August 22, 2009]

In September 2010, a collection of scientific journals published by Zhejiang University in Hangzhou published results from a 20-month experiment with software that detects plagiarism. The software, called CrossCheck, rejected nearly a third of all submissions on suspicion that the content was pirated from previously published research. In some cases, more than 80 percent of a paper’s content was deemed unoriginal. The journals that were checked specialize in medicine, physics, engineering and computer science. Their editor, Zhang Yuehong, emphasized that not all the flawed papers originated in China, although she declined to reveal the breakdown of submissions. Some were from South Korea, India and Iran, she said.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

What is Behind Plagiarism in China

Addressing the problem of plagiarism in China, Susan D. Blum, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and a book on plagiarism wrote in China Beat: “What is going on? 1) Is this a moral panic? — a sudden focus on a concrete episode or bit of conduct representing an outlet for more generalized anxieties, often about social change? 2) Is this a case of genuine cultural difference, in which ideas of authorship and educational efficacy, authority and deference, differ between nations? 3) Is this a case of China-bashing, of Westerners seizing upon a misdeed and generalizing, gleefully, from the tendency of a few within China to act improperly? Or 4) Is this a case of many individuals knowingly violating accepted and proper norms?...The answer to all these questions should be obvious: It depends.” [Source: Susan D. Blum, China Beat, July 29, 2010]

“As late as the 1990s, attribution and citation were rudimentary; a seminal book might be nodded to, and the works of Marx-Lenin-Mao would be cited out of self-protection. A scholarly book might have a dozen or so citations, and rarely a bibliography. The entire scholarly apparatus that Western/US scholars take for granted was missing. Footnotes were few. There was an assumption that 1) experts wouldhave read the same material and would be familiar with it and 2) ownership of and credit for ideas was in some sense a bourgeois relic.”

“The Western notion of academic conduct is the momentary constellation of centuries of events, from the growth of higher education to the birth of the idea of the Romantic author and individuality that stems from the Renaissance and other events. It would be possible to imagine an entirely different way of valuing contributions to teaching and researching, but we take for granted that our way is the proper way. (Many scholars of intellectual property, language, and literature/art question the possibility of originality to the extent that our intellectual property laws express, but we approximate them nonetheless.)

“In the last ten but especially five years, China has decided to compete with the West in terms of academic stature and value. This has entailed increasing support for higher education and increasing standards for quality, not simply increasing quantity...China is between several paradigms: one that says citation and attribution are optional; one that says winning is China’s or the individual’s right and imperative; and one that says intellectual work must be traced and credited. Like all cultural change, there are winners, victims, casualties, and much righteous waving of slogans and placards, charging others with moral laxity and venal duplicity. Sometimes the accusations are apt; sometimes they are fabricated; sometimes they harbor old grudges; and sometimes those with plenty of sin cast stones.”

“Accusing someone of not following rules when they were not in play is absurd. Ignoring the shared rules that everyone has subsequently agreed to is a violation of convention. Scholars in China are slowly signing on, in their hearts and minds, to that slate of conventions. But like all cultural revolutions, we’ll find ambiguity and complexity enough to keep us busy analyzing for years.” [Susan D. Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and the author, most recently, of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009)]

Academic Fraud in China

In 2010, while state-run media was crowing over reports that China publishes more papers in international journals than any country except the United States a British journal retracted 70 papers from Jinggangshan University, all by the same two leading scientists, Zhong Hua and Liu Tao, saying their work had been fabricated. Editors at the journal, Acta Crystallographica Section E, which publishes discoveries on new crystal structures, was investigating other Chinese scientists but said, “Chinese authors have submitted thousands of high quality structures to Acta E, which represent an important contribution to science.”

“Chen Jin is a computer scientist who was once celebrated for having invented a sophisticated microprocessor. It turned out that he had taken a chip made by Motorola, scratched out its name, and claimed it as his own. After Chen was showered with government largess and accolades, the exposure in 2006 was an embarrassment for the scientific establishment that backed him. But even though Chen lost his university post, he was never prosecuted.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

Reasons for Academic Fraud and Misconduct in China

Critics blame weak penalties and system in which faculty promotions and bonuses are based on the number rather than quality of papers published. Richard Suttmeier, an expert on Chinese science policy, told AP he traced the origins of the problem to late 1980s and early 1990s when the science system in China was modernized while research accountability and evaluation were still weak.

