Professional dishonesty rife among university elite

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am

Some of the country's loftiest tertiary institutions have had their reputations battered over the past few months with the emergence of several high-profile examples of professional dishonesty in the academic community.

Accusations range from lying about professional qualifications to duplicating work wholesale from other sources and passing it off as an original contribution.

The controversies have highlighted the absence of an effective system of checks and balances on campus and in government to ensure that research in tertiary institutions is conducted in line with professional standards.

The most recent case involved the sacking this month of Liu Hui, an assistant dean at Tsinghua University's medical school, amid allegations he lied about his qualifications and misrepresented his contribution to a number of academic papers.

But perhaps the highest-profile case involves Wuhan University law professor Zhou Yezhong, an academic who has lectured party leaders in Zhongnanhai and has been asked to answer to charges in a Beijing court that he failed to acknowledge in his book the work of a former Peking University lecturer, Wang Tiancheng .

Observers said these cases were among the few that had come to light and resulted in action.

Yang Yusheng , from the China University of Politics and Law, has been running his own campaign on the issue for the past five years. He said almost all of the country's top universities had academics at least suspected of falsifying research material or plagiarism.

Professor Yang defines academic corruption more broadly to include a range of financial, sexual, professional and administrative misconduct. Under this definition, more than 100 university staff had been publicly exposed for academic wrongdoing, he said.

The issue of academic rigour surfaced at the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference last month after a Ministry of Science survey found that of 180 people with doctorates, 60 per cent admitted to paying to have work published and a similar percentage had copied others' material.

The Ministry of Education has tried to lift ethical standards by imposing two sets of new rules in the past few years, but the widespread nature of the practices indicates those rules lack force.

Ministry of Education spokesman Wang Xuming said the media were welcome to publicise more of these cases to put more public pressure on the need for greater transparency in research. 'The force of morality encourages the researchers to obey academic ethics and exercise greater self-discipline,' he said.

Every university has its own academic committee which in theory should hear these cases. The panels are filled with renowned professors and given vague areas of responsibility. Some of the scandals have even involved prominent professors who co-chair various administrative organisations on campus or other academic societies.

Legal analyst Yang Tao said the absence of an independent committee to investigate plagiarism scandals had led to lax self-regulation in school administration. 'The administration of professors should be separated from the academic authority and a neutral organ created for arbitration and assessment.'

Mr Yang said penalties for misconduct were too weak to have an impact on professors who 'blindly pursue the glittering benefits of acquiring senior titles and positions'.

Peking University law professor He Weifang said research requires high moral standards and a good balance between the truth and funding, but 'the entire academic world is permeated with a lax attitude'.

'Few people could be patient enough to sit in a quiet laboratory focusing solely on boring and arduous scientific research for years or maybe decades, in a rapidly commercialising society,' Professor He said.

But a few academics are prepared to take the high moral ground. Last month 109 professors from mainland universities signed an open letter rejecting academic misconduct and vowing to work for a better atmosphere for scientific research. They also called for harsher measures to crack down on the on-campus misconduct.

Professor He said the opinions of peers may be the only thing that can count if universities and the state do not act.

'In the absence of systematic or administrative rules penalising professors who refuse to be responsible for their flawed behaviour, [peer] condemnation may be the harshest punishment for the academics,' he said.