“Fang Shimin, a muckraking writer who has become a well-known advocate for academic integrity, said the problem started with the state-run university system, where politically appointed bureaucrats have little expertise in the fields they oversee. Because competition for grants, housing perks and career advancement is so intense, officials base their decisions on the number of papers published. Even fake papers count because nobody actually reads them, said Fang, who is more widely known by his pen name, Fang Zhouzi, and whose Web site, New Threads, has exposed more than 900 instances of fakery, some involving university presidents and nationally lionized researchers.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

“We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit,” Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told the New York Times. “If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community.”

Response to Academic Fraud in China

The Chinese government has vowed to address the problem. In September 2010, Liu Yandong, a powerful politburo member, said that China would take a “zero tolerance” approach to academic fraud and called for “moral upgrading” of universities and academics. He vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eager to inflate their publishing credentials.

This is not the first time such pronouncements have been made. In 2004 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education announced antifraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “When plagiarism is exposed, colleagues and school leaders often close ranks around the accused.” Fang said this was partly because preserving relationships trumped protecting the reputation of the institution. But the other reason, he said, is more sobering: Few academics are clean enough to point a finger at others. One result is that plagiarizers often go unpunished, which only encourages more of it, said Zeng Guoping, director of the Institute of Science Technology and Society at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which helped run the survey of 6,000 academics. When people see the accused still driving their flashy cars, it sends the wrong message, Zeng said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

Massive Crackdown on Massive Peer-Reviewed Fraud in China

In 2017, the journal Science reported: A massive peer-review fraud has triggered a tough response from the Chinese government. Officials announced that more than 400 researchers listed as authors on some 100 now-retracted papers will face disciplinary action because their misconduct has seriously damaged China’s scientific reputation. Some institutions have barred the scientists linked to the fraud from pursuing their research — at least temporarily. And they have imposed other penalties, including canceling promotions, honors, and grants. Government ministries have also announced new “zero tolerance” policies aimed at stamping out research fraud. "We should eradicate the problem from its roots," said He Defang, director of the Ministry of Science and Technology’s (MOST’s) regulatory division in Beijing. Although China has previously cracked down on scientific misconduct — a chronic problem — these penalties "are the harshest ever," says Chen Bikun, an information scientist at the Nanjing University of Science and Technology in China who tracks trends in scientific publishing. [Source: Dennis Normile, Science, July 31, 2017]

“MOST’s 27 July announcement marked the culmination of an investigation into the mass retraction this past April of 107 papers by Chinese authors that appeared in a single journal, Tumor Biology. The papers, published between 2012 and 2016, were pulled after editors found "strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised," Editor-in-Chief Torgny Stigbrand, of Umeå University in Sweden, wrote on 20 April on the website of the publisher Springer. (Springer, an arm of Springer Nature, published Tumor Biology until December 2016; the journal is now operated by SAGE Publications.)

“Investigators say the authors engaged in an all-too-common scam. Tumor Biology allowed submitting authors to nominate reviewers. The Chinese authors suggested “experts” and provided email addresses that routed messages from the journal back to the researchers themselves, or to accomplices — sometimes third-party firms hired by the authors — who wrote glowing reviews that helped get the papers accepted.

“The MOST investigation focused on 101 papers for which there was evidence of faked peer review, according to a summary of a press conference posted on the agency’s website. Investigators concluded that for 95 of the papers third party agencies had provided phony experts or false reviews. In six cases, one or more of the authors perpetrated the fraud themselves. Overall, 80 of the papers reported actual research results, investigators found. But nine were fraudulent, and 12 of the papers had been purchased outright from third parties by the supposed authors. The remaining six papers have various other problems or are still under investigation.

“Investigators linked 521 academics and physicians to the 107 papers. Just 11 were cleared of misconduct. Twenty-four have been put on a watch list because of insufficient evidence. Of the rest, 102 were deemed to carry primary responsibility for fraud, and 70 carried secondary responsibility. An additional 314 were judged to have not participated in the scam, but bear some responsibility for allowing themselves to appear as co-authors without making sure their colleagues were behaving appropriately.

“In a sign of how seriously government officials took the case, an array of major agencies — including the Ministry of Education and the China Association for Science and Technology — joined MOST’s investigation. The punishments are being decided by institutions on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with Communist Party regulations. The agencies are also calling on institutions to formulate more stringent rules for identifying and handling fraud.

“The inquiry was “much more thorough and open than” in previous cases, says Yu Yao, a geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. And the severe punishments have grabbed the attention of researchers, who have been discussing them on social media, Chen says. Many Chinese scientists are “deeply shocked,” he says, and have vowed to be “more conscientious and careful” in collaborating with other authors.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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